Sunday, February 5 2023

The latest from the never-ending mess that is the Brooklyn Nets is apparently that superstar forward Kevin Durant wanted to be traded — and wanted former head coach Steve Nash fired — because, in part, the team’s practices weren’t hard enough and didn’t include enough defensive drills.

So exactly how many NBA teams actually make closeout and defensive shell drills a regular part of practice these days?

That question was posed to a sampling of league GMs, coaches and scouts. Answer: not many and not often.

“Training camp and possibly, briefly, on practice days when there are multiple days between games, which are few,” said one front-office executive and former player about when coaches generally make defensive drills part of a practice.

One assistant coach was baffled by Durant’s complaint because he’d heard Durant preferred the one-on-one tutelage of his personally hired trainers.

“What he’s saying doesn’t fit with what I’ve heard,” he said. “I’m told he wants his people in the gym working him out.”

A second assistant coach, though, suggested Durant’s complaint was inspired by the fact that he had defense-focussed practices playing under assistant coach Ron Adams in both Oklahoma City and Golden State. “Ron did it daily,” the assistant coach said. “Best defensive coach in the NBA.”

Nash played the majority of his career for offensive-minded coaches in Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni, who also served as one of Nash’s assistants his first year on the job. “D’Antoni rarely did a drill that emphasized defense,” a former assistant coach said. “Down the stretch, many coaches lean on timely stops and high-end competitive motivation.”

Times have also changed. Expanded team medical staffs and increased player empowerment has resulted in increasingly fewer and less intense practices. Even defensive-minded teams who might make such drills a regular part of practice rarely spend more than 10 minutes on them. “All of the defenses I was in charge of did a variation of shell daily,” the former assistant said. “You can’t do it for long or incredibly intense, but you have to touch it. You are what you emphasize. It does get frustrating when your heavy-minute guys, especially star players, sit out that portion of a practice.”

Durant praised Nash’s replacement, Jacque Vaughn, for putting a greater emphasis on defense. But the timing of Durant’s comments amused the former assistant coach because they came immediately after the Nets gave up a season-high 153 points and lost by 32 to the Sacramento Kings.

“No disrespect, but there was no ‘Run TMC’ or ‘7 Seconds or Less’ Phoenix team in the opposing locker room,” he said.

WHAT HAPPENED TO TANKING FOR WEMBANYAMA? The race to secure the draft rights to Victor Wembanyama, the league’s presumptive next-generational talent, so far has not gone as anticipated. 

When the Utah Jazz traded stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell over the summer for draft picks and young players, the assumption, inside and outside the league, was that they were aiming for the top of the draft, not the top of the standings. Yet going into this weekend, the Jazz have the sixth-best record (10-6) in the entire league and would not even be eligible for the lottery that decides which team will get the No. 1 pick.

The Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers were the other teams that were believed to be committed to losing their way into prime positions in the Wembanyama sweepstakes. None of them, though, are currently among the three worst teams in the league, all of whom have equal odds of landing the No. 1 pick in the league’s revamped lottery system.

An Eastern Conference GM believes those teams are just being shrewd. 

“You never want to start the season preaching in the locker room, ‘We’re going to be bad,’” he said. “You’re going to need some of those young players to be part of your team going forward, and once you introduce the idea that losing is OK into your franchise, it can be hard to get it out. You can win 30 games and finish eighth or ninth (from the bottom) and still give yourself a chance at the No. 1 pick while developing your team.”

A Western Conference GM suggested the aforementioned teams will need to make moves if they’re genuinely committed to being at the top of the draft. 

“The Jazz and Pacers have too many good veteran players to truly tank,” he said. “They would need to trade guys. The (Bojan) Bogdanović for (Kelly) Olynyk deal was indicative that (the Jazz) wanted to compete. I’m told Indy ownership isn’t in on a rebuild, either. And San Antonio can’t tank with (Jacob) Poeltl playing. He’s too much of a defender and rebounder. If you defend and rebound every night, which is what the Spurs have done, you’re going to win some games.”

The Eastern Conference GM believes Thunder GM Sam Presti might be in the toughest position to tank, with a load of young talent hungry to prove themselves, led by a burgeoning star in point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “What is Sam going to tell Shai?” the GM asked. “No matter how good Wembanyama is going to be, Year 1 is going to be a growth year for him. It’s probably Year 2 or 3. Which means Shai is going to be 27 or 28 before Wembanyama is ready to help him do anything.”

The NBA governors agreeing to change the lottery odds in 2019 also has lessened the need to be overt about losing. The top four slots in the draft — rather than top three — are now decided by the lottery and the three worst records all have the same percentage chance (14.5) of getting the No. 1 pick. 

There’s also this: The team with the worst record has only landed the No. 1 pick eight times in 38 years.

Overall, the Eastern Conference GM said it’s too early to determine which teams are truly committed to losing. 

“Once we hit the 25-game mark, the teams that are after Wembanyama will allow themselves to be walked down,” he said.

In other words, tanking for Wembanyama is still going to happen — teams are just being a little slicker about it.

GRADING THE KYRIE SAGA PARTICIPANTS: There’s anticipation that Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving’s open-ended suspension could end this weekend. He has missed eight games so far in what was originally announced as a minimum five-game suspension by Nets owner Joe Tsai. Irving’s reinstatement depended on his completion of a six-point list that included a public apology and meetings with both local Jewish representatives and the director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Whenever and however the suspension ends, the general consensus within front offices is that everyone involved — Irving, Tsai, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA Players Association — contributed to make the controversy a dark cloud hanging over the league a lot longer than needed.

Irving exacerbated it by being slow to apologize. Tsai exacerbated it by making the suspension open-ended and the six-point list public. Silver and the players union exacerbated it by not immediately challenging Tsai’s actions, which clearly violate the league’s collective bargaining agreement as far as how punishment can be meted.

“You can’t have an open-ended punishment,” a Western Conference scout said. “They could have made it three games if he didn’t apologize and 10 games if he didn’t. The issue isn’t the punishment, it’s the application.”

League sources do not expect Irving to complete the six-point list, specifically the one requiring him to meet with the Anti-Defamation League after it publicly refused to accept Irving’s donation of $500,000. Which means if Irving is reinstated, anyway, Tsai’s credibility will take a hit. And if he holds firm, a fight between the players union and the league is almost sure to ensue, allowing the dark cloud to remain.

The Western Conference scout applauded the Boston Celtics, conversely, for how they handled the suspension of head coach Ime Udoka over allegations of sexual harassment.

“They acted swiftly and there’s been no subsequent leakage from the organization about the incident,” he said. “They handled it as well as they could.”

Whenever the Irving ordeal is finally over, the scout is convinced the Nets will have to make major changes. 

“Joe Tsai is going to have to clean house after this,” he said. “They are damaged goods.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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