NBA’s Big Bet On Basketball Schools To Build A Pipeline For Indian Talent

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 9, 2017

“Grassroots to high performance.” said Yannick Colaco, the managing director of NBA India. “That is our global strategy.”

The NBA on Friday announced the launch of NBA Basketball School, a network of tuition-based basketball development programs around the world open to international male and female players for ages 6-18.

“The NBA Basketball School builds an additional track between the Jr NBA and NBA Academies.” added the vice president of the NBA and the International Basketball Operations & Head of Elite Basketball, Brooks Meek. “The goal is to increase the pool of players who have the talent to attend our academies around the world.”

The first NBA Basketball School was launched on Friday in Mumbai as part of a multi-year agreement announced with India On Track, a sports management, marketing and development company. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months.

Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

How the junior schools help

No Indian has suited up for an NBA team in the regular season till-date. Satnam Singh, the first Indian drafted (by the Dallas Mavericks) to the NBA, has yet to play in the regular season. Currently on the Mavericks D-League team the Texas Legends, Singh’s NBA dream seems even more distant as he suited up for just eight of his team’s 42 games this season.

Like Singh, seven other players (three boys and four girls) headed for the IMG Academies on hefty basketball scholarships in 2010. Unlike Singh, most faded into obscurity. Only Kavita Akula and Barkha Sonkar have done well, and continue to do so. It may seem fair to believe that the IMG experiment failed. But that would ignore the deeper problem with sports development in India: the lack of a structured program for the development of talent in India.

Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

That is what NBA India hopes to address with the programs they have introduced over the past four years. It is the NBA’s vision to create a pipeline for Indians aspiring to become NBA players. Kids get exposed to the game through the in-school Jr NBA Program, can hone their skills at an NBA Basketball School, and eventually graduate to the elite-level NBA Academy.

What about the journey between graduating from an NBA Academy and getting into the NBA?

“When they graduate from an NBA Academy (at about age 18-20), there are multiple opportunities,” Colaco clarified, “be it applying for a scholarship to a college program in the US, seeking to play professionally in Europe or in the D-League, or if they meet all the criteria declaring for the NBA draft. But we would not want to pigeon-hole players, telling them what to get into”

The lack of a committed development approach

Basketball in India is far behind the mainstream sports. Both football and cricket boast established academies and tournaments right from the grassroots up to the elite level. The lack of a committed development approach from the federation has stalled the growth of basketball in India. Conflict at top was a hindrance as recently as six months ago. The dual-faction matter has settled down for now, allowing the appointed federation to step up their activity.

“Our goal is to have our national teams play at the highest level” said an official from the Basketball Federation of India. “This requires a feeder system in which players are coached the right way. The NBA Basketball Schools venture provides the opportunity to get international level coaching to many. This will help basketball in India, both in the short and long term.”

Does having to go up against an established organisation like the NBA hinder any development plans the BFI has? “No.” he says. “We cooperate with the NBA, but our plans are independent and do not overlap. Our vision is to ensure high coaching standards are implemented across India. If anything, the NBA’s efforts help us.”

The balance between development and marketing

Since 2008, the NBA has sought to find a balance between developmental and marketing initiatives. It has constantly been testing the waters to find out what that works. It has started and discontinued activities, tweaked and overhauled initiatives, all in the hopes of finding the right mix that would have the most impact for its brand in India.

“Sure, marketing initiatives help raise awareness about the game,” added the BFI official, “but the last few NBA initiatives have been development focused, which aligns with our vision.”

The NBA sees India both as a pioneer for these programs, and a market to test them for global adoption. Colaco found this position interesting: “India is first off the block in executing the (NBA Basketball Schools) program, which is part of planned network of basketball schools that we will be starting around the world. This is a reflection of how important the Indian market is for the NBA.”

This won’t be the first time the NBA team in India have pioneered a program. Three years ago, the Jr NBA program, the NBA’s decade-old global grassroots initiative, was modified for the first time in India. The old format focused on simple outreach to young kids, while the new format embraced a more defined curriculum structure to be easily implemented during school hours. This change enabled the program to experience unprecedented growth in three years, reaching 1.5 million kids from 2,200 schools in 14 cities, growth that the NBA has not seen across any of its programs globally.

Image credit: NBA India
Image credit: NBA India

Indranil Das Blah, the managing partner at KWAN, India’s leading sports and entertainment agency said, “You cannot build a brand without helping develop the sport organically. That’s where the NBA’s approach to development stands out from most other international organisations in India.”

