We Got A Logo And Everything
Famed hype man LaVar Ball took to social media yesterday to announce he was building his own junior basketball league that he has dubbed the “Junior Basketball Association” or JBA.
While we’re not going to spend a lot of time on Ball or how he has managed to continue to stay in the press. The idea of a league for players just out of high school but not interested in college is interesting on a couple of fronts.
Before we get too deep into this, there is a strong chance the NBA and the Players Association are going to do away with the much-maligned “One and Done” rule that requires a player to be one year removed from his high school graduating class and turn 19 in the year he is drafted.
The prevailing belief in NBA circles is that likely for the 2020 draft, the NBA will opt for a rule that allows players to come straight from high school into the NBA or stay in college for at least two seasons if not more.
It’s far from decided, but it seems the winds of change are pushing more in that direction than continuing to have the current rule.
So why is Big Baller’s idea interesting if the NBA is going to squash the appeal fairly soon? The NBA isn’t going to take everyone, and Ball’s league could bridge a gap that many have tried to bridge before him.
So, let’s dig into it:
The idea of creating an environment were players who are not interested in the politics of college basketball can be paid to train and develop is not new, virtually ever other year someone surfaces with a dream of building a league to poach some of the top high school talents and bank on them like the NCAA does. The problem is that paying the players isn’t always easy.
Ball’s plan suggests that he’ll pay players up to $10,000 per month. With the average player making a figure closer to $3,000 a month. That all sounds attractive, but how long is the season?
Ball’s own sons recently made news signing a professional deal in Lithuania. However, industry insiders say the deal is basically for $4,000 and what is likely going to be four games, almost no one expects them to be on the roster beyond that stint.
So how long is the JBA season? That will factor into the appeal of any new league significantly. Equally how many games? And what’s the coaching and training staff look like?
Those are all going to factor into a big chunk of overhead on any new start-up team, beyond a payroll that could clock in at $35,000 a month.
As much as people like to talk about the appeal of young guys, can they really generate attendance of 2,000 to 3,000 per game? The G-League isn’t doing that on a regular basis, and they have the sales support of their parent NBA teams.
Equally are the top 10 collegiate prospects going to turn away the likes of the famed college programs such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke for a few months in Ballerville for $30,000-$40,000?
If the answer is no, will the next 20 players in any particular high school class draw enough attention to meet payroll? Let alone the other costs of the league.
Arenas Are Not Cheap
Speaking of costs, ever try and rent a gym? How about an arena?
Orlando’s Amway Arena runs roughly $15,000 plus actual staff expenses for things like fundraisers and graduations. A concert, which is what the JBA would likely fall under, would run north of $50,000 per event date. That’s in Central Florida, not a major metro situation like New York or Chicago where competition for large event space is much higher.
The idea that a new startup league is going to play in NBA sized venues is a bit misplaced, especially if it’s happening concurrently with the NBA season. So that means the league is moving to smaller venues, which would cap attendance.
You can also cross off using any venue that has an association with a Division 1 NCAA school, again they are going to have first rights to dates, and they are going to view any league pulling talent away as a competitor.
It’s not going to be impossible to find spaces, but it does mean those spaces may not be the most desirable and they will be limiting on a lot of fronts.
Travel Is A Big Factor
So, the idea is for a 10-team league in places like Los Angeles, Dallas, Brooklyn, and Atlanta. While all of these are major airline destinations, the travel is still a killer. It’s been what’s killed other startup leagues because it’s an area of expense you cannot monetize.
If you host a game, you can at least charge for tickets, sell advertising and sponsorships and, if you are lucky, sell broadcasting rights.
You can’t exactly attach a sponsor to your road trip expenses.
So again, how long is the season? If every team plays each other one time, each team incurs ten travel dates. If the new league travels like the G-League travels, they will fly the day before the game because commercial travel is unpredictable. They would incur a hotel night the night before the game and the day of the game. Then travel to the next stop.
So, let’s say the new league does a deal with a major hotel chain and gets a flat rate for all their nights at something close to the median rate of $130 a night for a Courtyard by Marriott type hotel (which is what the G-League does), the real costs of travel (based on rates today) is about $150 a leg for airfare on an airline like Southwest, plus two nights hotel at $130 per night, plus food. So, lets generously call that $560 per player.
