The process to retire Bill Russell’s No. 6 throughout the NBA, an unprecedented move and identical to Major League Baseball’s tribute to Jackie Robinson, was swift after Russell’s July 31 death at age 88.
According to those close to the final decision, Russell was not approached about the retiring of his number. But it was a discussion that percolated in the NBA offices the past few years, as Russell’s impact on the game continued to grow.
Russell developed relationships with many current NBA players, who learned not only about his impact on the floor as one of the greatest defensive players and centers of all time but off the floor, with his social activism. Russell remained a fixture on social media, even supporting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, posting a photo on Twitter of him kneeling.
Then-commissioner David Stern announced in February 2009 the NBA Finals MVP Award would be named after Russell and he appeared at closing games to present the award until 2019, when he gave the award to Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard.
And while there had been discussions over the years about making the jersey retirement move, the NBA had not gotten serious about it until the past few weeks. Many league officials offered their input, with Commissioner Adam Silver making the announcement to Russell’s family at his private memorial service last week.
The Russell family, including his wife Jeannine and children Karen and Jacob, is pleased with the decision. Silver helped lead the discussions over the past few weeks to retire the number and the move has been widely praised in NBA circles.
“This is a momentous honor reserved for one of the greatest champions to ever play the game,” NBPA Executive Director Tamika Tremaglio said in a statement. “Bill’s actions on and off the court throughout the course of his life helped to shape generations of players for the better and for that, we are forever grateful. We are proud to continue the celebration of his life and legacy alongside the league.”
Any NBA player who wears No. 6 can continue to wear the number, but it will never be issued to a new player. Also, an organization such as the Heat, who may retire LeBron James’s No. 6 after two NBA titles in his four years, will be allowed to retire that number in James’s honor.
James changed his jersey number from 23 to 6 this past season with the Lakers. It is likely he will retain that number this season. Changing jersey numbers is not a simple process. Players have to apply to the league for a jersey change the season prior to when they want to don a new number. For example, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball will wear No. 1 this season after No. 2 during his first two years.
Sixteen players wore No. 6 last season, including Chicago’s Alex Caruso, Atlanta sixth man Lou Williams, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, and Washington’s Kristaps Porzingis.
There were four players who wore No. 6 for the Celtics prior to Russell. His number was officially retired in 1972 in front of only teammates and team management.
The NBA will not only have every player wear commemorative patches on their uniforms with No. 6, but every NBA floor will have a clover-shaped logo with No. 6 inside, even Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.
The NBA did not have discussions with MLB about how they handled the Robinson jersey retirement but they adopted the same rule to grandfather the number for players who already wore No. 6. MLB also instituted Jackie Robinson Day, where every player on every team wears No. 42 on April 15, the day he broke the color barrier in 1947.
That move may be a little inconceivable and confusing for an NBA game but the Celtics are expected to have season-long plans to celebrate Russell, who attended last December’s game against the Nets.
It’s been a difficult stretch for the Celtics. John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn, and Russell have died in the past three-plus years.
The great Bob Cousy just celebrated his 94th birthday Aug. 9.
WHAT NOW, LA?
Is Westbrook the key — to everything?
The Lakers are six weeks from training camp and Russell Westbrook remains on the roster. The Lakers have tried moving Westbrook, the former MVP entering the final year of his contract, but to no success.
Westbrook is owed $47 million this season and is coming off the worst statistical season of his career. The Lakers hired a new coach in Darvin Ham, who has maintained he can make the trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Westbrook work.
But despite his struggles, Westbrook is an asset because of his contract. There is little chance he would return to Los Angeles barring a major bounce-back year, so the Lakers’ best interest is to trade Westbrook and get something in return.
The issue is opposing teams want more than Westbrook in return. Third-year swingman Talen Horton-Tucker is an attractive trade chip and other clubs also have told the Lakers they want at least one first-round pick with Westbrook in any deal.
The Lakers have been handcuffed by the Davis deal. LA gave up its 2022 first-round pick to the Pelicans and New Orleans took point guard Dyson Daniels. The Pelicans own the right to swap picks with the Lakers in 2023 — both teams are expected to make the playoffs — and the Pelicans also own the Lakers’ pick in 2024.
Los Angeles is reluctant to include its 2025 first-rounder in a Westbrook deal because eventually they’re going to have to get younger and build through the draft. General manager Rob Pelinka signed Troy Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker IV, Thomas Bryant, and Juan Toscano-Anderson to join Kendrick Nunn, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
The Lakers are not a deep team beyond their starting five. Westbrook remains the team’s best point guard. Davis will have to prove he can come back from an injury-plagued season and James turns 38 in December, although he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
But the group of Walker, Brown, Toscano-Anderson, Bryant, and Damian Jones comes with question marks. None has proven to be consistently productive for a team with championship aspirations, adding to the speculation the Lakers need more if they are to compete with the Warriors and Grizzles in the Western Conference
Pelinka parted ways with Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley, and Wayne Ellington and replaced them with younger but unproven players. As the Western Conference stacks up, the Lakers don’t appear to be among the upper echelon.
Could a strong season from Westbrook catapult the Lakers into contenders? That’s the hope for Ham. But as of now, their roster is flawed until some of the newcomers prove they can play at a high level.
James reportedly indicated he did not want to play another season with Westbrook, prompting Pelinka to seek a trade. But Westbrook’s worth around the league has dwindled considerably and no contending team would trust him as their starting point guard because of his erosion.
