The latest in the Brooklyn Nets’ endless mess, apparently, is that superstar forward Kevin Durant wanted a trade — and wanted former head coach Steve Nash fired — because some of the team’s drills weren’t tough enough and didn’t include enough defensive drills .
So just how many NBA teams actually make closeout and defensive grenade drills a regular part of practice these days?
This question was asked of a sample of league GMs, coaches, and scouts. Answer: not many and not often.
“Training camps and maybe briefly on practice days when there are several days between games, which are few,” said a front office manager and former player of when coaches generally make defensive drills a part of training.
An assistant trainer was baffled by Durant’s complaint because he had heard that Durant preferred one-on-one tuition from his personally hired trainers.
“What he’s saying doesn’t match what I’ve heard,” he said. “I’ve been told he wants his people to train him at the gym.”
However, a second assistant coach suggested that Durant’s complaint was inspired by the fact that he had defensive-oriented drills under assistant coach Ron Adams at both Oklahoma City and the Golden State. “Ron did it every day,” said the assistant coach. “Best defensive coach in the NBA.”
Nash played most of his career for offensive-minded coaches in Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni, who also served as one of Nash’s assistants during his freshman year on the job. “D’Antoni rarely did a drill that emphasized defense,” said a former assistant coach. “On the track, many coaches rely on timely stops and high-level competitive motivation.”
Times have changed too. An expanded medical team and increased player empowerment have resulted in fewer and less intense drills. Even defensive-minded teams who make such drills a regular part of their training rarely spend more than 10 minutes on them. “All of the defenses I was in charge of made a daily variation of grenades,” said the former assistant. “You can’t do it for long or incredibly intensely, but you have to touch it. You are what you highlight. It gets frustrating when your heavy minute guys, especially star players, miss that part of a workout.”
Durant praised Nash’s replacement, Jacque Vaughn, for putting more emphasis on defense. But the timing of Durant’s comments amused the former assistant coach, because they came just after the Nets posted a season-high 153 points and lost by 32 points to the Sacramento Kings.
“No disrespect but there wasn’t a ‘Run TMC’ or ‘7 Seconds or Less’ Phoenix team in the opposing dressing room,” he said.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FUEL FOR WEMBANYAMA? The race for the draft rights of Victor Wembanyama, the league’s presumed up-and-coming talent, has not gone as expected so far.
When the Utah Jazz traded stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for draft picks and youngsters over the summer, the understanding inside and outside the league was that they were going for the top of the draft, not the top overall. But as this weekend begins, the Jazz have the sixth-best record (10-6) in the entire league and wouldn’t even qualify for the lottery that decides which team gets the No. 1 spot.
The Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers were the other teams thought to lose their way to the top positions in the Wembanyama Sweepstakes. However, none of them are currently in the top three worst teams in the league, all having an equal chance of becoming the No. 1 spot in the league’s revamped lottery system.
An Eastern Conference GM believes these teams are just plain smart.
“You never want to start the season preaching in the locker room, ‘We’re going to be bad,'” he said. “You’re going to need some of these young players to be part of your team going forward, and once you’ve introduced the idea that losing is okay in your franchise, it can be difficult to pull out of it. You can win 30 games and finish 8th or 9th (from the bottom) and still give yourself a shot at number 1 as you develop your team.”
A Western Conference GM suggested that if the above teams are truly committed to being at the front of the draft, they need to take steps.
“The Jazz and Pacers have too many good veterans to really tank,” he said. “You would have to swap people. The (Bojan) Bogdanović deal for (Kelly) Olynyk was an indication that (the Jazz) wanted to keep up. I’ve been told that Indy’s ownership isn’t involved in any remodeling either. And San Antonio can’t tank with (Jacob) Poeltl playing. He’s too much of a defender and rebounder. If you defend and rebound every night, which Spurs did, you will win some games.
Eastern Conference GM believes Thunder GM Sam Presti may find himself in the most difficult position with a crowd of young talent hungry to prove himself, led by rising star in point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “What will Sam Shai tell?” asked the GM. “No matter how good Wembanyama will be, Year 1 will be a growth year for him. It’s probably year 2 or 3. Which means Shai will be 27 or 28 before Wembanyama is willing to help him do anything. “
The approval of NBA governors to change lottery odds in 2019 has also reduced the need to be open about losing. The top four spots in the draft — rather than the top three — are now decided by the lottery, and the three worst records all have an equal percentage chance (14.5) of becoming No. 1.
What’s more, the team with the worst record has only finished first eight times in 38 years.
Overall, the Eastern Conference GM said it’s too early to determine which teams really want to lose.
“Once we hit the 25-game mark, the teams that are chasing Wembanyama will get pushed off,” he said.
In other words, the refueling for Wembanyama will still happen – the teams are just a little more adept at it.
RATING BY THE PARTICIPANTS OF KYRIE SAGA: There is an expectation that Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving’s indefinite suspension could end this weekend. He has missed eight games so far in what was originally announced by Nets owner Joe Tsai as a minimum five-game suspension. Irving’s reinstatement was conditional on his completing a six-point list that included a public apology and meetings with both local Jewish officials and the director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Whenever and however the suspension ends, the general consensus in front offices is that everyone involved — Irving, Tsai, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and the NBA Players Association — helped keep the controversy going for much longer than it needed to dark cloud over the league.
Irving made it worse by being slow to apologize. Tsai made it worse by making the suspension indefinite and making the six-point list public. Silver and the players’ union exacerbated the situation by not immediately questioning Tsai’s actions, which clearly violates the league’s collective bargaining agreement as far as punishment is concerned.
“You can’t have unlimited punishment,” said a Western Conference scout. “They could have made three games if he hadn’t apologized and ten games if he hadn’t. The problem isn’t the punishment, it’s the application.”
League sources don’t expect Irving to complete the six-point list, particularly the one that prompts him to meet with the Anti-Defamation League after she publicly refused to accept Irving’s $500,000 donation. That means if Irving is reinstated, Tsai’s credibility will take a hit anyway. And if he persists, there will almost certainly be a battle between the players’ union and the league, allowing the dark cloud to remain.
The Western Conference scout, meanwhile, applauded the Boston Celtics for handling the suspension of head coach Ime Udoka over allegations of sexual harassment.
“They acted quickly and there were no further leaks from the organization about the incident,” he said. “They handled it as best they could.”
Whenever the Irving ordeal is finally over, the scout is convinced the Nets need to make big changes.
“Joe Tsai has to clean the house afterwards,” he said. “The goods are damaged.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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