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Taking the Initiative

Published: October 28, 2018

This week, New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps was called “a lousy general manager” by former NBA Commissioner and contemporaneous proxy owner of the New Orleans Hornets David Stern.

This produced reactions all over the NBA, including the local media and the New Orleans Pelicans themselves.

I want to address a few things about how this thing, and some others, were addressed.

Taking Back Initiative

If someone walks up to you and hits you right across the face, there are several possible immediate reactions. One large group of reactions is to “attack.” This would be to punch back or something. Another group would be to “defend.” This might include running away, moving oneself from striking distance, negotiating, and so on.

We also have options involving third-parties. So, other parties could act in a way that is roughly in one of those two categories. For example, a friend could rush to your aid and attack or move you to a safe distance.

The Pelicans statement responding to Stern’s comment is in the “defend” category largely, but perhaps it has some indirect “attack” in it.

“He is part of our family, the NBA family. We are excited about the direction of the team, the 3-0 start of this season, building on the success of the 2017-18 playoffs. Finally, our organization is excited and proud to be part of the NBA with the progressive and innovative leadership of NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Comments from third parties including saying positive and negative things about both parties, which is to be expected.

I get it. I’m on record with my position on Demps (it’s positive), and I’ve taken a ton of heat for it (including this season). Time has proven to be on Demps’ side (and mine to some extent), but I’d already said that before Stern’s comments were public. Why say it again? The Pelicans had already extended him. Their position was clear, why say it again and bring up a statistically irrelevant if emotionally significant handful of games? I can also understand why someone who held an opposing view, like Stern, would want to share their view if someone else had been praising Demps.

I know why many third parties leap in: attention, “publish instantly or perish,” and the need to overreact since many defenders were very recently saying things much like Stern.

All of that is not the best approach in my opinion. I’m not knocking the response of the team and some others (other others: yes, you’re stupid, a hypocrite, or both). I just think there’s a better way, and I’m saying it. That does not mean there are not many good ways to handle it.

Here’s what I recommend. Operate from a position of strength that takes the initiative back. Respond like a champion. Transcend the situation and take control of it rather than have your actions dictated by an opponent. In the punching cartoon I laid out, imagine the response of just doing what you were doing as if you’d never been punched. Send the message that you simply were not hurt and that they just can’t hurt you, assuming it was not truly damaging rather than just some pain. Now you’ve sent the message that they are too weak to hurt you, that you are too strong to be hurt, or both. Additionally, the attacker then has to react to this. They have to quit (doing nothing is a reaction) or hit harder. The second may be undesirable, but only if you are vulnerable in a real sense. Either way, you’ve dictated the terms to them and you’ve seized the initiative in the game. In Go, this is called Sente, and it is of great importance.short-term losses or reduced gains are endured to hold Sente and reap greater benefits in the long-term.

I’ll illustrate my position using this recent example. You know the media have to ask you about the Stern comments, so let them ask you. Now, you get to say your piece without reacting to comments unilaterally. Rather, your comments come out in the normal course of business, not dignifying the comments with a special statement and, in doing so, give the original attack more power. Then, you offer a charitable response that essentially disarms the attacker. Something like:

Yes, we got word that those comments were out there. They are from a guy who did great things for this League and this city, but that was a long time ago and so was his experience in the operations here in New Orleans. He’s entitled to his opinion and I respect him, but I’m not going to put his opinion over those who have worked in the League for the past few years side by side with Dell. We clearly respect Dell because of the success he helps bring to New Orleans, which is why he’s kept his job this long, one of the longest runs in the NBA today. He’s on his fourth ownership structure, and all of them thought he was the right person for the job, including David Stern who could have fired him at any point but did not. What David Stern did then means more than what he’s saying now because his actions, everyone will agree, mean more to all of us than his words.

Let Gentry field the question and have him rattle off something like that, then you leave it alone. If you want, later, if things are going well, you can have some fun with the “lousy” comment.

