June 18, 2024

By David Aldridge, Sam Amick and John Hollinger

Amick: The most painful of waiting games is almost over, gentlemen.

Maybe not for James Harden and Damian Lillard (yes, they still want to be traded), or for the Bucks fans who will spend the next nine months (and likely longer) worrying about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s state of mind in Milwaukee. But for those of us who are soooo ready to see NBA basketball again after this long and mostly quiet offseason, you can see the bouncing ball at the end of the tunnel.

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It’s been a little more than 100 days since the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić finished off the Heat in Game 5 of the Finals, then took that celebratory pool plunge with worthy co-star, Jamal Murray, as Denver celebrated the franchise’s first Finals win. And while training camp is still a little ways away — late September for teams that are playing preseason games overseas, and Oct. 3 for everyone else — the proverbial wheels of this 2023-24 season are unofficially in motion.

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With all that said, I haven’t talked hoops with either one of you in months and want to know how you see the early stories that will shape this coming campaign. Dame Time standing still? The (bitter) Beard? The NBA’s new crusade against healthy star players sitting? We have an ugly off-court topic too, with the incredibly disturbing allegations levied against Houston guard Kevin Porter Jr. after his recent arrest in New York and that the Rockets have been looking to trade him in the aftermath.

Consider this the tipoff. Pick a topic and start us off, DA…

Aldridge: Oh, it’s Dame Time, still. Has to be. Whatever you think of his skill set at this point of his career, he’s still a top 15-20 player in this league. Whoever gets him gets a significant boost to their talent, which extends through everyone on their roster. He tilts the floor. So, if you are, say, a team that plays in the Eastern Conference, and has another floor-tilter whose name sounds like “Timmy Cutler,” getting Lillard vaults you to the top of the heap in said conference. So, until that situation is resolved — and, it has to be resolved by the trade deadline; whether or not it gets done by the time camp starts or not, the Blazers can’t let this hang over them for an entire season – determining what team has the best chance to come out of the East will remain up in the air.

(Having said that: are you out of your minds, Heat Nation? No, Tyler Herro and three first-round picks is not a good deal for Portland for, arguably, the best player in that franchise’s history. Not. I love how fans — and, not a few general managers — argue with a straight face that my team’s third- or fourth-best player with some filler should, somehow, be enough for you to give up your team’s best player. Like, I’ll trade you my ’09 Camaro with shot brakes and three bald spares to you for your ’22 Benz with 253 miles on it. What? Sounds fair!)

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Hollinger: I think the Harden situation will quickly move to the forefront as we get into training camp and the early part of the season, because that’s the one with the highest potential for provocative, escalatory behavior.

I think it’s very unlikely that Lillard will no-show training camp or openly mail in games … sure, he might keep the throttle at 75 percent and sit out games when he’s dinged up and otherwise might have played, but I don’t think he’s wired to just go into full eff-you mode against the Blazers. He still has four years left on his deal, remember. Him playing in games up until the trade deadline would be a non-shocking outcome for me.

Harden, on the other hand, has had much sharper words for his organization already, is on the last year of his contract and has shown already the capacity to take things further back when he was trying to get out of Houston. The opening weeks of the season in Philly could be absolutely fascinating, in a Ben Simmons-y kind of way.

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(While we’re here: I disagree with DA a bit on Miami’s side of the Dame puzzle. Fair ain’t got nothing to do with it; Three firsts and Herro is more than anybody else is going to offer for Lillard. My evidence: It doesn’t appear that anybody else has come even remotely close to doing so, random Toronto vapor whispers aside. (Aside to my aside: Sorry, OKC isn’t walking through that door.) Miami is smart not to bid against itself; Portland is smart to wait to see if a better offer materializes before the trade deadline. So, we wait.)

Amick: Agreed on both fronts there, guys. With Dame, I think the Harden-esque escalation wouldn’t happen unless he were dealt to a team like, say, Toronto, where he clearly doesn’t want to be. And for everyone who cites the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard trade as an example of a team winning the risky bet on a player who wanted to be elsewhere, let’s not forget that Kawhi was only one season away from free agency at the time.

