If you’ve watched the NBA for long enough, you’ve undoubtedly seen the league go through its fair share of seismic changes.
Salaries have exploded, with the average annual number per player being nearly 10 times higher than it was during the early 1990s. Then there’s the proliferation of three-point shooting, which didn’t even exist in the NBA until the 1979–80 campaign. Games are also turned on their head, tilted on their side and shaken about several times a contest because of official reviews, which give refs the ability to use replay to overturn or confirm previous calls they’ve made.
But one thing that seems to have ratcheted up considerably this year has to do more with ethics, which have clearly gone by the wayside at times in shows of emotion. More specifically, a number of folks throughout the league have openly speculated about the perceived intentionality or recklessness of physical plays that have resulted in injuries.
- The most recent was this past weekend, after Grizzlies star Ja Morant left Game 3 of the Memphis–Golden State series following a play in which Warriors guard Jordan Poole was reaching on defense and made contact with Morant’s right knee. Morant, 22, initially tweeted—then deleted—a slow-motion replay of the incident along with the phrase “broke the code.” His coach, Taylor Jenkins, seemed to suggest Poole’s effort was ill-advised, too, saying he believed Poole “grabbed at his knee and yanked it,” adding that the All-Star was definitively hurt on that play. (Morant jumped up and down at one point earlier in Game 3 after appearing to bang knees with Klay Thompson. The league opted not to come down on Poole, who doesn’t have a track record in terms of these types of incidents, as a result of the play.)
- And even last round, Raptors star Pascal Siakam accused Joel Embiid of making “dirty plays” during Game 4 of the series between Toronto and Philadelphia, which brought about questions from some after Game 5, when Siakam elbowed Embiid in the face. We later learned the move had broken the MVP runner-up’s orbital bone and left him with a concussion. (In the moments right after Embiid got whacked in the face, Raptors announcer Jack Armstrong said Embiid “deserved” to get hit because of his antics throughout the series. He later apologized for the comments, after the extent of Embiid’s injury was revealed. Siakam apologized to Embiid, and Embiid—a fellow Cameroonian with Siakam—said he didn’t believe the play to be intentional.)
Yes, these sorts of questions generally rise to the top of the conversation once or twice per year. Matthew Dellavedova was Public Enemy No. 1 to scores of NBA fans for a while. Grayson Allen had a reputation for controversial plays before he even made it to the NBA, which played into why he caught so much heat earlier this season for flagrantly fouling Chicago’s Alex Caruso, which resulted in Caruso fracturing his wrist. And we all remember the play from five years ago, in which then Warriors center Zaza Pachulia—a player with a checkered-enough history in these sorts of plays—gave Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard no space to land after a jump shot, resulting in Leonard coming down on Pachulia’s foot. (Gregg Popovich used extraordinarily strong language in condemning Pachulia’s role in the play.) Leonard’s injury, which essentially spelled the end of what could have been a fantastic series between the Spurs and Warriors in 2017, also more or less spelled the end of Leonard’s time with the Spurs and altered the course of basketball history not just here, but in Canada, too.
But even with those incidents in mind, it does feel like players and coaches are getting more and more comfortable speculating about intent as of late, even when there isn’t much of an individual track record involved. Brooks, for instance, is certainly hard-nosed—he’s among the most prominent foulers in the league—and you’ll find fan bases that don’t like his antics. Still there’s a pretty wide span between that and definitively being a dirty player, in my view.
Before getting on my soapbox, let me first credit players like Embiid and Curry, who’ve gone out of their way to vouch for their opponents, essentially to say they don’t believe that the plays that hurt them were made intentionally. To do that is to take a high, high road when it could be understood if they instead chose to stay silent or further inflame an incident.
On the flip side, though, there’s something particularly off to me about accusing NBA players of intentionally injuring folks most times. Aside from the fact that it’s a pretty tribal sort of thing—for instance, I can’t remember a time where Kerr was concurring that the polarizing Green’s sometimes over-the-line nature was breaching any sort of ethical boundary—it’s also worth considering that we now live in an era when threats can be lobbed at players more directly and more anonymously than ever before.
