The Master Politician
Barack Obama could learn a thing or two from David Stern.
As our nation's President finally starts to take an interest in the mid-terms that could decide his political legacy, the saga of the NBA dress code -- once a lightning rod that threatened to split this country in two, an issue as divisive as all the birth certificates and broken promises in the world -- sneakily winds on. Maybe it's misplaced ethnic chauvinism; if so, according to Rick Sanchez, I better have a lot to go around. But I simply cannot bring myself to say a bad thing about David Stern, however arrogant, draconian, or downright odd his decisions have been at times. And a lot of it has to do with the dress code.
The dress code was, for all the media attention and outcry that came with its announcement, something of a red herring. Stern wanted to make inroads into the so-called red states, like a little place called Oklahoma City, that -- while it may have stolen a team fair and square -- today is the home base for one of the league's brightest young teams.
The answer? In a post-Malice at the Palace world, players had to clean up their act. Put away the chains, sweats, and fitteds, and put on a nice suit like any other schmoe going to work. Players bemoaned Stern's oppressive iron fist, in large part because of the strong cultural associations that zillion-dollar over-sized chains carry. On the other hand, it sent a message to everyone who wasn't a player, a player sympathizer, or under the age of 30: this league means business. Oh, did I mention that, in addition to the whole red state thing, those older folks still account for most of the ticket sales, especially the upscale seats that have become the lifeblood of gate revenues?
Then, a curious thing happened. By the end of 2005-06, players were no longer wearing suits. Standards of enforcement, like those zero toleration rules meant to cut down on-court yapping, were relaxed, and everyone drifted comfortably toward the center. It helped that fashion had once again taken a turn for the preppy, but still, players were still expected to dress like adults -- adults, who were young and stylish on a casual workday. Everyone was happy.
You can call this manipulative, and wonder why Stern, unlike his predecessor Larry O'Brien, seems more often on the side of business-minded equilibrium rather than some notion of workplace justice for all. But that misses the point of Stern, just as calling Obama messianic ignored his track record.
Speaking of Obama, why was he relevant in the first place? Ah, yes. Because Stern, in the dress code and elsewhere, has employed exactly the inverse of Obama's first-term approach. He generally comes out on top, or at least brings the league through unscathed at the end of the day. (Donaghy? Who?) He does so by making extreme overtures and overreactions that seek to nip public opinion in the bud. But down the road, almost all of these lunges prove to be just that: stunts to keep the heat off of this most vulnerable of pro sports leagues.
Stern panders to the public, the ticket buyers, the media who sit in judgment. At the end of the day, though, Javaris Crittenton can walk right into Bobcats camp as if last season's locker room incident never happened. Artest, who at one point invited Stern in song to -- and I paraphrase -- come to his side of town so he could see what's up, is now chummy with the Commissioner. It's a game, one where blowhards get the hot air they so badly want, and players know that in the end, everything will even out.
Will that same principle hold for CBA negotiations, where you have the wild card third party of the owners involved? Who knows? But if Stern's in control, chances are he will go out of his way to degrade and humiliate the Players Association, while actually giving them more than they would get otherwise. It's a trade-off. Whether it's also two-faced and cynical depends on where you locate integrity.
Obama, on the other hand, talked big to his base, but then pursued a tepid strategy intent on trying to involve all parties on a day-to-day level. As much fun as those speeches were, he would do better -- well, would have, since he can't undo the marvel of the 2008 campaign – to stress consensus but then run a more aggressive presidential shop. The players, like Obama's base, are for the most part smart. They like results. The other side prizes loud noises and sound bites. Give them just enough to rock them to sleep, and then go about the business of governing the country. While, it should be said, the base has had its expectations tempered, rather than inflamed.
The dress code surfaced again this week, when it was supposedly revealed that coaches would not be allowed to wear some kind of turtleneck, mock or otherwise. It was, some speculated, aimed directly at outgoing legend/buffoon Don Nelson, as well as the slovenly Stan Van Gundy -- whose frequent comparisons to porn star Ron Jeremy are by no means flattering for the league. Of course, coaches should be in suits. After all, they are the authority figures. Except then, when the official rules were announced, nothing had changed. What mattered, though, was the initial leak. The truth was just a correction.
Then, the question: why can't players go as casual as coaches? The answer: they can. David Stern just wants you to believe that they're all still wearing suits, even if your eyes deceive you every team you turn on the television. After all, pictures are worth more than words and all, but news items in the offseason are worth even more. (BS)
The Works Season Previews: Milwaukee Bucks + San Antonio Spurs
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. First, the Bucks.
BS: Where is Andrew Bogut, where does he need to be, and what do the Bucks do without him?
TZ: The Bucks will have him; the question is what version of him they'll have, or how much the pain from the not-fully-healed hand/arm injury will mute his play. Bogut was out-of-this-world much of the past two seasons, carrying an otherwise pond-deep Bucks team to a .500 level. Not until John Salmons came aboard did the talent around Bogut become serious enough to aim for better things; adding Corey Maggette only helps.
But the Bucks need Bogut to be special to get there. Injuries have broken down many a promising season; hell, the initial injury to Bogut seemingly ended all of Milwaukee's hopes for 2009-10. That the Bucks were able to rally and take Atlanta to seven was simply shocking. (It'd be easy to say the series said more about the Hawks than the Bucks, but that's unfair to Milwaukee's electric defense, which had a great run.)