Blah, whose agency KWAN has worked closely with the NBA on some of its projects, believed the NBA was getting it right. “The NBA has been in India for ten years. They’ve seen, tried, tested adapted to the market. The time is right for these basketball schools”

Colaco added, “With the Jr. NBA Program, we used the learning from previous programs to design a structure that would make a greater impact. It’s clear that we look at the India to a priority market to launch and lead some of our global initiatives”

International sports clubs and organisations with academies in India aren’t a new phenomenon. Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United have all beaten the NBA to the spot. India On Track, the NBA’s partner in the program, also manages the Arsenal Soccer Schools. These schools feature licensed coaches, usually from the clubs’ junior programs. Programs, claimed to be world class, range from one week to a few months. Training sessions happen three times a week and last for about 90 minutes. And how has all this access to world class training worked out?

Not too well.

What NBA India is trying to do differently?

Despite their best efforts, none of the soccer schools have produced a player of note. This is aside from the fact that no player from India has climbed the ranks through the academies to earn a spot on the clubs’ junior teams. Although some of the programs boast of state and national team players, most of them were already at that level upon joining the program. This shortfall in quality has led many to believe that these academies are merely brand building income streams for the clubs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off the largest and one of the highest spending middle classes in the world. But to believe that these academies are the hope of young players and their parents is a bit naive.

“Most of the [sports] schools that have opened up in India, are seeking short term goals over long term growth. They are seeking to be profitable immediately,” said Blah. “It’s a top-down approach that is not sustainable. It’s great to have the big names in football [or other sports] open academies in India. But without a holistic grassroots effort, growth will be a challenge”

Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India
Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India

So what is the NBA doing differently? How do they avoid the same pitfalls?

“It is about crafting a basketball development system and building an entire ecosystem.” Colaco explained. “You can’t have a grassroots program like the Jr. NBA without a next level like NBA Basketball Schools. You can’t have both without an NBA Elite Academy to aspire to. No other (sports schools) program in India has an ecosystem like the one the NBA has built across all ages, level and platforms. That’s where our year-long tuition based program is different. It is the pathway for kids, not the end goal”

Spending on sports has never been a priority for a vast majority of Indian parents. Unlike academics, most don’t see any returns, both immediate and future, to invest in a child’s sporting future. While details on costs haven’t been made public yet, Colaco does not see cost as a stumbling block to price sensitive Indian parents.

Colaco had good news there. “I would like to stress, that while this is tuition based program, we are constantly scouting for the most talented. Our program is not just for people who can afford it. We are in a position to subsidise, or provide training at no cost to talented and deserving players.”

The NBA has laid out the pipeline. Now it will play the waiting game to watch the flow. There is quiet but confident hope among the basketball community that if it all comes together, we will see an Indian player in the NBA or WNBA sooner than later.

Till then, we wait and watch.

In The Middle Of Nowhere: Why Being A Mid-level NBA Team Hardly Pays Off

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 21,2017

It’s the final stretch of the season. Teams have anywhere between 11-13 games left in their schedule.

The best teams are fairly secure: Golden State, San Antonio and Houston have secured playoff spots in the west, while out east Cleveland (secured playoff spot), Boston, Washington and Toronto have a comfortable cushion to securing their playoff spots in the coming weeks. Sure, there are valid arguments against a championship for at least five of them, but a few lucky breaks and/or untimely injuries can swing the race in anyone’s favor.

The worst teams are also sure of their lost season: Brooklyn is clearly out of playoff contention, with Orlando (reset mode), Philadelphia (add another year to “The Process”) and New York (but, but, Rose…sigh) closing in on an early summer, while out west, the Lakers are out of contention, with Phoenix (Eric Bledsoe done for the season), Sacramento (largely Randive’s doing) and Minnesota Timberwolves soon to join the pack. After all, tanking is in order for one of the best, and most important, drafts in recent history.

All this while, much like in the real world, the middle class, struggles.

Being a mid-level team in the NBA could mean several things, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume mid level to be a team that has less than 10% chance of landing a top-3 draft pick and has no home court advantage in any round the playoffs. History makes it a bit easier, with teams usually seeded 5 through 11 (at the time of going into the playoffs) usually meeting this criteria.

Going by the above definition we have fourteen mid-level teams:

  • WEST: LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Hornets
  • EAST: Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets.