While everyone is free to speak their minds, if something isn’t clearly being done with intent, anyone of stature that suggests an intentional ugliness was at play is more or less throwing someone to the dogs, both on social media and potentially at the games, where we’ve had a growing number of bizarre incidents in the last year since fans were allowed back into arenas.
This past weekend, Chris Paul took issue with a person in the Dallas crowd “[putting] hands on [his] mom,” to which the Mavericks responded with a temporary ban. During the first round, fans repeatedly ran directly onto the court in Minnesota in hopes of drawing attention to their protests. It was only last year that we saw Russell Westbrook get popcorn dumped on him by a fan. A Boston fan threw a water bottle at former Celtic Kyrie Irving. And, of course, someone at Madison Square Garden sought to spit on Atlanta’s Trae Young during a playoff game, in the midst of a damn pandemic.
This isn’t to say there’s a complete, direct line between what players and coaches say about flagrant fouls above the shoulders. Many times, those comments are likely more so directed at the league, to influence officials to initiate a suspension. Or, if not that, it’s for coaches to publicly have their players’ backs, particularly with younger teams, like Memphis, which could easily splinter due to a relative lack of experience on this sort of stage.
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Still, with fans acting out, and a handful of players having complained about social media threats made to them or their family members in recent years, I think it’s worth considering the magnitude of the accusations in an already heated, inflamed playoff environment, and how folks already looking for a reason to act out might become even more charged up over their favorite player or coach lighting a match underneath them.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
- Rohan Nadkarni wrote about what’s ailed the Suns lately and how things have been less than stellar since Chris Paul turned 37 years old, between the first seven-turnover half of his career, and his stunning foul-out early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 with Dallas. Phoenix desperately needs his best stuff to turn the tide.
I also wanted to shine a bright light on the WNBA season, which kicked off this past weekend.
Pop’s legacy on full display
One of the more fascinating things about this second round—one we were almost fortunate enough to get four 2–2 matchups out of—is the fact that legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has some sort of tie to every head coach left in the dance.
Some are more obvious and talked about constantly. But a few are more subtle, or ones you’d only know about if you’ve read certain backstories throughout Popovich’s time in the league. So let’s run through them.
Bud was a video coordinator in San Antonio before Popovich arriving as the Spurs’ coach, but then became an assistant coach upon Popovich taking over in 1996. Budenholzer won four championships there as an assistant before getting his opportunity to run the show with the Hawks, where he surprisingly lifted Atlanta to a 60-win season in his second year. Embattled at one point last season, Budenholzer—a two-time Coach of the Year—led the Bucks to their first title in 50 years.
Still just 37, Jenkins began his career by interning for Popovich and the Spurs before then coaching for their D-League affiliate. He later left with Budenholzer to work as an assistant in Atlanta in 2013, then latched on with Budenholzer in Milwaukee, too, before taking the job with the Grizzlies almost three years ago. He finished second in Coach of the Year voting this season, which was released Monday.
The NBA’s most successful coach of the past decade, Kerr gleaned knowledge from Popovich as a player in San Antonio from 1998 to 2003. Though he played under Phil Jackson for years in Chicago, Kerr also counts Popovich as a formative basketball mentor, having used aspects of the Spurs’ offense—and aspects of the triangle—to build the beautiful, chaotic attack the Warriors’ use. They also enjoyed fine wines together over the years, one of Popovich’s favorite pastimes.
Kerr now leads USA Basketball, a heralded gig he takes over from none other than Popovich. And as he takes on the international role, it’s somewhat fitting that Kerr is just as outspoken on a number of worldly issues as Popovich is.
Though he never coached or played under Popovich, that doesn’t stop Kidd from bringing up the fact that he kicks himself about that reality to this day.
