Behind the scenes of a hardship deal: ‘It’s like getting drafted again’

This NBA season has included constant updates about players entering COVID health and safety protocols and led to the return of some beloved veterans getting another shot to play in the league. While the daily COVID carousel has affected numerous …

This NBA season has included constant updates about players entering COVID health and safety protocols and led to the return of some beloved veterans getting another shot to play in the league.

While the daily COVID carousel has affected numerous stars and decimated teams, it’s been a silver lining for players who thought their NBA journeys were over.

“I didn’t think this was possible, to be honest with you,” Celtics guard Joe Johnson told HoopsHype. “As you get older, you’re like a dinosaur. Nobody thinks you can play in your 40s.”

Yet, here we are. Johnson’s second stint with the Celtics comes 20 years after his first one, the longest gap for an NBA player in history.

Along with Johnson, HoopsHype spoke with Mavericks guard Brandon Knight and Hawks guard Lance Stephenson about how their 10-day hardship exception deals and NBA returns happened behind the scenes.

How do NBA executives approach out of shape players?

The NBA has seen superstars like James Harden and Zion Williamson begin the season out of shape, and it’s hurt their team performances. Whether it’s a superstar, starter, or role player off the bench, addressing a player who’s out of shape can be an …

The NBA has seen superstars like James Harden and Zion Williamson begin the season out of shape, and it’s hurt their team performances.

Whether it’s a superstar, starter, or role player off the bench, addressing a player who’s out of shape can be an awkward conversation for an executive, coach, or training staff member.

So how do teams handle a player who is out of shape?

HoopsHype spoke with four NBA executives and one NBA agent to learn how front office members handle that situation.

The NBA newsletter business behind the scenes: ‘It’s exciting, but it’s also more work’

The trending way for many media members to pursue their journalistic aspirations, either by choice or following layoffs, is through subscription newsletters, and NBA journalists are no exception. So how’s the subscription newsletter path going for …

The trending way for many media members to pursue their journalistic aspirations, either by choice or following layoffs, is through subscription newsletters, and NBA journalists are no exception.

So how’s the subscription newsletter path going for them? It varies, as with the rest of the media world, during these times. A few writers left established organizations and took a gamble on Substack, others parlayed newsletters into new jobs, some are managing, and remaining writers have multiple jobs outside of journalism.

HoopsHype spoke with Marc Stein, Ethan Strauss from House of Strauss, TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott, Scott Agness of FieldHouse Files, Jonathan Macri from Knicks Film School, Quinton Mayo of May-Oh’s Wizards newsletter, media analyst Simon Owens and other writers to explain how the subscription NBA newsletter business is working behind the scenes.

Restricted free agency behind the scenes: ‘It’s not really free agency’

A look behind the scenes at restricted free agency from NBA agents and executives who spoke with HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto.

Following lucrative deals for Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and Robert Williams, other players also on rookie-scale salaries hope to sign extensions before the Oct. 18 deadline to avoid an undesirable situation: restricted free agency.

Among those are Suns center Deandre Ayton, Cavs guard Collin Sexton and Grizzlies center Jaren Jackson Jr.

When the sides fail to agree to an extension, negotiations between executives and agents often become heated during restricted free agency.

“I was threatened by the GM,” one NBA agent told HoopsHype. “He was going to tell my client that I was f—— up the deal. I told him, ‘My client is in the other room. Do you think he doesn’t know what our conversation is? We’re going back and forth right now. There’s no way that he’s going to think I’m f—— this up.'”

To get a sense of how restricted free agency works behind the scenes and more anecdotes like the one above, HoopsHype spoke with five total agents and executives.

How players make money off NBA Top Shot

NBA Top Shot is the newest trending topic. Tyrese Haliburton, Josh Hart, Terry Rozier and Terrence Ross explain how it’s changed basketball.

NBA Top Shot started as a curiosity for players and fans that has rapidly become a trending topic across the country over the past month.

Why pay and try to collect players’ highlights? That’s a question players and fans initially asked when they could go on YouTube and just watch them. Over the past couple of weeks, however, several NBA players have taken up Top Shot as a hobby and learned it can be an investment opportunity while increasing their engagement with fans in the process. Since then, players have tweeted about Top Shot more often, and it’s become a conversation starter on and off the court.

“For some reason, a lot of f*cking moments are against the Pelicans,” New Orleans guard Josh Hart told HoopsHype while laughing. “Either someone scoring against the Pelicans, Rudy Gobert blocking my damn layup, or some bullsh*t like that. We played the Jazz. I think Gobert’s getting into it (Top Shot). He had a dunk. It wasn’t on me, but I was in the general vicinity, and he knows I do Top Shot. He looked at me while we were running back and he said like, ‘There’s a Top Shot moment right there.’ I was like, ‘Ah, f*ck you.’”

A few days later, Hart had a conversation with teammate Zion Williamson that provided a glimpse into the financial impact Top Shot can have.

“We were going through a walkthrough in San Antonio, and somebody was trying to sell me one of Zion’s moments,” Hart explained. “I think he wanted like $7,500 or something like that. I showed Zion the price of how much people are selling his moments and a lot of them were putting astronomical numbers there. The amount of money people spend on his moments is crazy. I showed him that the other day and he was like, ‘What the f*ck?’ Maybe we can get him on there at one point.”

In addition to Hart, HoopsHype spoke with Kings two-time Rookie of the Month Tyrese Haliburton, Hornets guard Terry Rozier, Magic guard Terrence Ross, G League player Malcolm Miller, and others to learn more about Top Shot’s financial impact on the players and how it’s changing the game.

How David Nurse combined NBA skills development, mental health

Former Nets shooting coach David Nurse has trained over 150 NBA players for an unshakeable mindset with mental health and skills development

David Nurse, the nephew of Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse, is combining NBA skills development and mental health to form an unshakeable mindset to optimize a player’s performance on and off the court.

“The NBA is weird and ever-changing,” as Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk told HoopsHype. “Sometimes, you feel on top of the world feeling great. Other times, you feel like you don’t know if you’re going to play again. I think in four years in Boston, I don’t think I had one DNP (did not play). When I get to Miami, and you’re healthy and you’re dressed for the game and you get a DNP, that’s tough.”

Nurse, who previously worked for the Brooklyn Nets as a shooting coach, has trained over 150 NBA players, including Olynyk, All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lin, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Rui Hachimura, and others.

During his time working with players on the court and speaking with them outside the lines, Nurse realized there’s more to development than just mechanics and repetition.

“I felt like I was shooting the ball really well in drills and practice, but in the game, it just wasn’t connecting,” Powell told HoopsHype. “I wasn’t finding my flow and my rhythm in the games. Since then, me and David have been working on breaking down my game, sending me clips, and asking me different questions that aren’t usually asked when you’re working with your coach and watching film and what I saw from my perspective. He asked me a bunch of questions about what I thought about the game, my confidence level, and gave me a different perspective on how I approach the game and how I viewed myself.”

The key for Nurse was transferring a player’s successful mindset in practice or a private workout into games with fans in the stands and increased pressure to perform.

“He’ll go further into detail and what was my confidence level heading into the game?” Powell added. “How did I feel during my shooting time? Was there anything in the game that I wasn’t so confident about or I didn’t feel right about? Where was my mind at in terms of letting things go? Was I able to stay in the present moment if I had a turnover late in the game? Did I hang my head on that and let it bother me the rest of the game where I couldn’t focus on helping the team get a win?”

Powell, 27, has taken his game to new heights working with Nurse shooting a career-best 49.5 percent from the field last season and 43.8 percent from beyond the arc so far this season. He’s become a consistent 16-point per game scorer the past two seasons and is setting himself up for a potential pay raise if he declines his $11.6 million player option this offseason.

