It’s been a tragic and eventful time in America regarding race relations, including the relationship between African-Americans and the police. And two notable stands by the NBA and WNBA occurred last week in trying to foster social improvement and change.
Minnesota Lynx players donned black T-shirts before a WNBA game to honor two African-Americans recently killed by police, and also to honor the five Dallas police officers killed by a sniper. The T-shirts read, “Change Starts with Us” on the front and featured the hashtag “blacklivesmatter.”
Off-duty police officers working security for that Lynx game at the Target Center in Minneapolis walked off in protest. The Lynx players did not wear those T-shirts during the team’s next game.
Meanwhile, to begin the annual ESPY Awards, Carmelo Anthony, who has been quite vocal about athletes being more vocal about societal issues, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James spoke to the audience about acceptance, compassion, and helping their communities.
There has been an increased call for professional athletes to make more statements regarding political and societal issues, but some have refrained for fear of public retribution or the risk of affecting their marketability.
The NBA and WNBA became the first professional sports leagues to march in last month’s New York City Pride Parade. NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the Lynx’s action as well as members of the NBA being vocal about non-league issues.
“I am absolutely in favor of players speaking out and speaking from the heart about whatever issues are important to them,” Silver said. “It’s how this country operates. I’ve had this direct conversation with many of our players, and I’m not one to say they have an obligation to do it, but I think those that feel comfortable doing it and want to speak out, they have this incredible forum to do it, whether it’s in a formal way through media members that are in this room or whether it’s through social media.
“I actually think it demonstrates that these are multidimensional people. They live in this society, and they have strong views about how things should be. So I’m very encouraging of that.”
Silver, however, wasn’t exactly enthralled with the Lynx players making their statement during the pregame by wearing T-shirts over their warm-ups. It seems Silver is encouraging players to make a statement but not as a distraction for the product.
“My preference would be that players adhere to our uniform rules, both in the NBA and the WNBA,” he said. “I think it’s a very slippery slope. As to where you would draw the line when it’s appropriate for a particular player to use that, use a game, pregame, as a political forum, I think it’s a dangerous road for us to go down. So I would greatly prefer that the players use the platform they’re given — social media, press conferences, media in locker rooms — however they want to do it, to make their political points of view be known.”
What’s interesting is that the NBA is still in negotiations with political officials in North Carolina regarding the 2017 All-Star Game, and the controversial bathroom law that has been passed. Silver said the league still hasn’t decided whether to keep the league’s midseason game in Charlotte or switch to perhaps Atlanta.
Asked whether the NBA would make a statement about the issues regarding recent racial tensions, Silver intimated that statements will be at the discretion of the players.
“I do think there is a role for the league to play,” he said. “I think there’s a great tradition in the NBA of players using the NBA as a platform to speak out on issues that are important to them, and often players look to the league for ways in which we can help structure a platform for them to have a voice. It’s something that I’ve talked directly to [players association executive director] Michele Roberts about,” he said.
Silver suggested that Team USA players, during their pre-Olympic tour, would be encouraged to express their opinions. He’s even had conversations with executive director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski about being more proactive.
“I think one of the things we’ve discussed with Jerry Colangelo and Coach K is whether there’s an appropriate forum for them when they’re still in the United States,” he said. “They’re playing several exhibition games in cities like Houston and Los Angeles and maybe potentially picking one of those cities and creating some sort of forum. Maybe it’s an opportunity to sit down with police officers, with local folks, the youth of the community who are directly affected by these issues, to have a platform to talk about these things.
“I think one of the great things about sports is it does bring people together. Without going too long on this, I think part of the fundamental issue is trust, and I think maybe using basketball, using this platform, we can get people having a very healthy dialogue on these issues. In short, I think those are the platforms, whether they’re created by the league or players on their own as opposed to using our uniforms for political expression. My preference would be the former.”
The NBA has taken pride in being the foremost sports league on diversity and being proactive on social issues, and its refusal to commit to North Carolina for the All-Star Game confirms that. Perhaps it’s time for its players — and management — to be more vocal. And that includes the entire league, not just the African-American players.
Celtics’ roster puts Ainge to test
In addition to trying to swing a deal for another premium player, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has watched the development of the summer league team closely because he has some difficult roster decisions in the coming weeks.