Back in 2003, during free agency, Kidd went as far as to commit to Popovich and the Spurs, saying he’d join forces with Tim Duncan. But during his flight back to New Jersey, he developed second thoughts—thoughts that ultimately led to him still wondering how many titles he could have won if he’d joined San Antonio that year. The day after Duncan retired, Kidd told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk that he’s had nightmares about the choice he made to stay put in New Jersey. “I thought I was going to be a Spur,” Kidd said.
He got the one title eventually in 2011 with Dallas. But he and the Nets lost in the Finals in 2003 to none other than Popovich, Duncan and the Spurs.
Rivers also never played or coached under Popovich. But he came extremely close to replacing Pop.
Back in 1999, before he’d won five rings or become the winningest coach in NBA history, Popovich was leading a struggling San Antonio team, one management wasn’t sure Popovich should lead anymore. Sensing this, Popovich called Avery Johnson and David Robinson over to his home one night. He told the duo that he firmly sensed he’d be fired—and replaced by former Spur Doc Rivers—if the club lost its game the following night to the Houston Rockets.
Johnson relayed that message to his teammates the following day on the team bus. The Spurs—just 6–8 at the time—not only beat Houston that night, they went 30–5 the rest of the regular season and pieced together a dominant postseason run, going 16–2—including sweeps over the vaunted Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers and Blazers—en route to the organization’s first title.
Rivers has said there was initial strain over the rumors about him possibly replacing Popovich. But the two have become good friends and colleagues over the years. And Rivers has since won a championship of his own, in 2008 with Boston, as a coach. Interestingly enough, in joining Philly, Rivers also replaced a former Popovich disciple, in Brett Brown.
The Miami coach’s connection to Popovich obviously comes through being a high-profile opponent of his during the NBA Finals in 2013 and ’14. The Spurs and Heat played one of the best, most competitive Finals series in league history in ’13, culminating with the championship-saving shot by Ray Allen in Game 6 and a fantastic Game 7, which the Heat fully earned. And then Popovich and the Spurs, showing incredible resolve, rebounded to win it all the following year, literally dismantling Miami’s Big Three with a passing display for the ages.
The first-year Celtics coach, who brought Boston back from the brink earlier in the season to have them land the No. 1 seed in the East, played and coached under Popovich for a combined 10 seasons between 2007 and ’19.
The knowledge base from that San Antonio experience runs deep. It played into why he wanted Boston to trade for Spurs guard Derrick White earlier in the season. And, hell, it even played into Monday night’s must-have win over Milwaukee, when Jayson Tatum successfully hammered a matchup against George Hill after Udoka made Tatum aware of scouting tendencies he could exploit. Those tendencies came from Udoka having played alongside Hill as a Spur.
Williams, the player, suited up for the Spurs during Popovich’s first two years as the team’s coach. He rejoined the Spurs as a coaching intern in 2004–05, a season that ended with San Antonio winning the title.
Then, after the wrenching loss of Williams’s wife, Ingrid, to a 2016 car crash, Popovich showed Williams’s entire eulogy to his Spurs team. He was struck by the humanity of it. Later on that year, in a beautiful SI piece written by Chris Ballard, Popovich said he more or less created a job for Williams in the Spurs’ front office—executive vice president of operations—that’d make it so Williams didn’t have to travel or work nights as he tried to hold his family together after the accident. Popovich was among those who sought to console and counsel Williams after the death. He wanted to fly to visit Williams in the aftermath, and was hurt that Williams wouldn’t let him. “He just kept telling me, ‘Mon, you’ve got to let people help you.’”
Williams, who reached the Finals with the Suns last year, led Phoenix to the NBA’s best record this season. He won the Coach of the Year on Monday.
It’s still unclear whether Popovich will return for a 27th season as coach. He hasn’t given many indications to this point. But even if he doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine leaving a better, fuller coaching legacy than the one that’s been on display this postseason.
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