Other players see their names in trade rumors constantly with mobile alerts and fans chastising them with occasional threats after a bad game, turnover, or missed shot during the social media era. To perform at a high level, an athlete needs mental fortitude to block out any distractions. Amid a global pandemic, it’s even more critical than ever with daily changes for all of society.

“So much of the game now is just having confidence,” Olynyk explained. “Whether you’re a star player, you need that confidence out there every night to do stuff, or you’re a role player, someone who might only get three or four opportunities, and you’ve got to make sure you’re making the right decisions. If you only have two shots, you’ve got to step up and shoot those with confidence. If you waver at all, you might not get those opportunities again.”

According to Nurse, there will always be different circumstances on the outside, but in your head, you can control that environment.

“His deal is all about, can you get to that mindset, and that zone as many times as possible?” Olynyk said. “And when you get there, you feel like you can’t be stopped.”

To maintain that belief in a player as often as possible, Nurse outlined seven steps to achieve unshakeable confidence.

Confidence through comparison

In this step, a player compares himself to a player who he believes he can become. Kobe Bryant compared himself to Michael Jordan, studied everything he did on the court and mirrored many of his moves. In Powell’s case, he compares himself to Dwyane Wade.

[lawrence-related id=1446679]

Confidence through strength focus

The goal of this step is to focus on a player’s strengths instead of his weaknesses. Some players are elite at one skill like shooting such as Kyle Korver, who became one of the league’s top shooters all-time instead of marginally improving as a better ball-handler or playmaker off the dribble.

Confidence through redefining vocabulary

Often, players will be asked about dealing with failure, pressure, or a  shooting slump. The word slump has a negative connotation. To combat that mindset, Nurse has shown his clients star players they look up to such as Bryant shooting air balls in the playoffs. The purpose is to show a player there’s growth from those moments.

“We don’t call it a slump,” Powell said. “As soon as you start putting that out there, you start believing it. Now, every shot that you miss is like you feel like you’re in a shooting slump. You change the narrative and wording around it so that way your perspective on it changes. I feel like a lot of times people get caught up in what’s being said, and how it’s said to you where it resonates with you differently, and it can affect you performance-wise.”

Nurse will use different vocabulary and call it a “shooting hippopotamus” instead to deviate from a negative mindset and get a laugh from his players.

Confidence through creating your own highlight reel

Here, players enter their swag zone. To do so, players will watch repetitive highlights of themselves in the morning and before practice or a game so their subconscious is at its best and not that the player is coming off a bad game. Nurse wants to instill a state of mind that the player is always who he is at his best, not his worst.

Olynyk also wore a snapback hat backward during pick-up games and his play improved. According to Nurse, that was a trick where it helped put him in the best mindset. Entering the arena, Olynyk routinely wears his hat backward to keep him in that same mindset.

“When a construction worker is going to work, he’s got his hard hat on and you know he’s ready to go to work,” Olynyk explained. “After that, snapback is on, I know I’m ready to work.”

Similarly, Nurse used the same tactic for Brook Lopez, who loves Disney World. While developing his three-point shot, the two would talk about Disney World and Lopez would wear a Disney shirt.

Confidence through pouring into others

The focus is to take the pressure off individual performance by being a part of something bigger in this step. Think along the lines of a screen assist. A player may not get the praise for making a clutch shot down the stretch, but without that screen to free the shooter, the shot may not even happen at all. There’s no statistic for diving for loose balls or hustle, but fans, teammates, coaches, and opponents recognize it.

Confidence through cue word

When you’re in the heat of battle during a game, you can’t watch your highlight reel or wear your favorite hat or t-shirt, so what do you do if a player needs a quick reset? Choose a particular word to help trigger your subconscious mind back into the self-confident person you are.

“I always had a confidence chart that would explain to me different things as my confidence cues to keep me focused and remember the present moment,” Powell said. “David would always send me three cues that I’d always have to remember or go over before I stepped on the court. They were different things that remind me of confident things that can help me stay the course no matter what comes my way. I’ll always get a reminder with that every so often throughout every few games.”

Powell’s cue word is unshakeable. He also is reminded to be as confident as the most confident person he knows, his uncle Raymond, remember Russell Westbrook’s “bring it on” pregame mindset, and remember if something goes wrong in the game, how Bryant embraced those failures to improve.

Confidence through preparation

The glue that ties all the steps together is relentless consistency with daily preparation.

Nurse isn’t focusing on the results in this step. Rather, he and the player are focused on the process and work they put in, so there’s no fear if a player misses a shot because he put in the work and had the right mindset to take it. Even the greatest shooters miss half their shots. Eventually, by tracking the process of whether a player took his best high-level shot, the results will follow organically.

Take Sabonis, who is working on his three-point shot, for example. Sabonis shoots a flat ball, so he needed more of an arch according to Nurse. After every shot, Sabonis and Nurse stopped and assessed his shot to make sure his elbow was to his eyebrow and perfecting every rep after watching his film in slow motion.

This season, Sabonis is shooting 37.1 percent on a career-high 2.8 attempts from downtown.

You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto

Art of the smokescreen: The thought process behind execs and agents leaking info

NBA executives and agents explain how smokescreens are leaked to the media and why.

According to NBA agents and executives, fans should have smoke detectors installed in their homes and web browsers while reading rumors during free agency, the draft, and the trade deadline.

HoopsHype spoke with five agents and two executives to learn how a smokescreen, a ruse designed to disguise their real intentions, is leaked during the busiest transactional points of the year.

“Every single executive does, and anyone who tells you they don’t is lying,” one former executive told HoopsHype. “You’re trying to steer people in another direction. All the narratives are total bullsh*t now.”

Rival executives and agents catch each other off guard in their offices as news breaks on Twitter. One executive recalled being stunned several times in his team’s war room during the trade deadline and draft while reading reports about his player and team.

“You just hope the people you’re dealing with are stand up people, but there’s always going to be somebody that puts out some complete bullsh*t that’s not true,” one current Eastern Conference executive told HoopsHype. “I remember saying to myself I’ve been in the room, and I know that was never offered or even presented. There have been situations like that where other teams or an agent will put out complete bullsh*t just to get reactions out of another team or the team that they want the guy traded for or whatever.”

Whether it’s a rival executive looking to stir the pot or an agent helping to shape the trade or free-agent market for his client, usually information is leaked with a purpose in mind.

“Sometimes, it gives you a competitive advantage to get you to where you need to be,” one agent with a decade of experience told HoopsHype. “The whole thing about this business, whether it’s on the basketball, media, or marketing side, is being in control and creating your own narrative. If you’re in a position to be able to do that, whether you’re twisting the truth or not, you could probably do it even after the fact if it doesn’t necessarily go in your favor or accomplish what you want at that specific time.”

generic

Generally, there are three times when an agent will leak information for a smokescreen. One example is leading up to free agency to build a market and subsequent bidding war for the client. Another example is before the draft to steer a client towards a specific team or draft range to maximize his earnings. Lastly, when a player wants to get traded, as noted in a previous HoopsHype story on how players ask for trades.

“I would always utilize the media of building up a brand up until the free agency to develop their value,” one longtime agent told HoopsHype. “It may be in the context of a media person asking a pending free agent during the season if he plans on re-signing with his team and prepping with the player on how we’d answer it coyly, but with a little bit of a lead. Sometimes, even if you set it up, the answer is, ‘No comment,’ but at least it’s out there now. It pressures a team to think he didn’t give any sort of assuredness on this. We better think about how to re-evaluate this. You want to stir the pot a little bit, but not to the extent that you get pinned down by it either.”

Once the player is in free agency, an agent will try to squeeze teams for the most money they can get by leaking specific organizations who have expressed any level of interest in their client.

“Last year, I put out a team that had interest in my player during his free agency,” one agent bluntly told HoopsHype. “We knew the whole time we weren’t going there, but they had money and wanted him. We met with them a few times, so we knew it would make it believable to other teams. We used them as leverage.”

However, if an agent is not tactful with the smokescreen, it can severely backfire.

