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A Year of ‘What If’ for the N.B.A. – The New York Times

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Gregg Popovich will not be happy with this.

I know, I know: Popovich made it clear years ago, in a memorable interview with my old friend David Aldridge on TNT, that there is no such thing as happiness for N.B.A. coaches.

Yet I suspect he would be even more dismayed than usual to hear me offering up any measure of sympathy after Tuesday’s announcement that this summer’s Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to 2021.

It had become clear that the Games could not go on this year in the midst of our global health crisis. Popovich, in full “get over yourself” mode, would surely note that the world has much bigger problems to consider — and that Olympic postponement affects the athletes far more than the coaches.

Hoop stars, of course, fall far down the list of athletes hit the hardest. It was swimmers, gymnasts, track and field participants and all those who have been training in sporting disciplines in which Olympic competition is the pinnacle for whom this news was, on many levels, devastating.

I do feel for him, though, since Tuesday’s postponement is a significant development in the basketball domain, with all sorts of potential consequences. Although Jerry Colangelo, U.S.A. Basketball’s 80-year-old managing director, said that he and Popovich, 71, intend to remain in their roles through at least 2021, N.B.A. players — and Pop himself — might not even be available when the Olympics take place next year.

The N.B.A. calendar, remember, remains a huge unknown.

Tokyo was supposed to be an opportunity for Popovich to finally taste triumph after nothing but disappointment in his various dalliances with U.S.A. Basketball. In stark contrast to last summer’s World Cup team in China, which finished a humbling seventh after the most severe rash of player withdrawals ever, he was going to have a starry roster in Japan and a clear shot at a gold medal.

Instead? Mark it down as yet another deflating entry on his national team résumé, which is the antithesis of the charmed life he knows he’s had in San Antonio for nearly a quarter-century.

As a player in 1972, Popovich was one of the last cuts for the U.S. Olympic team. As an assistant coach on the teams that finished sixth at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis and settled for bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Popovich was on the bench for what were widely regarded as this country’s two low points in the modern era of the international game. Then came China, where Popovich — after waiting more than a decade to finally serve as head coach — could not overcome his team’s shortage of playmaking, shooting and rim projection in his first tournament after succeeding Mike Krzyzewski.

Good luck predicting now what sort of squad (or coaching staff) will be available next year. If it becomes feasible for the N.B.A. to restart in June or July, it’s quite possible that the beginning and end dates of the 2020-21 season will be pushed back and could overlap with the delayed Olympics. So it’s no stretch to say that Olympic basketball itself may face an uncertain future — with little appetite in league circles to spend much time on it now when so many domestic issues are unresolved.

I realize all of the above falls under the heading of it’s only sports. We’re likewise talking about a postponement of the 2020 Olympics rather than an outright cancellation. Seeing what is happening all over the globe, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, none of this should be treated as tragic.

Yet we are sports fans. Lots of us obsess and anguish over the trivial. My life has revolved around sports since I was 5 years old, and I bet many of you, like me, are not exactly sure how to switch that off.

As an unabashed (and overly nostalgic) hoops nerd, I still find myself wrapped up in all sorts of Olympic hoops hypotheticals. Will Pop, the former Air Force cadet, ever experience one dose of red, white and blue glory to go with all that San Antonio success? Will the Golden State superstar Stephen Curry, who has yet to appear on the Olympic stage, get that chance someday? And what about LeBron James? He had not committed to play this summer, but he did acknowledge that “my name is in the hat” when U.S.A.B. announced a 44-man preliminary roster in February. If, again, the 2021 Olympics are still an option for N.B.A. players, James will have to be even more careful, at age 36 and in his 18th season, about overtaxing his body.

And if I may: I am also prone to think of my own father whenever the patriarch of the San Antonio Spurs comes up. It has been this way for me ever since June 15, 2014, when Popovich, Tim Duncan and the Spurs clinched the franchise’s fifth N.B.A. championship with a Game 5 victory over LeBron’s Miami Heat. That same day — Father’s Day — Reuven Stein succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after a seven-year battle with the cancer. He was 74.

While still at ESPN, I wrote a story about “The Reuvs” a year after his passing to explain that Father’s Day had changed for me forever, and to share some stories about his colorful life. He greatly preferred, for example, to be referred to as “Father” rather than “Dad.” But one anecdote I did not include was how he obsessively implored my brother, Orren, and me to “wash hands.”

“Did you wash hands?”

Children on our street, and all the way into high school for me, delighted in razzing us about Mr. Wash Hands and the thick Romanian accent he couldn’t quite shake even though his English vocabulary was next level.

In these unimaginable days, I can’t stop myself from getting wrapped up in those memories, too.

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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: Before you talk about the Coach of the Year Award, we should be talking about General Manager Sam Presti. He set up Billy Donovan to succeed in a way few G.M.s could. As a fan, it’s reassuring to see such a balanced team, not one that has just two superstars and a middling supporting cast like in so many years past. — Broc Hite (Rogers, Ark.)

Stein: Presti really is on a ridiculous run. It’s no mystery why the Clippers gave up so much for Paul George — how many other teams would have said no once they found out acquiring George would also bring them Kawhi Leonard? But the price was astronomical. Extracting five future first-round picks from the Clippers and a young player as talented as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with Danilo Gallinari on top of all that, was A++ maneuvering by Presti.

