The NBA’s bumpy road to a new season
By Sopan Deb
The NBA began a new season Tuesday under a cloud of scandals and drama that has distracted from the basketball and that has challenged the progressive image the league has long cultivated.
“I think right now the best thing that can happen is the season start on the court,” said Chris Mullin, a Hall of Fame former player.
Last season’s finals teams — Golden State and Boston — are navigating internal crises. Two teams in top media markets — the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers — are trying to integrate their stars.
And a situation in Phoenix has brought the league’s leaders and image under scrutiny. The majority owner of the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury, Robert Sarver, was found to have used racial slurs and engaged in sexist behavior over many years, but the league’s punishment — a $10 million fine and one-year suspension — was immediately criticized by players and fans as being too light. Soon, under public pressure, Sarver said he would sell the teams.
Though there are still many things for fans to be excited about, such as a new rule to speed up games and the improved health of some injured stars, several issues are lingering as the season gets underway.
How will Draymond Green’s punch affect Golden State?
After defeating the Celtics in six games to win the NBA championship in June, Golden State looked poised for a strong campaign in pursuit of a repeat. Then TMZ posted a video of forward Draymond Green punching his teammate Jordan Poole during a practice this month.
“I don’t think anyone could watch that and not say that it’s upsetting,” said Mullin, who spent most of his 16-year career with Golden State and is now a broadcaster for the team. “It’s unacceptable behavior.”
After Green was fined and agreed to stay away from the team for about a week, Golden State welcomed him back and publicly put on a “Nothing To See Here” face. Green apologized privately and publicly, and Poole said Sunday that they would coexist professionally.
But Golden State has been criticized for not levying a harsher punishment, like a suspension for some regular-season games. coach Steve Kerr said criticism was “fair.”
Mullin said that for the team to survive the incident, Green would need to show “genuine effort to make amends on a daily basis.”
Suns owner Sarver’s misconduct casts a shadow.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was left fielding rare, pointed criticism from top players after announcing Sarver’s punishment last month. An independent investigation determined that Sarver had treated female employees unfairly over several years, among other instances of workplace misconduct.
“I’ve always looked at Adam as a great leader of an organization, but I’ve never conflated who Adam Silver works for,” Jay Williams, an ESPN analyst and former NBA player, said, referring to the team owners.
Though the investigators enumerated many examples of Sarver’s use of racial slurs and mistreatment of women, they said there was “no finding that Sarver’s conduct was motivated by racial or gender-based animus.” Silver stood by the report when asked about that finding.
Some of the league’s top players, including Lakers forward LeBron James and Suns guard Chris Paul, criticized Silver as being too lenient on Sarver. Eventually, it wasn’t the league and its team owners who pushed Sarver out: Sarver said he would sell the Phoenix basketball franchises amid pressure from players, fans and sponsors like PayPal, which said it would discontinue its partnership with the Suns if Sarver returned after his suspension.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s suspension is a mystery.
The Celtics unexpectedly found themselves appointing an interim coach just months after coach Ime Udoka — whose rise had seemed to many to be a feel-good success story — led them to the NBA Finals.
On Sept. 22, the team suspended Udoka for a year under mysterious circumstances vaguely described as involving violations of team rules. According to two people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to discuss it publicly, Udoka had a relationship with a female subordinate.
The players seemed stunned, and the team’s decision to say so little about what happened has had painful consequences: Many people on social media have speculated about which women on the Celtics’ staff might have been involved with Udoka.
Boston named Joe Mazzulla, 34, one of Udoka’s assistants, as the interim head coach for the season. The Celtics are still expected to be one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, but the sudden change in leadership may be difficult for a team with young stars still trying to establish themselves.
The trade rumors of the summer aren’t over yet.
The talk of the summer was a surprising trade request in June from Nets forward Kevin Durant, who said he was unhappy with the team’s discipline and direction. Nearly two months after he asked out of Brooklyn, Durant and the Nets “agreed to move forward with our partnership,” leaving behind a trail of trade rumors.
“I want to be in a place that’s stable and trying to build a championship culture,” Durant said on the team’s media day last month. “So, I had some doubts about that.”
Last season was rough for the Nets, who were swept by Boston in the first round of the playoffs and were often without guard Kyrie Irving because he refused coronavirus vaccinations. That meant he could not play in home games for most of the season because of New York City rules. He, too, was involved in trade rumors this summer.
Irving said that he had some options to move on from the Nets, but he ultimately decided to pick up his player option for the 2022-23 season. Several media reports linked him to the Lakers, who have an unhappy star of their own: guard Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook, a nine-time All-Star and the 2016-17 MVP, spent the summer being the constant subject of trade rumors after the Lakers shockingly missed the 2022 playoffs. The specter of a trade looms over the team.
A new rule and stars’ returns could up the excitement.
On the court, fans can look to two key changes that could lead to more enjoyable games: a new rule to reduce transition take fouls and the returns of several stars who had been injured.
Intentional fouls to stop fast breaks — also known as take fouls — will now be further penalized with an automatic free throw. These fouls have become more prevalent in recent years and have been criticized for how they impede potentially exciting plays. According to the NBA, there were an average of 1.4 transition take fouls per game last season for a total of 1,722. The players that were fouled the most this way: Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray, then with the San Antonio Spurs (28); Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (27); and the Lakers’ James (22).
The new rule could free up James just as he is closing in on a milestone: passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the top spot on the NBA’s career scoring list. James is 1,325 points behind Abdul-Jabbar, which makes it likely that he will attain first place this season.
James, 37, is the marquee star in a league that arguably depends on star power more than other professional sports leagues. Several elite players who were missing for most or all of last season are expected to be healthy and available as the season gets underway, including Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers; Ben Simmons of the Nets; and Anthony Davis of the Lakers.