Assuming that making the playoffs and (increasing their chance of) winning a championship is a priority for an NBA team; we can divide the fourteen teams further into four categories:

The established contenders:

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks’ brought in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes to fortify the team in the twilight of Nowitzki’s illustrious career. They managed to snag Nerlens Noel in a trade-deadline deal. None of these moves have yielded more wins, with the Mavericks on pace to end up with the franchise’s worst record since 2000. They rely on Nowitzki, but the clock’s ticking on his brilliant career, which isn’t good news for a franchise that has a ton of money tied up with stars who are yet to bring the W’s.

LA Clippers

The LA Clippers’ Big Three have made the playoffs in each of their six seasons together. Injuries to Griffin in 2013, and Blake/Paul last season have derailed hopes of a Championship this far. Both Paul and Griffin are free to opt out of their contracts this season. Assuming, both Paul and Griffin re-sign with the team, the window of opportunity to win becomes narrow due to Chris Paul’s aging body. If they decide to leave, it gives Doc the opportunity to rebuild. Question is, rebuild around whom?

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach Fizdale’s masterstroke of getting Randolph off the bench to spearhead the second unit allowed Gasol to take over the first unit to average career-high numbers. Mike Conley is an All-Star when healthy. The problem is Chandler Parsons who isn’t the player the Grizzlies were hoping would solve their outside shooting woes. It also doesn’t help that he had a season-ending injury. Memphis could trade Parsons to stock up on younger wings that, or wait till he regains his form. Question is how long is the team willing to wait?

The solution:

No short term solution. All the teams are stacked with pricey contracts for established players. They can either blow up the current roster (highly unlikely), or make a few smaller moves (likely) and continue to pound away until a stroke of luck has them holding an NBA Championship.

The young guns:

Denver Nuggets

Denver has been blessed with the arrival of Nikola Jokic. It’s a treat to watch Jokic, just 22, to unleash mayhem at the offensive end as he slowly discovers himself. Suit him up with Gary Harris (22, improving y-o-y), and Emmanuel Mudiay (21, injured this season) and the Nuggets have a decent core around which to build a contender.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans now have the luxury of having at least one superstar on the floor for all 48 minutes. When Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins figure out how to play with each other, there will be no perceivable way to stop the Pelicans. Both are solid 3-point shooters, can put the ball on the floor like guards, and also possess old-school post-up moves. The Pelicons are also armed with a very competent point guard in Jrue Holiday, an upcoming role-player in Tim Fraizer, and a dead-eye shooter in Omri Casspi. Assuming this core stays intact, this is a championship contender in two seasons

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have the most enviable young core of the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton. Fortunately for the Bucks, Middleton returned a few games after Parker went down. Their 12-6 record since the Parker injury (third best in the NBA) is enough of a tease for what is to come when this core plays a fully healthy season in the near future.

The solution:

All also have a their fair share of future stars, veterans both young (5-10 seasons) and established (10+ seasons), to go along with experienced coaches in Mike Malone, Alvin Gentry and Jason Kidd respectively. All that stands between them and an NBA championship is time and experience.

The alpha-dog teams:

Chicago Bulls

A looming Rondo trade/exit and a bigger roster thanks to the Gibson / McDermott trade, the Bulls are in position to trade for, or outright sign a big(ish) name to be Butler’s running mate. Jimmy Butler is hitting his peak which, unless you are LeBron James, only last for about 4-5 seasons. The Bulls would do well to move quick and smart and surround one of the League’s ten best players with a roster that can contend for a Championship.

Indiana Pacers

Paul George is still among the top-20 players in the League and that number climbs if you take into account his ability as a defender as well. However, even with the addition of Jeff Teague, the Pacers are just about mediocre. They are a perennial lock in the postseason as long as George is healthy, but the Pacers will have to dig in deep to find George a running mate who can complement him, before he decides to leave. Jeff Teague is not the answer.

Oklahoma City Thunder

This isn’t a championship team, yet. Much of that can be written off to Russell Westbrook’s quest to prove he can win it all by himself which, of course, he cannot. Westbrook is one of the league’s top-5 players, but isn’t fun to play with. They have interesting pieces in Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and of course Oladipo. Playing with a ball dominant alpha dog, however, significantly affects production numbers of those around him. Weak numbers lead to smaller contracts. Just how many of the current Thunder lot stay on with the team, is yet to be seen.