Getting into a cycle of reacting to barbs that are just thrown out arbitrarily can be used against you because it can be used to make you predictable. This can make you vulnerable to unwittingly complying with some larger strategy to do god-knows-what. Better to set the terms. You can win later.

When there’s a pattern or something egregious, reactions are appropriate (I’m reacting to something now to some extent). Making a habit of reacting to stand alone instances of no real importance is the thing that is a net-negative.

Chain Reactions

Complicit in all this is how the public, and, therefore, the media, reacts to these things. I see poor analysts bashing analysis. People who spread rumor and dig up irrelevant details from people’s personal lives complaining about the character of Stern in this matter. I see people who just make stuff up complaining about the facts and their representation.

Without question, the media has an obligation to ask the team about this. Even if you know the important details of the matter, that just comes with the role of the media. It’s also absolutely fair for people to give their own opinion if that is consistent with their role in the media. Maybe columnists say more than reporters on the matter, for instance.

The problem is not about this incident. The problem is reacting to everything as if it’s significant, giving most things mostly equal importance and mostly equal relevance. This is likely for the reasons stated above. When its lean times for stories, the standard lowers. Once reactions become the story, it starts a chain where the media is a part of the story. That’s cute for a movie, but that’s not the way most stories are supposed to go. This is the problem.

Rather than react to whatever seems shiny as if it’s significant, use the chance to invest in something closer to the game, like recent trends, breaks from trends, new plays, etc.. We’re surrounded with data, analysis, and smart people, all of which are sources for something to say. Even if it’s not terribly interesting to experts, it might be so the more casual fans. Converting a casual fan is a help to all parties. Those are good times to invest in the readership and expand just want qualifies as a story of interest.

Again, take the initiative, and show people some of what hooked so many others rather than going with the easier story that will lead to nowhere other than the need to replace it with something else equally cheap.

Not everyone can or will do this, but some doing it would be a big help and show some leadership on the issue, and maybe take the initiative.

Dictating on the Court

Taking this theme of initiative out of the the media arena and looking on the court, there is a point to be raised here, as well. It’s often parroted that teams should want to “dictate” the pace or the style or something to the other team. This makes the other team react and gives you the initiative which give you the chance to shift the game into your favor.

Most teams do not do this, however. In many cases, neither team is really anchored and the teams just “dance” around each other. See: It’s a game of runs.

Earlier this season . . . so, not that long ago . . . Coach Gentry said the team would do this by forcing the bigs on other teams. Friday after the Nets game, he said Mirotic spent more time on the bench when hosting Brooklyn than normal because of how small the Nets went (and it worked). The Pelicans ended up winning a close one off of some fluky events falling their way, but the Pelicans could easily be sitting at 3-2, not 4-1, going into the first of three rough road trips this season. Certainly, there are circumstances where discretion is the better part of valor, but it’s something to keep an eye on while the team is showing other signs of getting away from dictating the game. Whether more cause or more effect, the Pelicans also failed to play “their game” against the Nets and Jazz. The rebounding they need was not there, and their assist count was down.

One positive sign of the team taking the initiative was, ironically, shutting down Davis and Payton. Both players were injured in recent games. Davis hurt his elbow in the Nets game, played fine, but his elbow was reacting after the game. He was shut down before the Jazz game as a precautionary measure, according to the information available at this time. Payton cramped in the Nets game, but hurt his ankle in the Jazz game. This was again, we are told, precautionary.

Talking with the excellent Michael Pellissier after the game, we both wondered if this is tied to more long-term perspective of “being ready once we get to the post-season” as opposed to “we have to do everything we can to make it to the post-season.” Time will tell, but if things tend more to the former, that’s a positive sign from where I sit. You want to go into post-season ready to set your terms and you are showing confidence that you can maintain the pace needed to get you there because you are better enough than half of the other teams in the West.

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