“It’s all about creating leverage,” another agent echoed when recalling negotiations for a restricted free agent several years ago. “A lot of these teams are going to do their due diligence and say, ‘That’s bullsh*t. That team doesn’t have the cap space to do this. They don’t have the assets to do this. This guy is f*cking lying.’

Executives also use the media to create leverage with their players and even call up some media members to send out a subliminal message.

One agent said there’s a team he’s dealt with several times that is notorious for putting out smokescreens in the media.

“They put smoke screen stuff in the media all the time,” the agent said. “Then, they’ll call you and say the media is always trying to pit us against each other. You can’t believe what the media is saying. Meanwhile, it’ll be them the whole time. They’ll call a media member, and then the media member will reach out to you.”

When asked how he knew the team was putting out a smokescreen regarding his client, the agent replied, “A reporter told me they reached out, and some of the stuff he had, there’s no way he would have that. I know they do it because the GM called me, and he told me to call a specific reporter and have him put out something about my player coming back to his team.”

That similar sentiment was conveyed by one of the executives during the trade season as well.

“On trades, there will be times where we’d have certain articles written about guys to make them look better than they are to generate interest without saying the guy is available,” one executive admitted to HoopsHype.

Agents return the favor by using smokescreens in the media to help get their clients out of town.

“You let them (media) know, and maybe somebody will write something and say this might be a good fit or say a player is interested,” one agent who has represented several All-Stars told HoopsHype. “Then, people start to talk about it a little bit.”

Here, the agent’s goal is to pressure a team by fleshing out why a player wants to be traded. One example is the reasons why James Harden wanted out of Houston.

“I’d get out there is a lack of confidence in management or a first-time head coach,” one agent said. “You’re not taking a direct shot, so it doesn’t personalize it to some degree, but essentially saying you can’t work with these people, or you want to win now, and my window is closing. It’s a little bit of a backhanded stab, but it’s not a direct cutting of the throat.”

Other times, an agent will put out a smokescreen to protect a player. One agent recalled such an instance during a pre-draft workout for a prospect in Atlanta.

“As soon as he hurt himself, we stopped the workout, and he didn’t do any workouts after that,” the agent said. “Because it was in a private setting and not in a team setting, we were able to withhold that information. I think that happens a lot with players and their injuries.”

Sometimes, an agent will put out a smokescreen that his player has a promise to go to a specific team in the draft as the reasoning for shutting down his remaining workouts.

Conversely, executives will use smokescreens to disguise their level of interest in a player they covet leading up to the draft.

“It’s used around the draft in terms of what players teams are going to see or not see and putting it out there,” one executive explained. “Who did they see twice, and who did they have a lot of phone interviews with? Depending on your draft position, you don’t want people to know who you really like. When you get into the draft, telling a reporter our second-round pick is available to generate some interest and let teams know who may want a second-rounder, call us, ours is available and drive the price up.”

“When you hear this team is high on this or this team is high on that, nine times out of 10, it’s a smokescreen,” the former executive explained. “It’s not that player.”

Related: How NBA players ask for trades: ‘It does get vicious. It’s a divorce’

You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto

How NBA players ask for trades: ‘It does get vicious. It’s a divorce’

NBA executives and agents explain how players ask to be traded, what information gets leaked, and the fallout from the breakup.

Whether it’s a franchise player like James Harden, a role player, or a parent like Marvin Bagley’s dad, trade requests happen.

The reasoning for a trade request can vary from a lack of playing time, unhappiness with management over contract negotiations, the team’s direction, etc.

Once it gets to a boiling point where a player wants out, tensions between the player and his agent with the team’s management and ownership can rise exponentially during in-person meetings and calls over the phone.

“Sometimes, you have to get to the point that you play hardball with the team, and it does get vicious,” one longtime agent told HoopsHype. “It’s a divorce. It’s never a pleasant situation when you’re dealing with high-level players, especially when there’s emotion involved. You have to get vicious at some point. What I’d always try to do was force the player’s temperament and disposition to change to show the team that this is not going to work.”

HoopsHype spoke with an additional three agents and two executives who’ve dealt with trade demands involving players and explained how the request is submitted, why sometimes it leaks to the media, and the fallout.

Generally, a player’s trade request begins by an agent calling a general manager and speaking over the phone or a face-to-face meeting between the two parties.

“I’m pretty straight forward,” another agent said. “That’s how I operate. If a client wants to be traded, I’m going to tell the team he wants to get traded. I’m not going to dance around the subject and be pretty straight forward about it and let it be known that’s what we’re looking to do, and in these scenarios, we’ll work with you in terms of what would make sense for you guys as well.”

If talks on a trade request don’t progress, usually the player is brought into the fold, or a meeting is requested with the owner to spur action.

“It depends on the level of the player, but I’ve had players go straight to the owner and request it (a trade),” an agent who represents several All-Stars told HoopsHype. “A lot of times, they (owners) think the agent might be bullsh*tting, so when the player says it himself to the general manager or the owner, they know it’s the real deal.”

Once a player gets involved in discussions with management and ownership, he can provide his agent with intel behind the scenes to present a unified stance on a trade.

“On the high end, I always involved the player because they have to play their role too,” the longtime agent told HoopsHype. “It has to be sort of playing off of each other. I handle the heavy work. You handle the light work. The communication between the coaching staff and the front office with you, how are we handling that? If they are communicating, what are they communicating? Keep me in the loop so they can’t split you up and make it seem like it’s an agent-driven activity.”

James Harden, Houston Rockets

When a player is not as responsive or engaging with management, it forces the organization to wonder what the player is thinking, what the problem is, and if the situation can be resolved.

“Once they get a little bit unnerved, and the axiom tilts toward their insecurity, then you have them,” the longtime agent said.

After a trade request is made, the ball is usually in the team’s court. If the player is in the final year of his contract, the leverage swings to the player. Unless a team is willing to give up assets for a short-term playoff rental, most teams won’t give up assets to acquire a player without some background intel that they can re-sign the player.

The next step is to keep it under wraps for the benefit of both sides to get the deal they want, according to one executive who dealt with the trade request of a Hall of Fame player.

“They (agents) don’t want to put it out in the media first because then it just upsets the team because the team is going to be negotiating from a position of weakness when it’s already out there that the player wants to be traded,” the executive told HoopsHype.

However, as trade discussions move forward between the player’s team and potential trade destinations, there are instances when information is selectively leaked by either the agent or management.

“Depending on the team’s reaction, if it’s not what they want, then they go to the media and put it out there,” another executive told HoopsHype. “A lot of times, if you have a good relationship with the agent, you can say, ‘Alright, let us work on some things. Give us a list of teams you want to go to or what you’re looking for, so we can start to put some stuff together as a group and approach it.’ Sometimes, agents are impatient and want to put it out there.”

Some agents take the executive’s role into their own hands and evaluate what the market could be for their client. The agents evaluate potential teams that have a better opportunity for playing time for their client and crunch their cap space numbers for future contract negotiations.

“You also run the risk that they may trade you to somewhere you don’t want to be traded,” the longtime agent told HoopsHype. “Then, you have to go backdoor and block the teams that you don’t want him to be traded to, so you can narrow the scope. There’s a lot that goes into these things.”

This is when the cat and mouse game between an agent and the executive trying to move the player can come to a breaking point.

“A lot of times what a team will do is they’ll keep it tight and won’t communicate with the agent until it’s too far gone, so the agent can’t muck up the deal if they’re powerful enough to play that role,” the longtime agent told HoopsHype. “Sometimes, the team they’re dealing with will backdoor them and go directly to the agent to get an idea of what’s going on too. If the trade does go down, they don’t want to be caught off guard, then an agent turns around and says, ‘What the f*ck is he doing here? I didn’t want him here in the first place.’”