He offered his thoughts on the team’s younger core, including third overall pick Jaylen Brown and last year’s 16th overall pick, Terry Rozier, who appears to have made a big improvement from last season.
“I think they’ve been impressive,” Ainge said of the younger core. “I have enjoyed watching [the young guys] and I think Terry and Jaylen have particularly stood out. They’ve also gotten the most opportunities and I think everyone else has had good moments with the opportunities that they’ve had. But it’s hard to give everybody the same opportunities.”
Given the roster was filled with first- and second-round picks, the Celtics were expected to go deep in the Las Vegas summer league tournament. But Boston lost its first two games, beat the Mavericks, and then lost to the Cavaliers in the elimination round. The Cavaliers featured a slew of NBA free agents and journeymen, but no first-round picks.
“I’m looking at the team we played [Tuesday against Dallas] and the team we played [Wednesday against Cleveland] and they’ve got some college seniors who have been pros and 23- and 24-year-olds, regardless of what round they’re drafted in,” Ainge said. “It’s different than 19-year-olds.”
One of the bigger surprises of summer league has been 58th overall pick Abdel Nader of Iowa State, who has averaged 9.1 points and was the second-best Celtics draft pick behind Brown. Nader is expected to join NBADL Portland this season.
“He’s played well, he’s made shots and defended well and rebounded,” Ainge said. “He attacks closeouts pretty well [on defense]. He’s been good.”
What Ainge has to deal with — as does every general manager — is the $20 million spike in the salary cap, which has complicated signings and escalated salaries.
“We’ve all known about [the expected increase] for a while and the players are benefiting and the teams are benefiting and it’s a win-win,” Ainge said. “The NBA is thriving and everybody involved, it’s a good time to be in the NBA.”
Ainge astutely signed Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to long-term extensions that now appear to be bargains, while he acquired Isaiah Thomas with three years remaining and about $18 million on his deal.
“Those are good for our team but those guys will get their chance,” Ainge said. “Everybody that’s in the NBA right now, there’s a lot of guys that have sort of survived in the NBA for the last seven or eight years, you wouldn’t say thrived, that are getting paid a lot of money, too. If you can sustain it and stay in the game, there’s enough for everybody, all the players. That’s an exciting thing.”
Thomas, in Las Vegas last week, said the Celtics better bring a “Brink’s truck” to negotiations when he becomes a free agent after the 2017-18 season. Thomas, an All-Star, is currently making less than Milwaukee’s Matthew Dellavedova, New Orleans’s Solomon Hill, Miami’s Tyler Johnson, and Brooklyn’s Jeremy Lin.
“Well hey, he sees what guys are making all around the league,” Ainge said. “And so does Avery, so does Jae Crowder, and they know they’re better than a lot of guys who just got paid a lot of money. Their time will all come. I laugh at [those statements]; I think it’s all funny. There’s a lot of money for everybody and that means it’s a healthy league.”
Durant signing benefits Dallas
Who has been the unintended beneficiary of Kevin Durant’s signing with the Golden State Warriors? That would be the Dallas Mavericks, who capitalized on the Warriors’ roster purge to clear salary cap space for Durant by signing Harrison Barnes and acquiring Andrew Bogut.
The Mavericks also brought back point guard Deron Williams and emerging forward Dwight Powell, while adding shooter Seth Curry. They also re-signed all-time franchise great Dirk Nowitzki to a two-year, $40 million contract.
As usual, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was opinionated in his assessment of his roster, the increasing NBA salaries, and the adjustment to the “Hack-a-Shaq” rule that penalizes intentional fouling in the final two minutes of each quarter.
“Yeah, Golden State south,” Cuban said about the acquisitions. “Harrison will get a chance to expand his game and [Wesley Matthews] will be fully healthy. Deron Williams, Harrison, Dirk, Andrew, that’s not a bad starting five, and we’ve got some of our guys coming back. So we’ll be all right.
“We’ve put together a nice little squad, I’m excited about it. We’ve got a good starting five and got a good group of young guys that I think are going to be able to contribute and will get better over time. It’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to it. We’ve got some good kids.”