It only got better for Presti and the Thunder, who had seemed to be in a dire situation after George requested a trade. Presti traded Russell Westbrook to Houston for Chris Paul and two more future first-round picks and was widely expected to spend the next few months trading away veterans for more future assets. The stubborn, uber-motivated Paul has instead led the surprising Oklahoma City to a share of fifth place in the West, thanks to a 40-24 record that matches Houston’s.

Add that all up and it’s a very strong case for the Executive of the Year Award. It’s difficult to properly handicap the race amid an indefinite shutdown, but I don’t see any serious threats to Presti beyond Miami’s Pat Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Rob Pelinka — with the mandatory caveat that the executives do their own voting for this award.

The Clippers face multiple factors that work against their front-office team even after acquiring Leonard and George. They are unlikely to earn the West’s No. 1 seed even if regular-season play resumes, and they have had a fully healthy roster in only 11 games so far. Further disappointment (and pressure) stems from the knowledge that Leonard and George can return to free agency after next season, meaning that Steve Ballmer and Co. potentially gave the Thunder with an unprecedented trade haul for only one guaranteed playoff run — if the 2020 postseason gets wiped out by the coronavirus.

The Lakers’ 64-win pace and surge to the top of the West certainly give Pelinka a shot, since he traded for Anthony Davis and hired another leading Coach of the Year Award-contender in Frank Vogel. I will be curious to see how much credit Pelinka gets from his voting peers for the Davis trade given the role that Rich Paul, Davis’s (and LeBron James’s) agent, played in steering him there.

Riley, who shared the executive trophy for the 2010-11 season with Chicago’s Gar Forman, looks like Presti’s toughest competition. The Heat certainly cooled in 2020 (17-15) after a 24-9 start to the season, but they have been restored to the East’s top four faster than many N.B.A. prognosticators envisioned. That’s all because of Riley and his trade for Jimmy Butler last summer in the face of considerable salary-cap constraints, followed by the February acquisition of Andre Iguodala in a three-team deal, which also shed the unwanted contracts of Dion Waiters and James Johnson.

Q: You’ve worked for different companies within journalism. — @JaiKai14 from Twitter

Stein: My pal Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports roped me into that five jobs/five tags game that has been circulating on Twitter recently. This respondent took issue with my listing of only two other jobs before referring to my journalism career as one job, as opposed to highlighting some of the individual stops.

I assumed that the audience was looking to read about interesting (or uninteresting) jobs I may have held outside my current industry rather than my various stops as a sports reporter. Maybe I misunderstood the premise of the exercise, but it made little sense to me to simply list newspapers I worked for in the 1980s and 1990s.

Because I was fortunate enough to get on my eventual career path so early, I had only two gigs in my life that did not involve news organizations. As covered in my tweet on the matter, I worked as a pro shop attendant at a tennis club, then as an employee in a sporting goods store, before I was able to fully focus on journalism at the Orange County Register, the Washington Post and the San Bernardino Sun before eventually moving on to N.B.A. jobs at the Los Angeles Daily News, the Dallas Morning News and ESPN.

Q: How’s your quarantine going, sir? — Aditya Baradway (Chennai, India)

Stein: All good — thanks for asking. Hope you and everyone are doing as well as they feasibly can under the most disruptive circumstances I can remember.

Social distancing is rarely a problem for a loner like me, but it’s certainly a major adjustment to spend so much time in the home office for someone accustomed to traveling — and someone who does a lot of writing in coffee shops and restaurants even when at home. But I wouldn’t dare complain.

I am with my wife and two boys every day amid the most serious worldwide crisis of my lifetime. Covering the N.B.A. is a dream job, but my sons are both teenagers and work travel has meant missing so much that I can never get back. As scary and unsettling as this pandemic is, every day with them is precious.


San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich remains 64 wins shy of exceeding his good friend Don Nelson’s N.B.A. record of 1,335 victories as a coach. The Spurs, whose league-record run of 22 consecutive playoff appearances is in jeopardy, entered the N.B.A.’s hiatus in 12th place in the West at 27-36, four games out of a playoff spot behind Memphis (32-33).


Seven teams can claim a plus/minus rating of at least +10 in the standings, which is calculated by subtracting a team’s total home losses from its total road wins. The Bucks lead the league at +22, followed by the Lakers (+18), Raptors (+14), Clippers (+12), Celtics (+11), Nuggets (+10) and Jazz (+10).


The Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson is on course to break the league record for single-season field-goal percentage, with 74.2. The current record is Wilt Chamberlain’s 72.7 for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972-73 — and you can count Robinson among those curious about how the league plans to address record book matters if the coronavirus crisis prevents the season from resuming.


Dallas’ Seth Curry, shooting 45.3 percent from 3-point range this season, has moved into the top spot in career 3-point percentage among active players at 44.3 — nearly a full percentage point ahead of his older brother. Golden State’s Stephen Curry (43.5 percent) has slipped to third on that list — behind Seth and Miami’s Duncan Robinson (43.8).


It’s only fair to point out that Stephen Curry, who has played in just five games for the Warriors this season, has attempted 5,739 3-pointers in his career — 4,753 more than his younger brother’s 986. The Heat’s Robinson, in his second N.B.A. season, has just 578 career attempts.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@marcsteinnba). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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