It really would be in Milwaukee's best interest for Bogut to miss a few weeks if necessary and get as close to 100% as possible. The early going will be a feeling-out process between Salmons, Brandon Jennings and Maggette anyways; while adding Bogut midstream might extend the learning curve, I don't think there's any danger of falling too far behind the other contenders for the East's fourth seed, which I find to be the proper goal here. Chicago and Atlanta will be the chief rivals, and the Bulls are missing Carlos Boozer for November anyways.
BS: What can we expect from Brandon Jennings this year? Will he miss Luke Ridnour?
TZ: We can only expect Jennings to improve, having seen the league and playoff basketball once already. The question will be how much he can improve. When you look at his contemporaries, it's unclear the jump will be huge. Like Derrick Rose, Jennings as a rookie did well primarily due to natural talent and physical gifts. In Rose's case, it was mostly athleticism and handle; for Jennings, it's speed and shooting skill. Those aren't likely to improve a whole lot. As such, Rose didn't really improve much between his rookie and second season, save for polishing his mid-range jumper.
Jennings has room to grow, but it might be a more long-term project. The biggest thing holding Jennings back from being the second best player on his team (behind Bogut) is a lack of finishing ability in the lane. Jennings has some decent moves to go to (like a nifty one-hand runner, but his conversion rate at the rim is just awful. Few rotation players shot worse at the rim than Jennings. That can be improved, but it's not a simple fix. You don't become a great NBA finisher overnight.
Luckily, Jennings will have plenty of offensive help while he continues to develop. Unfortunately, in Salmons and Maggette, that help is a pair of isolation slashers who won't likely use Jennings, Bogut or the vast well of Milwaukee power forwards to their advantage. That was a long way of saying Jennings' assists numbers are unlikely to explode, because Salmons and Maggette don't need your stinkin' help, pal.
BS: Was last season the start of something beautiful or a fluke?
TZ: I think it was absolutely the start of something beautiful, though, again, I'm not sure if the Hawks series taught us anything about the Bucks, given the way Atlanta went out against Orlando. Jennings just turned 21, Bogut is on the cusp of 26 and two of my favorite power forwards in the history of Western Civilization -- Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- are 23 and 24, respectively. Of course, Salmons is nearly 31 and relies on his quickness to make an impact. Maggette's the same age. Drew Gooden, signed to a five-year deal this summer, is now 29.
It's almost as if there are two Bucks teams, a young, promising and raw version, and the older, more polished (but limited) edition. Scott Skiles managed to insert Salmons beautifully in mid-stride last season; doing the same with Gooden (who plays like a kid, honestly) and Maggette (one of the league's great enigmas) will be an important task.
That raises another question, though -- how long until Skiles wears out Milwaukee? The coach's track record speaks of burn-out after a few years at the helm. His Chicago experience -- taking a young team to the cusp of contenderdom, only to flame out and fall apart -- is particularly frightening in the context of these Bucks. We'll see how the season progresses; it would be a shame if Skiles' famous pressure wore the younger half of the Bucks too thinly.
And now, the Spurs.
TZ: Tony Parker is essentially in the same position Carmelo Anthony is, in terms of questionable Alpha qualities and free agency on the horizon. While Anthony is likely the better player, Parker's PG abilities might make him as valuable. Is the lack of attention on Parker right now a function of the difference of the Q ratings, or Spurs' winning, quiet culture?
BS: I think we should be careful not to overrate Parker's PG abilities. Plus, he's two years older, and as we've shown in the past, speedy guards don't tend to age well. It's funny, while neither Melo nor Parker are clear-cut franchise players, Anthony at least offers one of the top scoring options in the league. Parker is a complementary piece 'til the bloody end. He's a very, very good one one, but not a player who dominates any one aspect of the game. Melo is at least a cornerstone.
You get the sense, too, that despite Parker's willingness to come off the bench last season, he's still very much aware of himself as a recent All-Star at what's becoming the league's (arguably) most important position. The Spurs aren't just going to get to keep him, and do with him what they please, out of blind loyalty on TP's part. That's why the way this season unfolds will tell us a lot about what each side is thinking heading into Parker's free agency.
TZ: Who will fall apart first, Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan? Will it finally happen for either this season?
BS: Pretty much all forms of sports history would seem to indicate that Duncan, a big man, will have longer to live in this league than Manu, the guard. However, Ginobili is one of three guards who will play a major role on the Spurs next year (count George Hill there, if things go as planned), while there's only one Tim Duncan on the Spurs. San Antonio may work harder than ever to keep Duncan fresh, and find ways to diversify their efforts, but at the end of the day, the team still goes through -- and depends primarily on -- his superstar presence. Duncan no longer being able to anchor the team is, for the Spurs' purposes, Duncan falling apart. Manu, on the other hand, can afford to age gracefully, or at least find a way to keep the glass half-full as starts to lose his faculties.
TZ: So long as Duncan remains, is it not possible for the Spurs to be considered a plucky challenger? They seem to fall with Phoenix and Portland in the standings these days, but are always seen as the been-there-before, even-keeled, you-know-what-to-expect team. But really, they are at least as volatile as Oklahoma City, just in different ways. Why can't the image of the Spurs be refreshed?
BS: That's not really the way the Spurs work. Even when a player does emerge dramatically, as Manu and to a lesser degree, Parker did, it takes time for them to be really incorporated into the program. When the image changes, it's been so gradual, or subtle, that only in retrospect can you really appreciate the difference. Maybe Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair will start to take the torch from Duncan, like when he truly succeeded David Robinson. That's a process, but at the same time, will in the interim make the Spurs strong up-front and in the backcourt. It's change, for sure, but it's also part of a script this franchise has rehearsed before.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.