When it gets out there that a player has requested a trade, it’s harder to get the deal you want as a team

If an agent oversteps and attempts to block a trade that the organization feels is in its best interest, there can be repercussions for the player.

“You’ve also got to be careful because if they’re not going to trade him, you don’t want the player out there where it hits the media that he wants out,” one agent said. “Then, the fans are against him, and there’s just negative energy because they know you don’t want to be there.”

According to another agent who represented a former first-round pick who asked for a trade, the general manager didn’t want to move his client and sent the player to the G League Showcase as punishment for asking to be traded.

Executives will also leak to the media to counter an agent’s attempt to block a deal behind the scenes or gain leverage from other potential suitors in trade talks.

“When it gets out there that a player has requested a trade, it’s harder to get the deal you want as a team,” one executive told HoopsHype. “When an agent does that, then the team starts to put out and use the media to try and get the deal they want by saying other teams offered other things to drive the price up and create a bidding war.”

Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

One example was when Carmelo Anthony requested a trade and made it known he wanted to go to the New York Knicks. The Denver Nuggets were fortunate to create a bidding war between the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. As the offers progressed, they were leaked to the media to build up the best offer. The final straw was New York adding Timofey Mozgov to push the trade through.

Not all trades are facilitated by leaking intel through the media. There are instances when an agent and an executive work together cohesively to get a fair deal for both sides.

“I think you approach it as we want a win-win and make sure it works for both of us so that they get a nice draft pick,” the agent who represents several All-Stars told HoopsHype. “A lot of times, they’ll tell you what they want, and they’ll trade him. Then, you’ve got to go out there if they want two second-round picks or a late first-round pick. Then, you have to go out there and tell them this is what it’s going to take.”

One scenario considered a win-win from all parties involved was the Paul George trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Los Angeles Clippers. George, a California native, was able to return home. The Thunder used valuable intel that Kawhi Leonard wanted to play with George as leverage to acquire a bounty of future first-round picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and more. If the Clippers didn’t land George, Leonard was strongly considering signing with the Lakers.

However, not all sides are usually in sync to get a deal done. One agent recalled a scenario where his star player was getting traded, and three teams were vying for the player in a trade. When one of the teams didn’t land the player, it prompted the general manager to sound off on the agent, who he believed blocked the potential acquisition.

“I remember one executive said, ‘You motherf*cker. You f*cked me over. I’m going to get you.’” the agent said. “I was really caught off guard. I just listened. I let him cuss me out. When he was done, he hung up on me. Then, I didn’t call him after that. About a week later, he called me and apologized for his reaction.”

Some relationships between executives and agents are strained for a prolonged period and affect future free-agent negotiations and other business. Other “divorce” agreements and trade requests are handled amicably, and the sides hold no grudges down the line.

[lawrence-related id=1376669]

You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto

NBA agents: What it’s like getting fired

HoopsHype spoke with six NBA agents on the condition of anonymity about their experiences getting fired by clients.

An NBA player firing his agent has become as common as changing his cell number.

For example, Mitchell Robinson has had six agents since declaring for the draft through only his second season in the league.

Being an agent in the league is about more than negotiating a lucrative contract during free agency or an extension period. An agent’s job description in today’s world can include the following: Recruiter, mentor, friend, advisor, and communicator. During the social media age, where there are more access points to a player than ever before, agents have to work harder to maintain a relationship with a player and bring the player’s family into their own as if they’re in-laws. If they don’t, there’s always another agent looking to swoop in and poach a client for a hefty commission before he signs his next big contract.

HoopsHype spoke with six NBA agents on the condition of anonymity about their experiences getting fired by clients. The agents have varying experience levels ranging from several years in the business to multiple decades.

HOW AGENTS LOSE PLAYERS

There are numerous ways an agent can lose a player.

When a player is underperforming in a contract year, he sometimes blames his poor play on the agent or coach and looks for a change. That’s when the player is vulnerable to another agent or outside voice getting into his head. Or, when a player starts to improve and outperforms a previously negotiated contract, a rival agent can claim the player’s current agent didn’t do a good job negotiating, and the player isn’t being promoted or marketed enough while he’s playing well. The prospective agent sells a grass is greener on the other side concept to the player in limbo.

Older agents can sell players on their experience and a client list and several big contract signings as proof of their work compared to younger agents seeking their first big deal.

“For me, I think what’s used against me is that I’m inexperienced, so I don’t really have the experience or the power, which is I think a bunch of b——- at the end of the day,” one agent told HoopsHype. “I don’t think that’s a real thing. I think it comes into play a little bit. Relationships are important, but at the end of the day, I still think talent is really what sets the mark. I mean, me and you could be LeBron James‘ agent, he’s going to get a max contract.”

Some agents also promise marketing opportunities such as private equity and help to take care of a potential client’s family members.

“We all know that there’s literally about 2-5 percent of the NBA players make significant income off the court,” one long-time agent told HoopsHype. “It’s either because they have a massive appeal, a massive social media, following, or they’re just superstars.”

Whether it’s a family member, manager, trainer, former coach, close friend, teammate, or someone else in a player’s inner circle, there’s usually an angle for an intermediary to push for a change in representation.

“Everyone’s incentivized when people switch,” one prominent agent told HoopsHype. “Somebody’s getting paid, like 99 (percent) someone’s getting taken care of in the next contract, or somebody’s getting paid when there’s an intermediary involved. Sometimes, players grow up, and they start to figure things out, and then they don’t use an intermediary. They learn enough, they talk to some veterans that they respect, who have a good reputation. They say, ‘I’m going to find someone for me, not who my dad wanted or, or my AAU coach wanted or whoever. I want to make my own decision.'”

Veteran players – especially superstars – have major influence over younger players, according to several agents. The veteran can snatch the younger player and bring him to the agency representing him. What’s the incentive for the veteran player? A reduced agent commission fee is a possibility, per several agents. An agent can make a maximum of four percent on a playing contract. If a player recruits another client, an agent can offer to negotiate the player’s contract for a lower commission percentage.

Intermediaries can come outside the locker room from sources you’d never expect who have access to a player, including sneaker representatives and even tailors.

“They (sneaker reps) have relationships with the players at a different angle, and they’re trying to push players with an agenda whether it’s for kickbacks, which I assume it is, or it’s for another reason, I don’t know, but they don’t play neutral,” one agent who has negotiated maximum-salary contracts and large endorsement deals told HoopsHype. “Then you’ve got the managers, and then you got the trainers. If you don’t sync up everybody onto your page and everyone’s biting out of your pocket, you’re going to lose a guy. You have to insulate the player to anyone that has any influence, and people that you don’t know have an influence, you have to be aware of as well. It’s a never-ending cycle. I remember one time, there was a tailor, like a clothier, who had influence over players who was pushing them to an agent for a kickback.”

Poachers can strike everywhere. A rival agent with a player on the same team could be waiting in the tunnel of an arena and strike up a conversation with another agent’s client.

For an agent with a star client, paranoia can set in trying to prevent a potential poacher. On a given road trip, an agent could make several trips to see his star client by visiting him when he gets to his hotel and greet him after a team dinner at the hotel, so another agent or potential influencer doesn’t bump into the player in the lobby. He can also greet the player the next morning before and after shootaround. The following day, an agent can visit the player before and after his game. Ultimately, an agent can only cover so many places, and there are going to be opportunities for poachers when the player travels to 29 other cities.

One player rep recalled losing a client to an agent who was living in the same city his client played. The agent claimed his former client was befriended and taken to strip clubs where he partied, drank, and smoked weed.

Maintaining a relationship with a client becomes similar to dating. If you’re dating an attractive person, there are going to be other people trying to flirt with that person. As an agent, you have to develop trust and a bond with the client you represent. Clients that have that connection with their agent will even share a text message, private DM, or any other contact attempt from a rival agent.