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Lillard, by very significant contrast, has four very expensive seasons left on his contract (including a player option worth $63.2 million in 2026-27). It’s one thing to roll the dice for a season and hope it works out, and quite another to take on a deal worth $216 million and brace for the potentially disastrous fireworks that might unfold from there.

OK, I’m shifting to the load management discussion. As you’re well aware, the league’s new policy on star players resting was approved by the Board of Governors last week. The Commish, Adam Silver, declared afterward that “we’re an 82-game league” and detailed how, health permitting, multiple star players aren’t allowed to sit in the same game and are expected to be available for national television and in-season tournament games.

You can read all the details here, but the unspoken point is this: With the NBA’s nine-year, $24-billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT set to expire after the 2024-25 season, and with companies such as Apple and Amazon looming as serious suitors for the next deal, it’s a great time for all of the league’s blockbuster ballers to put their best game forward. But beyond the economic component, how did that change hit you in terms of the competitive aspect of the decision, DA?

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Aldridge: It’s instructive to see how quickly the league/Silver have amended their previous “we go where the science tells us to go” narrative. I’ve felt for some time, while shaking my fists at clouds, that the NBA has gotten out of balance. That the maniacal desire by the new owners and ownership groups in the game to find a competitive edge through data has taken the game off its axis.

Before you tell this old man to shut up and finish my gruel, hear me out. Load management, like leaning in on 3s, is a logical process for teams that seek even a minor advantage over opponents. If “x” represents the exact right number of minutes or games in a season to play, say, Joel Embiid, based on his physiology and body mass and potential injury stress points in and on his body, “x + anything more” is suboptimal for the 76ers. It makes Embiid more susceptible to injury, and injuries to superstars are what wreck NBA franchises. You can’t recover from them. Period. Thus, load management is a fact-based, self-protecting decision. I understand that.

But sports do not operate at their best in this kind of environment. People watch sports, and become fans of teams or individuals, because sports aren’t logical. We didn’t watch Muhammad Ali because he was a pretty good fighter; we watched him because no other human we could name in 1964 could stand up to Sonny Liston, much less make him quit on his stool. And, a decade later, do the exact same thing to another force of nature, George Foreman. Or, put another way: how many movies about Jimmy Ellis did they make, again?

We don’t still hold Jim Brown in high regard because he was a pretty good running back; we do so because he ran over and past everyone who played defense in the NFL for nine seasons. You are enthralled by Shohei Ohtani because he’s an elite pitcher and hitter, and nobody else does that — or, at least, they haven’t done it for the last eight or nine decades! We love watching athletes who go beyond norms, and shatter expected limits. And load management, while well-intentioned, puts everyone, no matter their level of excellence, in a box.

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Kawhi is a two-time NBA Finals MVP? He still can’t play tonight because the numbers tell us not to play him. It’s not just that this cheats paying customers who wanted to see him in Charlotte or Indiana or New York (though that matters, greatly). It limits Leonard’s choices. (And, yes, I believe most players, given the choice, will opt to play almost every time.)

So, I hope that this new position will be the start of a correction by the NBA, understanding that while looking for every edge is a reasonable position, it sometimes goes against what made people fall in love with the game in the first place.

(Coming next: Why the midrange jumper rules!)

Hollinger: Here’s the deal: The entire load management debate is a collision of the fact that what is in the interests of an individual team is not necessarily in the interests of the league as a whole. 

News flash: The most important games of the year are played in May and June. Thus, for the eight or so teams that harbor realistic hopes of playing meaningful games at the end of the season, the biggest part of the battle is ensuring their best players are in peak condition for those games.

With a too-long schedule of 82 games packed into 177 days, and 16 teams qualifying for the postseason no matter what, the math should almost instantly tell you that once a team reaches a certain level of quality, the regular season just isn’t that important.

Take, say the Boston Celtics, who can basically name any win total they want to end up with between 53 and 63 this season, as long as they stay healthy.

So, tell me: Why would they push the pedal to the metal on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown just to get 63 rather than 53? What’s the payoff?

To be clear, the players are almost always in the “Hell yes! Let’s get 63!” camp. Front offices, however, are hugely cognizant of the big-picture issue here, and, in virtually every case, are the ones driving the load management decision. (Kawhi appears to be a rare exception: his situation is a whole other deal.) I know from my own experience: Marc Gasol and Mike Conley weren’t taking a day off unless we dragged them off the floor.

