For some coaches who haven’t been here before, when they look to the opposing bench, they see someone who looks like them and who has been through similar experiences.
When Wes Unseld Jr., new coach of the Wizards, faces off against Ime Udoka or Willie Green or Jamahl Mosley, he understands the importance of the matchup.
Six of the seven coaches hired this offseason are Black and five of those are first-time head coaches. Unseld, Mosley, Udoka, Green, and Chauncey Billups are hardly newcomers. They have paid their dues with long playing careers or extended, distinguished stints as assistants and have waited their turn for the opportunity.
Unseld, whose father is a Washington (Bullets) legend and is leading the club to an impressive start, wants his brethren to do well because it could lay the groundwork for other longtime assistants who may not carry a big name to get head coaching jobs.
“It’s funny, we know each other in two different circles,” Unseld said of the Celtics’ Udoka. “He spent a brief time in Washington as a player a few years ago. That was my first interaction with him. Never spent a ton of time with him in any work capacity, but there’s a commonality in that. Our paths to this point have been different. But to see it unfold and all of us get the opportunity, it’s really special. I think as we go forward we’ll lean on each other, but it’s important and it’s a brotherhood.
“It’s a very small number of us in the league. There’s 30 jobs. Across the league I’ve been received quite well. It’s been very welcoming.”
For Unseld, his odds of landing a job were perhaps slimmer than Udoka’s, having never played in the NBA. Unseld spent eight years as a scout and then 16 years as an assistant before getting his first head coaching opportunity. The perception around the league is Black coaches who did not play in the NBA receive less consideration for positions than their white counterparts.
“I really don’t know how I’m received from the outside,” Unseld said. “To that point, my path is different. I had a lot of roles prior to getting this position, but I think each of those positions helped me form my philosophy, build my foundation, my coaching ideology. It’s just now one of those things, a player’s experience is different and I think they garner a little bit more credibility than my situation, but 20-plus years in, I think I’ve got a myriad of experiences to lean on.”
The spotlight is on these new coaches. If this crop, especially those without extensive playing experience, succeed, it could create a pathway for more Black coaches who aren’t household names. If they struggle? Who knows how that affects those who may follow?
Mosley, a longtime Dallas assistant who is leading a total rebuild in Orlando, said he’s rooting for his new coaching colleagues. His relationship with Udoka goes back years and the two have been candidates for the same jobs over the years.
“I’m so happy for him getting this opportunity, as well,” Mosley said. “We’ve both been back and forth over the years. We spent some time with USA Basketball, knowing him over the years when he played and I was still coaching at the time, he deserves this opportunity and he’s done a great job and paid all our dues and done so well and is respected throughout the league.
“The opportunities are real and people are willing and seeing that the candidates are qualified and able to do the job, as well. Just being given that opportunity means so much. Guys have worked hard and tirelessly just the same, and having a chance at it is huge.”
Strange results around the league
It’s been a bizarre season so far. The Cavaliers have wins at the Nuggets and Clippers. The Timberwolves are 3-1 with a win at the Bucks. The Lakers, Suns, and Trail Blazers entered the weekend with losing records, as did the Celtics and Nets.
There’s also been a series of blowouts, such as the 116-86 loss by the Blazers against the Clippers at Staples Center.
New Portland coach Chauncey Billups was asked about his team’s performance, and he sounded like a certain coach in Boston.
“It was embarrassing, it was really embarrassing,” Billups said. “Just the effort. I didn’t think that we started the game out with the right mind-set. We talked in the locker room about the Clippers. They hadn’t won a game yet, two tough losses, but they were desperate to get a win. [The Clippers] were at home and we tried to defend against that, but from the very first play of the game we turned the ball over, we couldn’t get the ball where we needed it to go. Their pressure really hurt us, and it just continued to snowball the rest of the way. It’s tough to compete in a game when you have 30 turnovers.”
New coach Ime Udoka chided his team for its lack of effort in two of the Celtics’ three losses entering the weekend. Billups continued on his team’s lackadaisical play.
“I just don’t see how you can have a hangover two days later,” he said. “Guys had the day off on Sunday. We played like we were tired today, but there was no reason to be tired. So no, at the end of the day there’s no excuse and we came out and again we are in striking distance at halftime. We had turned it over a ton; we just weren’t playing very well. We talked about it at the half, we showed a few clips at the half, and we just didn’t respond. We never competed like we wanted to win the basketball game and that’s disappointing.”
Meanwhile, through four games, Damian Lillard has averaged a career-low 17.8 points and is 6 for 35 from the 3-point line. Lillard isn’t the only superstar off to a sluggish start. Bradley Beal, James Harden, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, and De’Aaron Fox were all shooting less than 40 percent entering the weekend.
“[Lillard] is getting some quality looks,” Trail Blazers teammate CJ McCollum said. “He’s a tough shot-maker. We’re used to him making shots and I think, obviously, he hasn’t shot the ball the way he normally shoots it, but it’s an 82-game season and when you don’t shoot the ball particularly well you know that it’s only a matter of time before it turns around and he’s hitting 30-footers again.”
Hopefully getting back to normal
The NBA is likely years from completely bouncing back from the revenue lost during the pandemic, despite having full arenas this season. Commissioner Adam Silver was asked how the league is doing financially and whether its losses could affect the new collective bargaining agreement.
“Hats off to my colleagues and the players and their representatives for working so closely together in both creating and operating through a bubble, and then through some difficult circumstances last season,” Silver said. “It took enormous sacrifice. I always say this in the context of greater society, where people were making sacrifices far greater than our players and our teams, but it wasn’t easy for anyone.
“I think it was talked about before. I think the mental health issues were profound in some cases, the enormous amount of isolation.”
