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NO ONE DOES DRAMA, FOR BETTER OR WORSE, QUITE LIKE THE NBA
Between the Warriors, Nets, Lakers and Celtics, chatter about internal disarray and crisis management eclipses the reason a season is supposed to exist: Who wins the championship in June?
If no one is watching the Oscars anymore, I have a replacement show that even includes a Will Smith-style haymaker in the chops. The NBA will downsize its championship season — as the Gen Zers say, who cares about a dusty, old banner in the rafters? — and prioritize an awards extravaganza celebrating the league dramas that generate the most social-media traffic.
Stage it in Las Vegas, too, where LeBron James already has stood and lobbied studio boss Adam Silver for expansion ownership: “I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now. but … I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”
After all, no one does spectacle and crisis quite like the association that David Stern and Dick Ebersol sensationalized and Silver transformed into a Twitter whirlwind that grips fans and players alike. As another October-to-June reality show tips off, the prime questions don’t involve who might meet in the actual Finals. An educated guess forecasts Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks facing the other Los Angeles team, which finally is healthy and loaded, but because neither franchise is plagued by turmoil and dysfunction, no buzz accompanies them.
All the attention, rather, is on the Warriors and Nets and Lakers and Celtics, oh my! It’s not about who is hoisting the trophy next summer. It’s about workplace violence, inappropriate office affairs, embarrassing trade demands that backfire, superstars who play general manager and make bad decisions — and how all of this chaos is managed, a more daunting chore if/when a Kardashian intrudes.
What the people want to know is whether the Golden State Warriors, who’ve won four titles and want to extend a dynasty deep into the decade by affixing a new wave of richly extended talent to the Steph Curry joyride, will see their grand vision sabotaged by Draymond Green. I realize coach Steve Kerr is the man who absorbed a practice punch from Michael Jordan and survived to win three titles with him in Chicago, but Green is another animal. He already has cost the Warriors one ring with a nut-punch to James’ midsection, then almost blew another this year with his podcast obsession and declining floor game. When he sucker-punched teammate Jordan Poole two weeks ago — a horrid moment followed by a $140 million extension for Poole, a $109 million extension for Andrew Wiggins and no extension for Baby Dray — well, just what might Green do to poison the cause before general manager Bob Myers cuts him or points him to the Bay Bridge?
Everyone was all smiles on Opening Night, when the Dubs received their jewelry before an adoring crowd. Green showed up grinning in an all-green outfit — as in money — and even acknowledged Poole after a three-pointer, in the interest of good cheer. But how long before the malcontent, who will make $25.8 million this season, casts a cloud over this season by announcing he’ll trigger his $27.6 million player option for next season. The clause gives him some measure of power amid a messy situation, which he already has made clear. Leverage means Draymond will continue to speak his mind, even if everyone is sick of his mind and no longer views him as a leader. Already, he has shot down Kerr’s assertion that “our culture has been damaged by this incident” and he must regain the “trust” of the organization and his teammates.
“I don’t really quite understand that. What’s trust?” Green said. “I think of so many different things when I hear the word ‘trust’ that I’m not always certain that is the most fitting word for what people are trying to say.”
True to his media-driven form, he is trying to rationalize the punch by turning it into clicks. As part of a documentary based on his preseason, co-produced by Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions, Green included the public fallout. How nice if Manning called him out for spinning his assault of a teammate into a positive. “You give it some time for people to throw their opinion up, which, quite frankly, I don’t care about people’s opinion,” he said, though he obviously does. “And, to be totally honest with you, I never really knew how much it blew up because I don’t spend much time searching Instagram or looking through comments. I don’t read many tweets at all, so I was just home chilling with my children.
“Look at all the upside you have now. It’s a totally different way at looking at it. … I can live with that.”