Portland Trail Blazers

Nurkic will eventually turn into a front-court mainstay, while Crabbe and Harkless have shown potential to be key rotation players. Yet, one cannot fight this nagging feeling that the Blazers are underperforming, even in a comparatively tougher Western Conference. Thankfully, the Blazers are stacked with assets to make the right moves in the coming offseason, giving Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the supporting cast he deserves to turn the team into a contender.

The solution:

Trade, trade, trade. All four have get cracking to load up their teams. The Blazers have a core to build around, so it should be easier. The Thunder are banished to Westbrook-Ball Land for now. Until he comes around, there is no helping them. The Pacers and the Bulls have a roster full of players who aren’t indispensable. The clock’s ticking on all the four teams’ stars’ peaks. Trade, trade, trade.

The teams that need to hit the reset button:

Atlanta Hawks

They remain mediocre and don’t have too many trade assets with which to make the team a Championship contender. In related news, Paul Millsap turns 32, and isn’t a franchise player. The Spurs have shown that you do not need a “franchise player” to win a Championship. Hawks’ coach Mike Budenholzer knows that model; he was assistant coach on the Spurs. The Hawks have no choice, but to reset the roster, scout and recruit well at the Draft and build a contender from ground up.

Charlotte Hornets

They overachieved last season. They carried that confidence into this season. Kemba Walker, with a fairly competent roster, can take you to 40 wins. That is the ceiling, though. That is smack in the middle of the pack. If Charlotte wants to compete with the big guns, they would have to make their peace with the current roster, let them go, and go fishing in the Draft.

Detroit Pistons

Like the Hornets, the Pistons overachieved last season. Unlike the Hornets, they have Andre Drummond who has the potential to become the League’s best center. He cannot shoot free throws, though. How do you build around a potential franchise player, when he cannot be on the floor in a close game? Tobias Harris is an exciting prospect and along with Drummond could form the core of a potential East contender. A better roster, though, and a few years of experience can make them Championship contenders

Miami Heat

In Miami, hope is riding on Hassan Whiteside blossoming into one of league’s top-15 players (has the potential). Goran Dragic has risen into one of the league’s elite scoring point-guards. Dion Waiters’ remains one the league’s most polarizing players. Even with the growth of Tyler Johnson and return of Justise Winslow, the Heat are just a 45-win team (sixth-seed) in the East. The Heat have recruited well enough to have a roster of players that could either mature and turn them into a contender in a couple of seasons, or become trade pieces for an All-Star level player.

The solution:

Hit the “reset” button.

  1. Keep one (or two) core pieces: Hardaway / Schroder in Atlanta, Walker in Charlotte, Drummond / Harris in Detroit, Whiteside in Miami.
  2. Trade away older / valuable assets: Howard in Atlanta, Batum in Charlotte, Morris / Jackson in Detroit, Dragic / Waiters in Miami.
  3. Trade for younger legs and potential
  4. Trade for younger legs and potential
  5.   Tank for the high draft pick

There Will Never Be Another Dirk Nowitzki

The 38-year-old Dallas Mavericks legend became the first international player to breach the 30,000 point barrier.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 16, 2017

Thirty thousand points. The holy grail of scorers. The mark of the greatest.

And then there were six.

Last Tuesday, Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks legend, became the sixth NBA player, and the first international player, to have breached the 30,000 point barrier.

The ones that have done it before him?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,

Karl Malone,

Michael Jordan,

Kobe Bryant, and

Wilt Chamberlain.

Not bad company.

The last of the players from the end of the Chicago-Jordan era, it took Nowitzki nineteen seasons to reach the milestone. A master of the step-back-fade away, it was poetic that he hit the mark in signature style, with a shot that he made his living on.

Dirk’s greatest contribution to the game of basketball would be his signature step-back fade away. The second greatest shot after Jabbar’s transcendent skyhook, Nowitzki’s fade away is unguardable. A shot that he loves to launch this from anywhere near the free throw line, his height combined with exceptional control over his centre of gravity, allows him to release the shot with his shooting hand nearly parallel to the ground. Simply put, when in form, the only way to stop Dirk is to hope he misses.

Greatness is determined by the defining moments in a player’s career. His legacy is crafted by his character both in times of adversity and success. Numbers matter. Champions, however, are rarely remembered by their numbers. Instead it’s the defining moments in their career that set them apart.

Dirk had two such moments.