The NBA was incredibly able to pull off the bubble in Orlando, maintaining the integrity of the season and crowning a champion — the Lakers — in one of the more competitive postseasons in league history.
Last season was reduced to 72 games with fans being allowed into arenas for most teams about halfway through the year. Some teams, such as the Thunder, did not allow fans for the entire season.
“I think everyone understood that extraordinary times required extraordinary measures in order to continue to play this game that they all love and keep our business going and provide thousands of people with jobs,” Silver said. “I think we won’t know until we can look back when this pandemic is truly over, how we can grade ourselves relative to how other businesses have done. I’ll just say that I’m really thrilled that we’re back to something that looks closer to normal this year.”
The financial losses aren’t crippling for teams, but they are significant. It may encourage the NBA to add two additional teams. The lack of revenue over the past few years has ushered expansion from an afterthought to a possibility.
“I won’t get into specific numbers in terms of operating losses,” Silver said. “Even the number [I was asked] about for this season, that’s a top-line revenue number. It doesn’t go to profitability. But it’s clear given how significantly down our revenues were the last two years — I think I said going into last season we were looking at being down something like 40 percent, because we ended up having fans in some of our buildings in the playoffs. The final number, I don’t have it right here, but it’s probably closer to 35 percent down in revenue.”
Silver also commented on the opportunity for a HMA (home marketing arena) for NBA teams, where they could have the chance to bid on the marketing rights for other countries, such as Japan, China, Mexico, and Brazil, with large NBA fan bases. Teams that win these bids would have the right to market products and conduct events in these countries.
“The potential is enormous,” Silver said. “I mean, we have an opportunity, that’s essentially the entire world, to market basketball and NBA-branded basketball. We’re likely the No. 2 global sport after soccer/football, and what has dramatically changed over the last decade is that hand-held technology and tablets that enable us to reach every corner of the planet with high-quality NBA streaming.
“On top of that, the number of international players represented in our league only continues to grow. Roughly 25 percent of our players were born outside of the United States, and as you know, increasingly some of our biggest stars are coming from outside of the United States.”
The NBA should decide quickly that it will allow teams to take advantage of this potential revenue stream. The NFL already has teams bidding for marketing opportunities in other countries. The Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Jacksonville Jaguars are among those involved.
“The question becomes, what’s the optimal way to structure the team-league relationship in how we do our marketing?” Silver said. “We’ve made some changes in the model, I would say, particularly over the last five years, where we’ve given our teams more opportunities to market themselves outside of the US.
“The patch on the jersey, of course, is one of those examples, and there’s other things that the teams can now do using digital media.”
Silver has been unafraid to take marketing chances during his tenure. But the growth of international soccer and its marketing revenue from jersey advertisements convinced Silver the idea would be welcomed in the NBA. As time has passed, jersey patches have been generally accepted as part of the uniform.
“When you step back, the model which we operate under now was essentially based on broadcast television when it formed, essentially how far a team’s signal would reach. Obviously, that’s somewhat irrelevant in this day and age,” Silver said. “So it’s something that we’re spending a lot of time studying. On one hand, I don’t think we should move to a model where it’s a free-for-all in every market because, just by way of example, every team is playing another team, and you wouldn’t want both teams selling that same broadcast. That obviously wouldn’t make sense.
“But having said that, we’d also like to create incentives for teams to want to drive their fan base and their club far outside of their market. I think that we understand at the league office that with 30 top-notch marketing organizations, it doesn’t make sense at all to limit sort of that innovation and that entrepreneurial vibrancy to just their market.”
Because of Silver’s desire to modernize the league and the league’s financial losses during the pandemic, it’s certain he will continue to explore ideas for more revenue streams.
“We’re going to continue to look at it, but where we’re going to end up at some point is the ability to have that direct-to-consumer relationship regardless of where that fan is,” he said. “That seems fairly clear to me. Given that people are living on their phones, they should at any point, when a game is on, be able to get that game directly to them. Whether that’s served by the team or by the league is yet to be decided, but we’ll work through those issues.”
The Raptors have had a rough start to the season, besides beating the Celtics, and they are dealing with a situation with point guard Goran Dragic, who wants to be traded. Dragic was acquired from the Heat in the Kyle Lowry deal and is owed $19.5 million in the final year of his contract. He is coming off the bench for Toronto, but the Raptors are rebuilding and going with young players. Dragic, 36, could help a playoff team and does have an expiring contract, but the Raptors are waiting for the market to increase as teams are still trying to figure out their rosters … There appears to be a stalemate between the Nets and Kyrie Irving, who has missed the first five games because he refuses to be vaccinated and the team won’t allow him to play until he can fully participate. The Nets are struggling without him, especially James Harden, who is averaging 16.6 points and shooting 35.9 percent from the field. With Harden unable to provide his usual scoring punch, there is more pressure on Kevin Durant, while Patty Mills has essentially soaked up Irving’s minutes and has been a boost off the bench. The Nets have split time in the starting lineup between Bruce Brown and Jevon Carter, but it’s apparent the Nets are a lesser team offensively without Irving. The team is waiting for Irving to change his mind and it’s uncertain whether the 500-plus protesters in front of Barclays Center for the team’s home opener in support of Irving will encourage him to remain steadfast in his beliefs. The NBA has not intervened in the situation, calling it a Nets issue … Celtics center Enes Kanter continues to speak out about what he views as unfair treatment of Chinese citizens by president Xi Jinping, even wearing sneakers with terms such as “made with slave labor” and “hypocrite” and “Nike” on his shoes to call out the company for its working conditions in China. Kanter played just five minutes in the Celtics’ first five games and is out of the playing rotation. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens said he has no issue with Kanter’s political activism, and it’s not the first time Kanter has been outspoken about an international topic. He remains exiled from his native Turkey after his open criticism of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.