Meanwhile, while the Mavericks essentially benefited from the Durant signing, Adam Silver said Golden State’s decision to form a “superteam” was not “ideal from a league standpoint.”
“It’s hard to say because Adam’s got to deal with all the owners,” Cuban said. “And so it’s hard when you look at it. It’s like when LeBron [James] went to Miami with Chris Bosh, on paper it looked brutal [for the rest of the league]. And they won a couple [of championships] but they didn’t win that first time [losing to Cuban’s Mavericks]. And [Durant] is just on a one-year deal, and so it’s a lot harder than it seems and superteams have a way of not working out quite as well as people expect.”
There was even speculation that the Warriors were interested in Nowitzki, who opted out of the final year of his contract and briefly became a free agent. With Durant leaving Oklahoma City and Wade shockingly leaving the Heat after 13 years for the Bulls, was there any possibility of Nowitzki leaving Dallas?
“Dirk wasn’t going anywhere,” Cuban said. “Dirk and Dallas, Dallas and Dirk, they’re synonymous. I understand and respect why D-Wade did what he did but there was never any doubt [about Nowitzki staying in Dallas], Dirk gets what Dirk wants.”
Silver reiterated several times during the past few years that he wanted to adjust the intentional foul rules. Coaches, including the Celtics’ Brad Stevens, increasingly chose to foul poor free throw shooters to limit scoring.
Poor free throw shooters such as Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, and Clint Capela would be fouled away from the ball with their teams in the bonus and forced to shoot two free throws. The constant fouling slowed the pace of the game and there was speculation that there would be a stringent penalty for intentional fouling away from the ball.
The league compromised and ruled that teams would receive two free throws and possession for away-from-the-ball intentional fouls in the last two minutes of each quarter. Cuban didn’t agree with the change.
“Look, I wasn’t a fan of rewarding incompetence but I understood why the changes were made and it’s actually not so bad,” he said. “Yeah, there’s only like five or six guys that it really impacts. Trade them all to me and I’ll teach them how to shoot free throws.”
And finally, Cuban said the league’s escalating salaries was a byproduct of league success: “The league prospered because the [players] do what they do. So we call get to share in all the success and that’s the important part.”
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An emerging coaching prospect is Cavaliers assistant Phil Handy, whose speech while the Cavaliers trailed in the NBA Finals sparked the team’s comeback. Handy is coaching the Cavaliers’ summer league team in Las Vegas and reached the semifinals despite a roster filled with free agents and journeymen. Handy, who was also the Lakers’ player development coach for two seasons, has been instrumental in working with guard Kyrie Irving. NBA teams give assistant coaches who aspire to be head coaches an opportunity to lead the summer team. The Celtics split their coaching duties with assistants Micah Shrewsbury (Utah) and Jamie Young (Las Vegas) . . . There has been communication between representatives of Brandon Bass and the Celtics. Bass, who opted out of the final year of his contract with the Lakers, is a free agent who played four seasons with the Celtics before signing with Los Angeles when Boston added Amir Johnson. The Celtics have their cap room exception of $2.89 million. After allowing Jared Sullinger to sign with the Raptors, the Celtics have two true power forwards on their roster in Johnson and Jordan Mickey. Boston has 13 players under guaranteed contracts if restricted free agent Tyler Zeller is not included. First-round picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic are expected to remain overseas. Danny Ainge said a decision should be made this week. With Jaylen Brown expected to be the lone rookie on the roster, the Celtics may have a roster opening . . . Vying for an NBA training camp invite is former UMass forward Raphiael Putney, who has played all over the map since finishing his college eligibility in 2014. He has played in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Malaysia, and Venezuela as well as the NBADL. Putney has turned himself into a dependable 3-point shooter and has come off the bench for the Cavaliers. Former UMass forward Cady Lalanne is playing for the Spurs. Lalanne, the team’s second-round pick in 2015, played in the NBADL last season.
Winds of change
Dwyane Wade’s decision to join his hometown Chicago Bulls leaves his former team, the Miami Heat, bereft of one their franchise icons. The 13-year veteran, who won three championships and made 12 All Star teams with Miami, is one of just eight players to make 10 All Star teams with a team before leaving and playing with another.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.