The added element of social media has changed the way one agent with multiple decades of experience corresponds with his clients. Before social media, he’d talk to his clients every 7-10 days. Now, it’s almost daily communication because there are numerous people around him. It’s intensified his relationship with his clients.

Sometimes, it’s not about the relationship or as subtle as recruiting a player by taking him out to fancy dinners, it’s more direct.

“The ones that upset me is when another agent drops a bag of hundreds of thousand dollars off at their house, and you lose the player over that,” another agent told HoopsHype.

The battle between agents for a client and a hefty commission can get heated if any of these scenarios occur, and a poaching attempt is provable.

“You have to get in the agent’s face and say, ‘Stay out of my yard,’” an agent told HoopsHype. “Then, you have to write them a law letter claiming tortious interference. Send them a very strong letter to say I’m not going to tolerate this, and you have to police it yourself. You either move the needle that way or the person is criminal, he doesn’t give a s— anyway, he does it anyway, and then you’ve got a battle on your hands.”

HOW THE BREAKUP HAPPENS

The ending of a relationship between an agent and a player is somewhere between ghosting someone you’ve dated or a messy and bitter divorce.

Usually, the first sense an agent has the relationship with a client is nearing the end is when the player doesn’t return phone calls or text messages.

“By the time they get to the phone, you could tell when someone calls you if they have the balls, most of the time they don’t, it’s by text,” one veteran agent told HoopsHype. “You know, it’s really an empty veil. It’s like a breakup by text with a girl you know or divorcing someone by sending them a letter or an email. It’s like thanks for your service, but I decided to move on. Very rarely do you get the reason why.”

While some agents felt their termination was coming, most of the agents expressed shock when terminated.

“I talked to an agent once out of New York who said, “S— my guy was toasting me at my wedding, and a week later, I got a FedEx package,” one longtime player rep told HoopsHype.

Another agent was preparing to negotiate a deal for his client on July 1. This agent saw the FedEx truck showing up at his cul de sac on June 15th. At that moment, the agent knew without opening the envelope that he’d been fired and would lose a large commission.

In case you were wondering, FedEx was the most noted carrier of the termination envelopes, according to the agents polled for the story.

Another agent was in the middle of negotiations on a multi-year contract worth tens of millions of dollars for his client, who was at his house for a Sunday barbeque when he was terminated.

“We’re two weeks into free agency, and he’s getting antsy because the deal wasn’t done,” the agent told HoopsHype. “It was agreed upon, but it just wasn’t done. (Another player) was in his ear saying, ‘You’re not being treated like a superstar player. Your deal should have been done on July 2nd.’ He fired me in the middle of doing a deal. This is a guy I raised in the business. He was like my son. It doesn’t really matter how close you are, it’s just random and arbitrary.”

During contract negotiations with a general manager, it can become extremely awkward and tense when an agent calls to say the client left but is working on getting the client back. It could lead to the end of advanced contract talks where a verbal agreement was in place.

“They don’t want that s—,” said another agent whose client fired him in the middle of negotiations. “They’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Based on the experiences of the agents polled for this story, rarely does the relationship end on good terms.

“How often do you get back with your ex?” one agent asked. “Especially when there’s so much emotion and so many variables involved? It’s very hard to put it back together.”

THE AFTERMATH

Once the dust settles between the agent and former client, the relationship can go in a few directions down the line.

First, an agent takes the high road, wishes the former client well, and eventually, the client returns because he realizes the grass isn’t greener on the other side or he was lied to with false promises.

“I’ve had several athletes come back,” one prominent agent said. “I’m not a bridge burner. Sometimes it’s hard because you feel like you’ve been personally violated. You’ve gone to great sacrifice to help them and a lot of times it’s personal sacrifices with your time being away from your family, which a lot of times they don’t appreciate.”

“They’re very remorseful, and the relationship actually turns out to be better than ever,” one veteran agent added. “They show a lot of remorse because they really didn’t advance at all, and they learn the hard way.”

Second, there’s no further contact between the two sides and a lack of closure for the agent as to why he was terminated.

“I always try to reach out,” an agent said. “Sometimes they duck you. I just want an explanation. I want to know why. I’m trying to learn why you made this decision to move on.”

Third, the bad blood between the two parties can boil over into a heated confrontation and bitterness for years to come.

“I think in the beginning of my career I probably lost my cool one time with one guy,” an agent with a handful of years as a certified agent told HoopsHype. “We exchanged some words and kind of got into it where he was like threatening me.”

Many times before games, a former agent and client will look at each other and turn away immediately or say hello briefly and carry on. Generally, the tension can be felt by those around both people.

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS 

The overwhelming consensus was some form of compensation is warranted for an agent who has worked with a client multiple years. That would provide the agent protection should a player decided to leave right before free agency when an agent has worked years laying the groundwork for the negotiation commission.

“If a guy works for a guy for four years, and he fires him two months before the deal’s up, absolutely, there should be something,” one longtime agent said. “I know the player has a right to move on, but there should definitely be some recognition of what that previous agent did.”

Some agents suggested earning a commission on a year-to-year basis for their services instead of earning it off a contract negotiation. The thought process was agents make little to nothing on a rookie and could get fired by the player before negotiating his second contract.

In some instances, an agent and an agency split the commission if an agent leaves the company. In theory, the prior agent and the new one could split the commission of a client who changed representation for X amount of months before free agency.

Ultimately, the players dictate the livelihood of agents, and a split-second decision can change the life of one agent drastically.

“It’s really an awful business that’s really tough and very competitive, and there aren’t a lot of restrictions or rules on it,” one high-level agent told HoopsHype. “The players kind of set the rules, and the players want freedom, and they like getting the bag sometimes. Some guys like being bought and sold, which is f—– up, but it’s true.”

To keep up with the latest player representation changes, click here

After The Last Dance: An oral history of the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls

What happened after The Last Dance? This oral history looks back at the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls team that ushered in a new post-Jordan era.

After winning six championships in eight seasons, the Chicago Bulls’ dynastic run came to an end in the summer of 1998. Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler and Luc Longley left. Only seven players from the previous season returned in 1998-99. After totaling 62 wins (the most in the NBA) and getting their third-straight championship, the Bulls won just 13 games (the third-lowest in the NBA), joining the 1969-70 Boston Celtics as the only defending champions to miss the playoffs. 

HoopsHype talked to several players from that 1998-99 Bulls squad and three writers who covered the team to discuss that difficult season, what it was like trying to fill such big shoes, the end of the dynasty and more. This story begins right where “The Last Dance” ends.

Dickey Simpkins, Bulls forward from 1994-2000: “That offseason, we saw that the transformation was starting. For us returning veterans, we kind of had to embrace it. We had a new coach coming in from college basketball and we knew we’d have a lot of young guys. We knew the rebuild was starting. It was hard to fully process the sudden change from a championship-caliber team to a rebuilding team.” 

John Jackson, Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1994-1999: “[General manager] Jerry Krause was ready to break up the team at that point and [owner] Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t want to bring back the team because the Bulls’ payroll in 1997-98 was around $61.3 million and to bring the team back, it would’ve been at least $80 million. Winning championships was great for Reinsdorf, but considering the revenue they brought in in 1997-98, that wasn’t one of their more profitable years. The 1998-99 season was probably their most profitable year ever because the payroll was around $28.6 million and their revenue was roughly the same. So, Reinsdorf wasn’t opposed to breaking up the team either.”

Jud Buechler, Bulls forward from 1994-1998: If you’re a champion, you kind of feel like you’ve earned the right to come back and try to win another one. Until someone knocks you off the top, you try to keep going and win more. Looking back, it’s kind of disappointing that we didn’t get to keep going until someone knocked us off the top.”

Scott Burrell, Bulls forward from 1997-1998: “We all wanted new contracts. I mean, I’m sure people would’ve loved to stay in Chicago. Mr. Reinsdorf had a lot to do with the team breaking up as well. Everybody blames Jerry Krause, but the owner [played a big role]. Like, you would never see [George] Steinbrenner break up the Yankees if they won five of seven World Series. They would just find a couple guys to help reload; they’d never break it up.”