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Sometimes, the protocols of an injury rehab pretty much demand some load management days happen (as with Leonard, I should note). Other times, it’s just a case of common sense winning the day. If your endgame is to have peak Steph Curry in June, you might logically decide that the second game of a Portland-to-Denver back-to-back in January is a good place to hedge your bets and maximize your likelihood of the desired June outcome. It’s also more logical to take those powders in road games that your team was less likely to win anyway, and is likely more strain on your players’ body because of the travel.

Somehow the “it’s teams not players” part still doesn’t seem to be as big a part of the wider narrative as it should be; I shudder in particular at recent comments by Silver that seemed to focus more on the players, like they were just choosing to chill on back-to-backs. Nah, that ain’t it. This is teams acting in their own best interest … but not in the league’s.

Thus, the recent steps by the league is its attempt to swing the pendulum back toward the greater good of the league as a whole. In particular, I think the league is doing everything it can to protect the most important games on its schedule — national TV dates — and the timing is obvious, given that it’s in the middle of negotiating a huge new TV contract. Also, the league can still get smarter about scheduling national TV games so they aren’t in back-to-backs.

Ultimately, however, the original tension point is still there: You can’t force teams to pretend regular-season games are important if they’re not actually important.

Amick: All right, so apparently we saved the worst topic for last here.

For the readers who somehow missed the news,  Porter Jr. was arrested and charged with assault and strangulation of his girlfriend on Sept. 11. The details of the situation are disturbing, and it’s worth noting that this is merely the latest incident in what has been a years-long string of trouble for the 23-year-old. But how do you both see the business aspect of this mess?

The Rockets, as our Shams Charania reported, have been looking to get off of the four-year, $82.5 million deal that Porter Jr. signed in October. For their purposes, it was wise to have the final three seasons of the deal be non-guaranteed, with only the $15.9 million in the first year guaranteed. But the idea of doing a deal while the legal process starts to unfold, all with the hopes of landing an additional asset or two along the way, is pretty unsavory.

Aldridge: Look, this isn’t debatable. There’s doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons. What the Rockets are doing has no “right” attached to it. As Tevye said about something else entirely different in “Fiddler on the Roof,” in this case, there is no “on the other hand…”

Houston trying to salvage something from Porter, Jr.’s contract — or anyone helping them do it, no matter the benefit to them — is odious. I accept, of course, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and that Porter should have his day in court to answer the charges against him if he so chooses. But that’s wholly different from Houston trying to get someone to take his contract off its hands. It’s abhorrent business. And the Rockets need to get out of that business as soon as humanly possible, release Porter Jr.  immediately, and move on. This young man needs help dealing with life. But he shouldn’t be on an NBA team while he finds that help.

Hollinger: The part of this that feels so unseemly is the idea that, “Hey, now that he’s gonna be suspended and/or have his contract voided, let’s see if there’s some value here!”

Just to dip our foot into the nitty gritty for a second: Nobody will save money by trading for Porter’s contract and then seeing him suspended, because the money goes to NBA charities. A few teams could save a lot of money on the luxury tax, however. The financial logic is that a team that has Porter’s $15.86 million on its books, if and when he is suspended for most or all the season, could have that money discounted by half that amount ($7.93 million) on their tax calculation, times whatever their tax multiplier is. Thus, trading an equivalent dead-money contract for Porter could be worth tens of millions to the right team.

I don’t really see that team, though. The current tax teams aren’t sitting on piles of dead money. Even what you might call slightly-dead money for these teams (greetings, Clippers forwards!) is there as an expiring contract for future trades, not to slough off for savings just so they can take a giant L in a press conference.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that, given how unlikely this endeavor seemed from the start, Houston was probably better off just quietly taking its medicine and moving on. Surely, this wasn’t a thing you’d want out in the media. (If you’re waiting for the Rockets to waive him, by the way, there may be some very good procedural reasons why that hasn’t happened yet. But I can’t imagine him wearing their uniform again.)

(Photo of Jimmy Butler and Damian Lillard: Soobum Im / USA Today)

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