So Baby Dray will continue to fight authority to the bitter end, whether he’s wrong or just dead wrong. And that curb kick is coming, either at the trade deadline or next offseason, with no Chase Center statue or Hall of Fame berth in his future. He can do the math. He knows owner Joe Lacob is committing an unprecedented $483 million to the 2023-24 season, via total salary and a whopping luxury tax, and major financial cuts start with him. Of Green, Myers said coldly, “He's on our team; we think he can help us win. He has some things he needs to work through.” Before the ring ceremony, Lacob said he didn’t suspend Green because he “earned” the night — “I wouldn’t take that away from him,” he said. Lacob greeted him warmly, as Curry shouted in glee, when Baby Dray received his ring and a hug from Silver. But the cheers for Poole were louder than those for Green.
For magnanimity alone, Poole deserved that respect. He is 23, almost 10 years younger than his attacker, yet he has graced the episode with more maturity than Green ever will possess. “I’m a professional, and we plan on handling ourselves that way,” Poole said in his only punch-related words. “We’re here to play basketball. Everybody in our locker room knows what it takes to win a championship. We’re going to do that on the court. That’s really all I have to say on the matter. We’re here to win a championship and continue hanging banners.”
“He’s an incredibly mature young guy,” Kerr said. “After the incident, he worked out for another hour on his shot. He came out a couple of nights later and scored 15 straight points (and 25 total in a preseason game). He’s, he’s — he’s cool. Not much fazes him. And I think that’s part of why we’re going the way we’re going (with the $140 million deal) because we know that he’s fine, we know that he’s willing to move forward, he’s willing to basically get back on the floor with Draymond and go to work.”
What the people want to know, as well, is whether Kevin Durant will overcome the shame of requesting a trade and being ignored. The Brooklyn Nets explored the marketplace, realized they wouldn’t command a mother lode of talent and assets for a 34-year-old Twitter mope with a devastating injury in his recent past — and were forced to keep him, even after he’d personally asked owner Joe Tsai to dismiss GM Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash. So how do the Nets come back from that fiasco, with Marks and Nash still in place, while Durant remains stuck with whirlybird Kyrie Irving, who’s still capable of blowing off games for any ungodly reason, and perpetually maddening Ben Simmons, who still won’t take an open jumpshot?
If everyone’s head was on straight, the Nets might win a title. But too many screws are loose. “I want to be in a place that’s stable and trying to build a championship culture,” Durant said. “So, I had some doubts about that. Vibes have been straight (so far). But who knows what the vibes will be if we hit a skid, or we’re not playing well or somebody gets injured. I think that’s what makes a team: How we stick through those times. It’s easy to be cool when everything is positive right now, but we’ll see as the season goes on.”
Which is why it was surreal to hear Durant speak about the disarray engulfing his former team. Remember, he fled the Warriors in large part because Green repeatedly called him a “bitch” during a game in 2018, adding, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.” He did, but not without encountering his own turmoil in Brooklyn. “That's not the same situation. Somebody got punched in the face,” Durant told ESPN. “It's no comparison to that. It was just some words that being -- I heard people say that happens a lot in the NBA. I had never seen nothing like that before. But what me and Draymond did a few years back, that shit happens all the time. So it's easy to get through something like that, but I don't know what this situation is like … You can't deal with something like that by yourself. Steph knows that, Bob knows that. I know that from being a part of that group, that they do everything as a collaborative effort, so I'm sure they're all talking internally to see what's the best way to move forward.”
Too bad the Nets only respond with professional backstabbing. Upon early failure, the immediate target of Durant and Irving will be Nash, who had no idea what he was getting into and might prefer to be playing tennis back in Manhattan Beach. He might get his wish soon. “It’s about how we manage this on a daily, minute-by-minute basis,” Marks said. “Do we communicate in practice? Kevin doesn’t want to be surprised, and neither do we. He knows there’s going to be ups and downs. But how do we combat that? Whether it’s that anxiety or the ups and downs, as a collective unit, how do we manage those? Hopefully there won’t be surprises on the KD front, or our front.”
Oh, there will be, much as they hope and pray otherwise. “Kevin and I go way back,” Nash said. “So, you know, families go through things like this.”
But they don’t win championships. The Nets won’t be winning one.