Sam Smith, columnist for the Chicago Tribune from 1987-2008: “This was actually the end; unlike last time. Last time, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were still around with Phil Jackson. In 1998-99, we were sure this was going to be a losing season.”

Rusty LaRue, Bulls guard from 1997-2000: “There were so many unknowns. We get into camp and there’s a whole new system, new players, a shortened camp, a coach who never coached in the NBA coming from the college setting. It was just a totally different feel altogether in regards to the day-to-day, what was expected and the competitiveness of the team.” 

Corey Benjamin, Bulls guard from 1998-2001: “They called us the Baby Bulls. We lost Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Phil, but we were still ‘the defending champions.’ I had always wanted to be a Bull and to be like Michael Jordan, so it was a dream come true when they drafted me.”

Kent McDill, Bulls beat writer for the Daily Herald from 1988-1999 (the only beat writer who covered all six titles): “Entering the year, there were no expectations. There was no reason to think the Bulls would be anything. Some people may have held out hope for a playoff bid. But, other than that, there were no expectations for that team at all.”

Kornel David, Bulls forward from 1998-2000: “Everybody knew that the big-name players had left, so the expectations were lower. It was more like people were wondering, ‘What is this team capable of doing?’” 

There was a lockout during the summer of 1998, pushing the start of the 1998-99 season back to February and shortening the campaign to just 50 games. 

Kent McDill: “The ingredients that went into the 1998-99 season were: decimating a championship team, getting rid of the head coach, losing the star players, starting four months late, playing 50 games, getting used to a new coach with absolutely no NBA experience and playing a majority of players who are extremely young. That’s the worst collection of ingredients I can imagine if you want anything resembling success.”

John Jackson: “For the players, it was tough – particularly since they were a young team. Once the season started, there was almost no time to practice. In a normal NBA season, there are very few days where you can have hard practices; in that 50-game season, there was almost no practice time.”

Corey Benjamin: “It made it hard. Training camp was really fast. We were running the triangle offense; I’m coming from college and they throw a 200-page book at us and tell us to learn it. We had to learn 200 pages in so little time. It was hard for us. We had back-to-backs every week and we were the defending champs, so we played on Christmas Day and were still on national television a lot.”

Due to the condensed schedule, the Bulls played 14 back-to-backs that season as well as two back-to-back-to-backs (three games in three days).

Kornel David: “There was a short preseason, a lot of back-to-backs and a new coach in Tim Floyd. Even though the system was similar (since we still played the triangle), a lot of guys were being asked to play a new role in that system and step up since MJ, Scottie and Dennis weren’t there to carry the load anymore. There was a lot of pressure. There were so many things that made that season very difficult.”

Sam Smith: “Tim Floyd was badly overmatched. He’d clearly set a goal to get an NBA head coaching job and had obviously worked Jerry Krause for years with that in mind, inviting him to practices, calling him. Krause didn’t have a lot of friends in basketball due to his nature and he tended to, understandably, gravitate to those who embraced him. Tim was like the Robert Redford character in the old movie ‘The Candidate’ where they scheme to get the job and the last scene is Redford asking, ‘What do we do now?’ Tim sought the glamor, fame and money of an NBA coach, but he really hated the NBA. It seemed obvious he’d never watched NBA games and even when he became coach, he was still talking about college games all the time. Krause’s theory was right in preparing for teenagers with the direct-to-pros era, so you want to get a college coach. He just got the wrong one.”

Dickey Simpkins: “Tim had one of the hardest jobs that a rookie NBA coach could ever have. He was coming in after a championship and taking over the best team in NBA history after they lost the best player in NBA history and the best coach in NBA history! It wasn’t fair for him to have to come in after that. That’s like someone trying to perform after Michael Jackson. But you’re an up-and-coming artist, so you do it because you want people to embrace you and recognize that you’re on the rise. But I felt for him having to follow a superstar act. I thought he did a very good job. Coach Floyd came in very humble; he didn’t come in with an ego.”

Chicago Bulls head coach Tim Floyd

John Jackson: “That was an impossible situation. I like Tim Floyd a lot. I got to talk to him away from the [basketball] setting a lot. He was a good coach, a sharp guy, and a really nice guy. But he was in an impossible spot, having to follow Phil Jackson. It would be bad enough to follow Phil if you had a roster of All-Stars. But following Phil when you have a young, talent-challenged team? Nobody would look good in that situation.”

Kent McDill: “Phil was such a strategist and I didn’t get the sense that Tim was. I’m still not entirely sure what Jerry saw in Tim that caused him to make that move – other than the fact that Tim was nice to Jerry and went fishing with him and that sort of thing (which mattered to Jerry a lot). Taking a college coach who had never coached in the NBA and giving him a team that represented a franchise that had one six titles in the previous eight years and decimating the roster the way it was, it was as close as you can get to a no-win situation. And it was made worse by the fact that Tim wasn’t prepared for the job. But it was a bad situation and I don’t know anybody who could’ve made it better. I don’t know that Phil could’ve even manufactured anything out of that team.”

Kornel David: “He had so much weight on his shoulders to produce somehow. He would always have a bunch of papers in his hand and he’d roll them up and bounce them against his head; he seemed nervous.”

Rusty LaRue: “I’m sure there were days when he wished he would’ve stayed where he was because it probably would’ve been easier.”

Kornel David: “I think it would’ve been better if he had just started with a team that had more young guys, less vets and less pressure – maybe in a different place. There were such big shoes to fill in Chicago; that put a lot of pressure on him.”

Corey Benjamin: “The only thing Tim could do is teach the young kids because he can’t tell Ron [Harper] what to do. Ron had been in the NBA for 13 years, so Ron is going to tell Tim what to do and how to do this or that. None of the veterans disrespected Tim or anything, but Tim was a rookie like us.”

Kent McDill: “Tim Floyd was very much involved in the nightlife in Chicago. There was a place in Chicago called The Lodge and it was very popular. If you were the sort to be out at night, you would run into Tim there all the time. One time early in the season, Tim got kicked out of a home game for yelling at the refs and someone told me that before the game was over, Tim was at The Lodge. I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ Well, beat writers meet with the coach before every game. Maybe a month later, during our pregame meeting, he was sitting in his office, his feet were up and he said something that [made me think], ‘He’s going to get thrown out tonight.’ After the meeting, I turned to another beat writer and predicted it. And he got thrown out that night! I don’t usually predict things like that, I just had a weird sense. It turned out he had party plans and he was, again, seen having a very good time at The Lodge that evening. Then, it happened a third time. Each time he was ejected, it was at home. The third time he got kicked out, we all just looked at each other like, ‘They must be having a drink special or something.’”

John Jackson: “I’ve been to The Lodge with Tim a few times. (laughs)”

Corey Benjamin: “I don’t think Tim had full control over our team. Phil had full control of his team. It was kind of like Tim was being dictated and told what to do. I don’t think Tim had full control of that team. He’s a great person, but I don’t think Tim was able to be Tim.”

Kent McDill: “It was so weird because Tim Floyd was Jerry Krause’s guy, and it was really hard to understand who was in charge of things… Jerry was around more [that season] and he had a smile on his face the whole time.”

John Jackson: “Krause was looking forward to the rebuild after the championship run just to prove how valuable he was… Krause was a hands-on guy; he went on a lot of road trips, he always made sure he was on the team bus and the team plane. He was around all the time that year. To be honest, Krause was around more that year because he didn’t have Jordan and Pippen needling him every time he came around.”

