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On Sloan: GM's Tell Riveting Tales Of Front-Office Dynamics; Will Silver Take The Wheel?

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week, both Daryl Morey and Bob Myers mentioned Danny Ainge as one of the executives around the league with whom they most enjoy negotiating and dealing. Myers described Ainge as affable and often casual, at times floating trade proposals that are quickly shot down, which may elicit a lighthearted chuckle from Ainge.

Morey said he also likes the approach of Mitch Kupchak, who starts off any discussion by clearly setting forth each the main pillars of what he's hoping to accomplish, and makes a straightforward inquiry as to whether his counterpart has the objectives and pieces to make a deal that would be mutually beneficial.

And Morey relayed how easy it is to work with his former protégé Sam Hinkie, who has executed a daring plan to rebuild the 76ers since taking over as the head of basketball operations in Philadelphia. The two can have very brief conversations along the lines of 'You are looking to do this, I'm looking to do this, there's no match, goodbye.'

Goodwill and collegiality may be the exception rather than the rule.  Myers said there is a great deal of distrust and dislike among certain team executives around the league.  

Morey observed that there is a widespread tendency among basketball decision-makers to hew closely to trades and signings that are safe.  The prevailing mood is to make low-risk moves that won't blow up in anybody's face looking back a year or two or three down the line.

Recounting the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the heated environment of the summer of 2010, Morey credits Sachin Gupta, who has since joined Hinkie in the Sixers’ front office, for broaching the idea of the Rockets capitalizing on an opportunity to become perhaps the only team willing to take on salary as several teams aggressively looked to dump contracts for a chance to sign LeBron James or any of the other max-contract players in that free-agency class.

The New York Knicks were one such team, and, with a great sense of urgency, immediately engaged Houston in an attempt to shed the contract of Jared Jeffries. When those talks went nowhere, Houston did a deal with the Sacramento Kings to acquire Kevin Martin. But after that trade was agreed to, Morey realized that there was still a scenario under which a variation of the Knicks trade could be built into the existing framework. It had to be hurried before the two-team trade became official.

Morey called back Geoff Petrie and assured him that their deal was firm, then communicated that the Rockets still had interest in doing an additional deal with the Knicks that would keep the principals in the Houston-Sacramento trade intact. Petrie was amenable to the idea and Morey reconnected with the Knicks. With the impending Sacramento trade imposing a natural deadline to get something done, the deal happened when the Knicks agreed to send Jordan Hill, a first-round pick and a first-round pick swap right to Houston which would absorb Jeffries. A three-way trade was pieced together in two distinct segments.

It was during this same panel discussion that Morey revealed that he rushed to text Mark Cuban in attempt to pry away Dirk Nowitzki after Myers and the Warriors had made their move to acquire Andre Iguodala this past off-season.

Urged along by his hands-on owner Joe Lacob, Myers made a series of what he considered extreme long-shot attempts to put together a move for Iguodala, efforts that eventually came to fruition when the Utah Jazz, in exchange for a package of draft picks, agreed to take on the salary the Warriors needed to shed in order to make room for Iguodala.

Golden State had already taken itself out of the running for Howard but Morey nervously saw the chips falling into place for a deep roster that could surround Howard and attract him to Oakland. Morey quickly tried to refortify his own position by seeing if Mark Cuban would part with Nowitzki since the Mavericks had already lost the opportunity to sign Howard.

What Morey didn't know is that Howard's camp had already notified Cuban that the Rockets had won the Dwight sweepstakes and Howard was on his way to Houston. The purpose of Morey's texts must be gloating, Cuban concluded. Although Morey stated that this confusion was soon cleared up, Cuban continued to say publicly in the days following that Morey had tried to rub it in.

While both Morey and Myers described their respective owners as activist, closely involved in the player personnel decision-making process, this description was clearly not intended as a relative comparison to Cuban.


* * *

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that his initial reaction to "The Draft Wheel" proposal presented by Celtics' executive Mike Zarren was one of great enthusiasm.

The Wheel would simply rotate teams in order of selections 1-30 so that each team would draft consecutively from every position in the first round over a 30-year span.

Silver viewed it as a brilliantly simple solution to the problems of the current system, which may unintentionally incentivize some teams to lose as many games as possible in order to improve their draft position. The Wheel would also deliver welcome certainty to GM's and their staffs, making every future pick known to every team for purposes of making trades and planning payroll.

Then Silver decided to "socialize" the idea by circulating it among his team owners, some of whom raised the concern that such a system could result in draft prospects skipping a year of eligibility in order to steer themselves away from or toward certain teams.

Silver said the league will continue to study the principles and possible unintended consequences of The Wheel more closely.  While acknowledging some shortcomings in the current system (after all, why else would he be interested by any alternative?), Silver at the same time defended the status quo. He repeated his definition of "tanking": a team's coach or management actively instructing that team to lose any particular ballgame or otherwise taking game-specific steps to cause a loss (i.e., throwing a game). Let's call this tanking in the first degree, and nobody has accused any NBA team of this offense.

In fact, we all know that there's another kind of tanking and one that more than a couple of teams are illustrating with real-life examples this season. A day earlier, Bryan Colangelo sat on the same stage at the Boston conference and expressly confessed to undertaking this alternative form of tanking as the head of basketball operations in Toronto (i.e., fielding a purposefully weak roster in order to maximize chances of a high lottery pick). Let's call this tanking in the second degree.

Silver questioned whether in fact the numbers would support the effectiveness of tanking as a strategy – implying that attempts to engineer a poor season in order to more dramatically improve a team’s roster through the draft have not been shown to be successful. That may well be true. But that speaks more to the wisdom of the alleged practice rather than its existence.

In the end, Silver cited the public “chatter” on the subject as a concern in and of itself. Officers of the court call this the appearance of impropriety, and it’s clear that the very perception of tanking in the second degree is taking hold, which has become a problem of its own for the NBA. It’s a fair bet that Silver also privately understands that teams are in fact committing the act of tanking in the second degree.

Whichever degree of tanking one’s concerned with, The Wheel would make it a thing of the past.

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