Westbrook parted ways with longtime agent Thad Foucher because Foucher told ESPN his client wanted a trade from the Lakers and accepted the possibility of being bought out of his contract and becoming a free agent again. Foucher suggested Westbrook take his chances by staying with the Lakers.
Actually, Westbrook’s numbers weren’t ghastly. It’s just he failed to deliver in crucial moments and his midrange shooting percentage dipped to 38.3 percent and 34 percent on shots in the paint, meaning he was an unreliable scorer when the Lakers pushed the ball.
Westbrook attempted 214 3-pointers above the key and he hit just 56 of those. His insistence on trying to produce offense and his inefficiency damaged the Lakers in their quest to reach the play-in tournament. The positive is Westbrook’s durability: he played in 78 games last season after missing just seven games the previous season.
He averaged a triple-double in his previous season with the Wizards, but he has been a basketball carpetbagger the past few years, playing with Houston, Washington, and the Lakers after leaving Oklahoma City.
The Lakers may not want to acknowledge it right now but Westbrook could be the key to their resurgence. They’re going to have a difficult time trading him, and considering he’s a former MVP and All-NBA player, ta renaissance is possible. The Pacers were considering moving Myles Turner and Buddy Hield to the Lakers for Westbrook, another player, and draft picks, but the Lakers didn’t want to relinquish the picks. With that insistence, Westbrook is going to stay and the Lakers will bank on him being a better version of himself.
FOLLOW THE RULES
Competition committee will continue to tweak
The league made two major rule changes for this season. We discussed the increased penalty for a take foul. The competition committee also will put a larger emphasis on bench decorum, such as bench players standing for the entire game, making contact with players in action, or using unsportsmanlike methods to distract opposing players.
NBA senior vice president for development and training Monty McCutcheon said officials have to constantly reassess the athleticism and skill set of players before making rule changes. So they will be careful about officiating take fouls, knowing there are a handful of players who will eventually master stealing the ball from a dribbler without making contact.
“Every single time in my career when I decided what someone could do at the NBA level, I messed up because the NBA players are so athletic and so gifted in their abilities that we have to make sure,” he said.
McCutcheon said there could be additions or subtractions to rule changes depending on how the first few months of the season go. League officials realize that players will test the limits, especially since officials are adapting to making these potential controversial calls.
“If we see some [bending of the rules] developing, our competition committee will have a voice and say we want that gone, too, and apply that to this penalty,” McCutcheon said. “The non-basketball move I thought would be the hardest and we knocked it out of the park.”
The competition committee will continue to focus on recent changes such as traveling, screening, and freedom of movement.
“Traveling is always going to be a point of emphasis,” McCutcheon said. “It has to be something that we have to continue to emphasize. The evolution of the game will determine what’s next.”
New NBA head of basketball operations Joe Dumars, a Hall of Fame player and world-title executive, brings a different perspective to the competition committee. He doesn’t believe the take foul rule will cause as many collisions as expected. When a player makes what is determined to be a honest play on the ball, a common foul will be called.
“Here’s another thing, in terms of barreling into somebody or jumping into somebody, you take the risk of getting hurt yourself, too,” he said. “So just before you take off and barrel into a guy, you know this is going to be a crash and I’m going to think twice about that.”
Dumars said he smiled when the competition committee met with the players association.
“The only thing that came up right away as I knew it would with the players on the committee and the coaches: “OK, what can we do?’ ” he said. “Whenever there’s a rule change, the first thing [players] always ask is so what can we do about this rule [to get away with it].
“If you’re changing something, almost 100 percent of the time, it’s based on what players feel like they can get away with. And then it builds up to the point where the committee has to do something about this. This has gotten out of hand. If it becomes an avalanche of this, then it falls into this committee. It’s overboard.”
The NBA has a lot of issues to address with the Players Association in building a new collective bargaining agreement but once a deal is reached, as expected, expansion could become a primary goal for team governors. There is an increasing groundswell of support for Seattle as one of the top expansion cities, along with Las Vegas. Seattle was left without a team in 2008 when the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City. The expectation is governors want to expand to 32 teams because of the potential income boost and Seattle is a priority after the abrupt departure by the Sonics. The city has refurbished KeyArena, now Climate Pledge Arena, and the city political infrastructure has changed dramatically since the state legislature practically laughed former NBA Commissioner David Stern out of a 2006 meeting when he suggested the state contribute to a new arena plan. The NBA has privately regretted allowing the Sonics to move but there is no timetable when a new team would surface there. There are several candidates for ownership of a Las Vegas team, including LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather. Las Vegas is breaking ground on a $3 billion stadium project that will build an NBA arena despite the city already having T-Mobile Arena. Las Vegas is preparing for an NBA team and the NBA is expected to eventually accommodate … The 2022-23 NBA schedule is expected to be released this month and it’s no secret the league is trying to wait until the destination of Kevin Durant is determined before scheduling national games for the Nets. The league schedules the most popular and successful teams for nationally televised games and the Nets would be a more attractive ticket with Durant. But the saga is carrying deep into the summer … There is still no resolution to the Miles Bridges situation in Charlotte, although it appears he is highly unlikely to play a game with the franchise this season. Bridges was tabbed as one of the premium restricted free agents on the market until domestic violence charges were levied by his wife. Bridges has pleaded not guilty to three charges and the next hearing date is scheduled Aug. 19. Until then, Bridges will remain unsigned and his NBA future is in jeopardy.