Corey Benjamin: “I believe Jerry wanted control. He didn’t have control during those dynasty years. Without Michael and the other stars, Jerry had control. He had Tim Floyd, who was his fishing partner, and Tim would do as he asked. He had young players who would do as he asked. I think teams should be teams and management should be management, and you should separate the two. Jerry always wanted to come to practices and be around the team and talk to the players. A lot of GMs don’t do that, they keep their distance. But Jerry just wanted control, and he was able to get it during those years. With the dynasty teams, he was basically told to stay upstairs. But once those guys were gone, Jerry would show up all the time.”

Dickey Simpkins: “Jerry was definitely around the team more. I could see that being challenging for the young guys who had just gotten drafted, feeling like they were under constant evaluation, but that’s part of the business. I don’t think it affected our performance.”

Corey Benjamin: “When your GM or owner is around all the time, the team isn’t comfortable. You’re always looking over your shoulder. At the end of the day, you report to the coaches, but now you’re thinking, ‘Okay, well, I have the coaches’ boss here too.’ For us, we were very uncomfortable having Jerry around all the time – riding on the bus with us, riding on the plane with us, walking around at practice. Tim was supposed to be our leader. But, to me, it looked like Jerry wanted control, and he got it. But you have to choose: do you want to win or do you want control?”

Kornel David: “I remember our first game of that season; it was in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz. As were standing in line and listening to the national anthem, I looked across the court at Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton – almost the same team that had just played the Bulls in the Finals. I looked at them and said, “Oh my God, I have to play against these guys who I just watched in the Finals?!” That was my first game, so that moment stands out for me.”

Corey Benjamin: “For the first half of the season, it was great! We got chaperoned around by police escorts because we were still that team. As a 20-year-old kid, it was unbelievable. We were getting police escorts and security was ushering us around everywhere, but then that stopped because we weren’t winning. (laughs) We didn’t win much…”

Rusty LaRue: “Losing sucks. Fifty games feels like a long time when you aren’t winning. And not only were there back-to-backs and back-to-back-to-backs, everyone was excited to give it back to the Bulls since they had been giving it out to teams for years. We got beat by 47 points or something when we played Orlando! Teams felt like, ‘Hey, those guys aren’t here anymore, so it’s time for you guys to take a hit.’”

Corey Benjamin: “There were times when we were playing against veteran teams and they’d be beating us and they’d say, ‘You guys beat us for so many years, so we’re gonna step on your necks.’ We were kids, a bunch of 20-year-olds, but they were getting revenge for what the champions had done for the past seven or eight years. They were taking their anger out on us.”

Chicago Bulls forward Toni Kukoc

Kornel David: “Obviously, the team wasn’t really good; actually, it was bad. Toni Kukoc was the best player, by far, on that team. Toni was absolutely fantastic. He was already my favorite player before I went to the Bulls and then he was incredible that year. Ron Harper was still on the team, but he was going downhill [toward the end] of his career and he was hurt, so he wasn’t the same as before.”

Dickey Simpkins: “Toni was the most underrated complementary star in the NBA, and then he transitioned into being ‘the man’ for us in the latter part of his career. Toni was an unbelievable player and talent, and he was an unbelievable teammate off the court.”

John Jackson: Kukoc was the leading scorer and he’s a good, solid guy in the locker room, but he’s not someone who would step up and take the reins to the team. Brent Barry, who was a free-agent signing, was probably the closest thing they had to a leader at that point. But there wasn’t really a lot of strong leadership.”

Sam Smith: “The Bulls did make one significant free-agent acquisition that summer with Brent Barry. Jerry Krause had this thing where he always fell in love with certain players, like Dan Majerle, and talk about them all the time, which didn’t help them playing against Michael Jordan. Brent was one, but he was so turned off by the amateurish mess that this Bulls team was that he sort of checked out.”

Rusty LaRue: “We had a bunch of guys who were fighting for their NBA future; we didn’t have a ton of established guys. A bunch of us – me, Corey Benjamin, Corey Carr – were just fledgling NBA guys who were trying to figure it out. And with a new coach, it was difficult.

Dickey Simpkins: “It was tough losing so much, but the fans understood and were still great.”

Kornel David: “We played in front of a full house – a sold-out arena – for the next two and a half years. The United Center was sold out every night.”

Sam Smith: “The reaction from fans was mostly acceptance and appreciation of what the team had accomplished. You could never get tickets to Bulls games in the championship years, so people were thrilled just to come to the United Center to get a look at where it all happened.”

John Jackson: “The fans were as positive as could be that year because for the previous eight seasons – even in the year and a half that Jordan didn’t play – it was tough to get into the Chicago Stadium and then it was tough to get into the United Center when they moved there. That season, they still sold out every game and every crowd was enthusiastic. A lot of people who didn’t have a chance to see a Bulls game in person during the championship run were finally able to get into the building, so the atmosphere was just as electric as it was during the previous eight years. Everyone was surprisingly positive, considering how much they struggled.”

Corey Benjamin: “The fans weren’t used to us losing, so we did get booed at times. I mean, we were getting beat by teams that hadn’t beat the Bulls in, what, seven years?”

Kent McDill: “If you showed that team to a bunch of NBA experts and there was no reference whatsoever to the team they were replacing, it still would’ve been embarrassing. Who was supposed to score on that team? There was nothing that they could point to [as a bright spot]; it was ridiculous. I don’t have another word to describe it other than ‘embarrassment.’ There were so many factors that made the 1998-99 season a train-wreck.”

On April 10, 1999, the Miami Heat defeated the Bulls, 82-49. To this day, Chicago’s 49 points is an NBA record for the fewest points scored by an NBA team in the shot-clock era.

Corey Benjamin: “I remember it was very cold in that gym. It seemed like we couldn’t get anything going. Pat Riley didn’t stop it; he just let them manhandle us. I didn’t get hot; nobody got hot. I don’t know if they had ice under that court or what, but it was so cold. We got a whoopin’. It was very embarrassing. It was like they were toying with us. They put it on us. The veterans were there to pick us back up, but it was hard for them too. And it was their last season or close to it. They’d already put their retirement papers in, probably, so they were on vacation.”

Sam Smith: “It was such a mismatched and overmatched team. It was like a G League team against an NBA team by then. Miami was good, with tough interior guys like Alonzo Mourning and PJ Brown. The Bulls had zero inside presence. Brent Barry had checked out by then. I was surprised there weren’t more games like that. It was such an unusual season, with 50 games rushed, that it was difficult to take it seriously.”

Kornel David: “That was terrible. Terrible. (sighs) That was maybe our lowest point of the season. But it wasn’t just that game. There were a lot of games like that – obviously not 49-point games, but we had a lot of bad games and bad losses. It was tough. When the team is falling apart, everyone tries to put themselves in front. A lot of players in that situation think, ‘At least I can show what I’m able to do.’ We had a number of players who felt that way, especially the rookies and some of the vets. We didn’t have a team that played together. It was bad.” 

Kent McDill: “The wheels came off way before that game. But what kind of coach is going to see their team go through something like that and not make some kind of changes at halftime? The whole season was an embarrassment. We were only saved by the fact that the season was half as long as it should’ve been thanks to the lockout.”

Dickey Simpkins: “I hope somebody breaks that record, so we don’t have to be known as that team. (laughs)”

Rusty LaRue: “I don’t remember much from that game, probably because I’ve blocked it from my memory. I’ve tried to forget it.”

Kent McDill: “So many people would ask me, ‘What’s it like having covered all the championship teams and now having to cover this crap?’ There were a lot of questions like that. Honestly, it almost felt like the Bulls should have folded after ‘98 because of the product they were putting on the floor.”

Dicky Simpkins: “When the season was over, it was a relief. It was almost like when you change schools and you get through that first year at the new school. You get through the ups and downs – you get through the adjustments that come with a new school, new students, new teachers – and you’re like, ‘Whew! Glad that’s over!’”

Chicago Bulls guard Corey Benjamin

Over the next few summers, Krause and the Bulls tried to attract star free agents to Chicago, but they didn’t have much luck. Instead, Krause continued to build through the draft (selecting players such as Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Marcus Fizer and Eddy Curry in the years to come).