Neither will the Lakers, displaced by the longtime-orphan Clippers as L.A.’s title contender. For all the hullabaloo surrounding James — who will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time scorer this season if health permits going on 38, his career twilight will be spent trying to reach the Western Conference play-in round. He has no one to blame but himself. In the rush to blame owner Jeanie Buss for listening to too many old Lakers and basketball boss Rob Pelinka for general ineptness — both criticisms have merit — keep in mind that James wanted Russell Westbrook. It will be remembered as the stinkbomb that reduced the Lakers from contenders to also-rans, which pains fans more when they know LeBron favored a trade for Westbrook over the free-agent signing of DeMar DeRozan. Imagine if the Compton native had returned and delivered his All-Star season in L.A., not Chicago, where he averaged a career-high 27.9 points. DeRozan thought the deal was done, until LeBron interfered.
“To my knowledge, I thought it was a done deal,” he told JJ Redick’s podcast. “I took a trip to Mexico just to get away because I could just feel the anticipation of everything coming to play. And by the time I come home it be free agency, hey, I’m signing with the Lakers. I’m sleeping one morning in Mexico and I get a call, ‘They just made the trade for Russ, what’s going on? I thought the deal was done for you to go to the Lakers?’ ’’
With Westbrook looming as a continuing liability and sourpuss, as the Lakers contemplate using him off the bench after a Tuesday night start, the Lakers will keep trying to trade him — perhaps to Indiana for Buddy Hield and/or center Myles Turner, which will require Pelinka to relinquish the team’s only two upcoming first-round draft picks, in 2027 and 2029. But in a conference where Golden State, the Clippers, Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans are the best eight teams, why mortgage the future to lose a play-in game when no one knows if Anthony Davis — so gifted, so brittle — will be in street clothes next week? It explains why James is looking past retirement. He wants to end his career playing alongside his son, assuming the Lakers think he’s NBA-worthy, then pursuing team ownership to balance with his show-business mogul life. First, there’s Kareem.
“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, things that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super, like, humbling for myself,” James said. “I think it’s super cool.”
It doesn’t push him ahead of Jordan or, for that matter, Kobe Bryant in any annoying Greatest of All Time debate. James will end his career with four titles in 20-plus seasons, opposed to Jordan’s six in 15 seasons. Stop the fight, please.
A team that seemed ready to win a championship, or two or three, was the Boston Celtics. They came together last season under the leadership of Ime Udoka, their first-year head coach. When the Celtics blew a 25-point lead in New York and tumbled to 18-21, Udoka lit into them. “I think it’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” he said. “It’s across the board. It’s a turnover here, a bad shot here, a missed defensive assignment here.” From there, led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, the players grew up and didn’t stop winning until the Finals, succumbing to Curry’s magic and Golden State’s savvy in six games. This time, would they win the franchise’s 18th championship?
That’s when the devil kidnapped the leprechaun and invaded Udoka’s soul. He decided to carry on an affair with a married woman in the Celtics organization, and, after a months-long investigation, he was suspended for the season and likely will be jettisoned permanently with a settlement. The players remain shellshocked, still not sure of the details. But they carried on Tuesday night with interim coach Joe Mazzulla, 34, who has been a valued Celtics assistant but has only two seasons of head-coaching experience on the college level, at Division II Fairmont State.
At the moment, all is well after a crisp home win over the Philadelphia 76ers, who didn’t play defense and have their own potential combustibility, for which coach Doc Rivers will take the hit. But when tough times happen in Boston, the calls will begin for Brad Stevens to return to the sidelines.
Said Mazzulla: “I’m in a fortunate situation because I’ve been here for three years and we’ve had the offseason to kind of prepare for what we wanted to do heading into the season. There’s not much to change at all. It’s just about learning from last season and how we get better. Just kind of moving forward one day at a time.”
For a night, buzz about the Celtics is muted, victory aside. NBA Twitter is left to wonder when Baby Dray throws another punch, when Durant starts pondering retirement and when LeBron finagles to join Bronny in the debut season of his expansion franchise, surely to be known as the Las Vegas James Gang.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.