Assume JBA teams travel just like G-League teams, and send three coaches and an executive/GM type and no parents. That’s 12 heads times $560 per road trip or $6.720. Multiple that by ten road games.
By the way, we didn’t account for bus services to and from the airports or the hotels.
Equally, anyone that travels to major cities will tell you, good luck finding travel accommodations at those kinds of prices, especially during peak travel windows. But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume the new league can make great corporate deals with an unproven, untested product.
Let’s also forget that most major NCAA programs travel charter and stay in four and five-star hotels when they travel and that the players coming to the JBA will be open to staying several steps down the ladder to be part of a league that most won’t see play.
Here is where Ball may have an advantage: broadcast rights.
Last year, rapper and media mogul Ice Cube and several business partners launched an upstart 3-on-3 league featuring mostly retired NBA basketball players called the Big3. Not only did Fox Sports go all in on the Big3 in a major way, but they have also renewed for a second season and have made a commitment to carry many games live.
Ball’s family already has a multi-million dollar relationship with Facebook for their own reality television show, which Facebook renewed for a second season. Could that be where Ball’s JBA finds its golden parachute? ESPN is what’s made The Basketball Tournament (TBT) viable.
Could Facebook be the answer to the JBA’s problems? That’s a very real thing.
Where most upstart leagues that have tried to tackle this problem have run into problems is that some media partners have been willing to license their games, but most won’t eat the production costs.
With new broadcast players entering the streaming sports market every year, could the desire for content provide the revenue to make all of this work?
That’s where the incredibly media savvy Ball may have a leg up on others that have tried to fill this gap because he has business relationships in that space already.
Selling The League
Let’s also be realistic about the long-game for any of these leagues. If anyone wants to have a long-term business in this particular space, they are going to need major backing. While media companies may latch on for a rights fee, the real value in something like this is if it is can be sold.
The NBA is taking an increasingly active role in youth level basketball, announcing this month that they will get behind a Jr. NBA Tournament series, much like the Little League World Series. They are investing in NBA branded training academies all over the world to help develop the next generation of basketball players. So, a league like this might be something the NBA looks at partnering with.
If you think back to the beginning days of the NBA minor league, it started with acquiring existing markets that were part of the Continental Basketball Association.
The CBA might not be the best example, though, because they overplayed their hand and ultimately lost out on a major payday. The NBA eventually gobbled up some individual teams on their own after the CBA crumbled, as well. Still, the idea is the same.
If a league like this has success, and really solves the gap, would the NBA or another major entity get involved in a way to give it the resources and support to thrive?
Selling The Players
Something no one involved in these kinds of endeavors talks about is that fact that a league like this could do the same thing international teams do with young players, and that is to sign them, develop them and then sell them off to the NBA or other pro leagues with hefty buyouts.
The current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement allows NBA teams to pay up to $700,000 towards the buyout of a professional contract for the 2018-19 season. That number increases every year by roughly $25,000.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once speculated that it might be a good business for someone with the capital to gobble up 8 to 10 of the top high school freshman, pay for their development and then bank on two or three of them becoming top ten picks.
Nothing in the NBA would bar a team from buying out a professional contract issued in the United States.
If the JBA league brings in 80 players a season, and 10 of them become top 20 picks, and they can command the full allowable NBA buyout, that’s $7 million a year in buyout money.
Equally, the JBA could do the same internationally, although likely at a smaller value. The G-League has buyouts in their contracts worth between $40,000 and $50,000 for players signed to their league that opt to leave mid-season. That buyout is paid either by the acquiring team or the player himself.
With the emergence of two-way contracts in the NBA, roughly 60 players that would have normally played abroad opted to stay in the NBA. If the trend continues, international teams will need a pipeline to promising talent and a bridge league like the JBA—one that was smart about the players it targeted—could fill that gap too.
While the idea of a bridge league to cover the gap between high school and NBA eligibility has been kicked around a lot over the years, there may be an interesting convergence of timing, media publicity and desire for content that makes this league idea more viable than ones that have come before it.
Regardless of how you feel about LaVar Ball or his antics, he has lived this problem with his two sons. As investment people will tell you, the best business ideas are the ones that solve a real problem.
The challenge for any new league doing this is at any point, the NBA could change their rules and make the problem the league solves obsolete.
As they say, timing is often everything.
Can Ball and the JBA get their league off the ground before the NBA decides to address the issue?
That is one of the biggest questions of them all.
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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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