Dickey Simpkins: “During that 50-game season, Jerry had opened up a lot of cap space and the plan was to sign two big free agents. Based on what I heard in the media and the talk around the Berto Center throughout that offseason, he was trying to get two big free agents.”

Corey Benjamin: “I had Arn Tellem as an agent and Arn represented a lot of star players. The Bulls were trying to sign free agents. I hosted Tracy McGrady, Tim Thomas and Jermaine O’Neal when we brought them in. I was there personally for those [meetings] because we were all represented by the same agent (Arn). I remember Jerry Krause told me, ‘If you can get them to sign, I’ll renew your contract.’ I don’t remember Tim Duncan coming in, but I know we wanted Duncan. But we weren’t offering them the money that other teams were offering. I remember Tracy and Jermaine telling me, ‘They’re offering me peanuts.’ They weren’t trying to max these guys out; they were trying to give these guys smaller contracts.”

Kent McDill: “That sounds right. The Bulls organization – whether it be Krause or Reinsdorf – thought that you would take a pay cut in order to be a member of the Chicago Bulls, that being associated with a franchise this successful is worth more than the money you can make elsewhere. Nobody, nobody, was buying that argument.”

John Jackson: “Those were the main guys that they were talking to; that’s who they wanted. But their free-agency plans never produced anyone and they didn’t land a superstar through the draft, so they couldn’t rebuild or even become a serious playoff contender at that time.”

Kent McDill: “I remember them going after Grant Hill, which made all sorts of sense because they needed a really good citizen and Hill was maybe the best citizen in the NBA at that time. The one thing that we heard at that time – and, amazingly, we still hear it more than 20 years later – is that nobody wanted to come in and try to follow a six-time championship team. Not only are you trying to follow in Michael Jordan’s footsteps, you’re having to follow [a dynasty]. The invitation to join the Bulls was not an attractive one, which is why nobody ever came.”

Dickey Simpkins:I know Jerry talked to one of my former college teammates, Austin Croshere. He was trying to sign Austin, but Austin ultimately ended up signing back with Indiana on a big deal. I had direct contact with Austin [about it] since we had a relationship after playing together at Providence.”

Kent McDill: “They could’ve gotten some guys – and eventually they did – but if there’s such a thing as ‘A players’ and ‘B players,’ they were getting a lot of B- players. There was no attempt to build a cohesive unit; it was just gap filling. The pressure that Krause put on himself to create a new championship-level team caused him to make decisions that weren’t viable.”

Since the premiere of “The Last Dance,” there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the Bulls would’ve won their seventh championship in nine years had the team stayed intact for the 1998-99 season. The players believe the team would’ve won it all, while the writers believe Chicago’s run was over.

Sam Smith: “Would they have won again? No. Because that’s like saying, ‘If he hadn’t fallen off that building, he would be alive!’ Pippen was estranged for a year; heck, he had a half season sit-down strike. Rodman was melting down and did so in Los Angeles. Phil was one step into a sabbatical for a year. Michael clearly was burned out, as he was seen telling Ahmad Rashad in the documentary. Pippen had back surgery after the 1997-98 season and was never again close to the player he’d been. Also, Jordan sustained a severe cut on his shooting hand that offseason from a cigar cutter and could no longer grip the ball and would have trouble shooting. How would his legacy have looked trying to come back without any preseason or camp under those circumstances? Plus, all those Bulls reserve guys like Luc Longley, Steve Kerr and Jud Buechler got long-term contracts from new teams that I am certain all their teams regretted and made no sense for the Bulls to match. This another-year thing is so pathetic. It’s like a teenager dreaming for years about the girlfriend who dumped him. If only… Move on!”

Kent McDill: “The only thing that would’ve stopped them would’ve been Michael’s motivation. But part of Michael’s motivation (that hasn’t been mentioned in the documentary) was that number: 6. Six titles is a lot of titles. The idea of having back-to-back three-peats was the motivation that got everybody through 1997-98.”

John Jackson: “One thing that people don’t realize is that Jordan didn’t wait until the summer to make his decision about whether he was coming back; that happened pretty soon after the championship series ended. I think he was just mentally and physically exhausted and he knew that he needed a break at that point.”

Dickey Simpkins: “During the 1997-98 season, we knew that was going to be the last time that we ever played together. Phil’s approach was for us to be mentally calm, embrace the moment and cherish that last season, so we had time to process it. I don’t want to compare it to losing somebody close to you, but it’s kind of like when they’re going through something and you know at some point soon, they’re going to be gone; it wasn’t sudden. We had time to process it. Do I wish everybody could have come back again? Yeah, I wish. Do I feel like we could’ve won another championship? Yes. I believe we could’ve, especially in a 50-game season. I would’ve loved to have one more year together as a group.”

Corey Benjamin: “Yes, we would’ve won it all if those guys returned! It would’ve been a breeze, especially in a shortened season. Even in a regular season, it would’ve been a breeze! They were at the point where nobody could touch them. There was nothing missing from that team. I’m 100 percent sure we would’ve won it all that year, and Vegas will tell you that too.”

The closest that Jordan came to donning a Bulls jersey again was the time he returned to the Berto Center in November of 1999 to teach Corey Benjamin a lesson. 

Corey Benjamin: “Randy Brown, Ron Harper and Dickey Simpkins were Michael’s close friends. Those guys would always talk to Jordan on the phone and Jordan would always have stuff to say. I remember there was one particular moment when MJ said something to me and I told him, ‘I can get that.’ I was saying I could beat him one-on-one. We went back and forth, talking trash with each other for a month or two. Ron gassed it up a lot like, ‘He said he can get you, Mike! He thinks he can beat you!’ One day, Mike told Ron that he was going to come to our game [in Atlanta] and he told me, ‘I’m about to come see you.’ We’re at the game and they showed Mike walking into the game [on TV] and I knew right where he was headed. I’m in the training room with Ron and Randy, and MJ walks in there. He comes right over to me and says, ‘What did you say?!’ Remember, this is my childhood hero. I man up and I say, ‘I think I can get that.’ He told me, ‘I’ll be at your practice in a few days and we’ll see if you can get that.’”

Rusty LaRue: “I was just shaking my head. Everybody thinks they can beat the man until they get a chance to beat the man. Corey was a good guy and a good player. I don’t know if he really thought he could beat Michael or if he just wanted a chance to play against him.”

Corey Benjamin: “We fly back to Chicago and at our next practice, I’m looking over my shoulder but I’m also thinking, ‘Yeah right, he’s not going to fly to Chicago just to play me.’ After practice, I’m walking off the court when MJ walks into the gym. He said, ‘I’m about to give you your chance.’ As a basketball player, it was the best feeling in the world to play one-on-one against Michael Jordan in front of everybody. The score was 11-9, just to let you know. Everybody says it was 11-0 or 11-1 or 11-2. He did get up to 7-0 pretty fast and I was amazed; I had never seen anything like that in my life. But the final score was 11-9 and it was the best one-on-one game I’ve ever played. It was like a dream come true.”

Kornel David: “MJ showed up and he just schooled him. Corey was a high-flying athlete who could jump out of the gym; he had incredible athletic abilities. But it’s MJ! There’s a video of it on YouTube! You have to watch it. The next day, the Chicago Tribune ran a double-page [spread] showing all of MJ’s buckets. It was incredible. (laughs)

Rusty LaRue: “I remember them playing one-on-one; of course, Mike put it on him. (laughs)”

Jordan trash-talked throughout the game. 

“Look around you,” Jordan said at one point, looking at the six championship banners hanging in the gym. “What do you see all around you? You didn’t have anything to do with those!”

After scoring the winning basket, Jordan spanked Benjamin and yelled, “Sit down!” With a smile, Jordan added, “Don’t call me out of retirement again.”