The 2006-‘07 season

It was turning out to be Nowitzki’s swansong season. Coming off a career high (26.6 PPG) and a tough, controversial loss against the 2006 Miami Heat team led by Dwyane Wade and newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal, the Mavericks pulled together a third 60-win season in five years. They finished with the best record in the NBA (67-15) and set up a first round matchup with the feisty Golden State Warriors who held on to the eighth seed with a mediocre 42-40. This was to be a cakewalk for the blazing Mavericks who had League MVP Nowitzki, surrounded by a group of hard working talented professionals. This was undoubtedly the Mavericks title to lose. And they did just that.

The Warriors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history, beating the Mavericks in six games and cutting off the journey to what should have been Nowitzki’s first NBA championship. Add this devastating loss to the controversial loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals and you have an empty handed Dirk Nowitzki after two 60-win seasons and career highs in nearly every statistical category.

While this may have crushed any other player, Nowitzki returned stronger, and kept pounding away, piling on 50-win seasons, averaging 25 PPG / 8.2 RPG, and making the Playoffs every season until…

The 2010-‘11 season

Also known as the season of The Decision, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, and teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh turning the Miami Heat into instant title contenders. In the West, Nowitzki had become synonymous with the ability to show up in the Playoffs but not get anywhere.

He and his motley crew were the cute kids that showed up to play but always left the winning to the big kids. Not this time around. Leading the Mavericks to their 11th straight season with 50-wins and a playoff berth, the Mavericks began with a 4-2 win over the Portland Trailblazers in Round 1. Somewhere close by, the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies topped the league leading San Antonio Spurs in six games.

The Mavericks, surprisingly, then proceeded to not only sweep Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but also dismantle the young Oklahoma City Thunder (led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), beating them 4-1 to set up a Finals clash with the Miami Heat.

Detractors doubted the Mavericks every step of the way, calling them old, or a fluke, awaiting what they believed was inevitable: a drubbing at the hands of the Big Three. Little did they know, the Mavericks had other plans.

After splitting the first four games at two-a-piece, the Mavericks led by a valiant 32-year Nowitzki and a resurrected 33-year old Jason Terry, took the fight to Miami at both ends of the floor. Defensively, they allowed LeBron to take as many open jump shots as he wanted, knowing it was his greatest weakness. Offensively they stayed efficient, never dropping below 40%, even from beyond the 3-point line. Nowitzki blitzed the disrespectful duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, by averaging 26 PPG / 9.7 RPG for the series. They rest as they say is history, as the Mavericks took games 5 and 6 to and carry home the 2011 NBA Championship.

The purest scorer

Drafted ninth in 1998, the seven-foot then-lanky German was relatively unknown amongst basketball experts. International scouting was still nascent and was usually treated as an indulgence. Teams were content with the talent available domestically.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the country’s elite college athletics system, had more than its fair share of international players racking up valuable experience of the American style of play. This was important since European players were perceived to be physically inferior. Much of this perception was rooted in the European style of play that relied team play, passing and the ability to shoot. Hero-ball was scoffed at while passers and shooters and pure scorers were heralded.

And Dirk Nowitzki is the purest scorer of them all.

Expanding the range to include all players that have scored at least 20,000 points (41), only four players have shot better than 38% from 3-point range, three of whom were guards: Ray Allen (24,505, 40%) Reggie Miller (25,279, 39.4%), Mitch Richmond (20,297, 38.8%). Nowitzki, the European nobody, is the only forward to average more than 38% from the field AND have tallied at least 20,000 points.

The argument against these criteria is that the 38-year-old German is a forward and must be compared to his peers who made a living inside the 3-point line. Even there, only twelve players in NBA history have shot better (2-pt %) than Dirk’s 49.7%. Add the fact that Dirk’s career free throw percentage (the kryptonite of most forwards and centres) is currently 89.7% (ranked 15th All-Time) and you begin to understand why there isn’t a convincing argument against crowning Nowitzki the greatest scoring forward in NBA history.

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki

The stat that sets Nowitzki apart from the rest, though, is that he scored every one of his points with the same team. An honour he only shares with another legend, Kobe Bryant.

The 38-year-old has already confirmed that he will return for the next season, a decision that would have been helped by the young nucleus that the Mavericks now boast off. They have a young core in Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, while getting lucky with the emergence of Yogi Ferrell and acquiring Nerlens Noel in arguably the best trade at the 2017 trade deadline. With Nowitzki playing the elderly statesme, the Mavericks, now just three games behind Denver for that eighth spot, have a few interesting pieces to surround this core and make a legit run at the playoffs.

Matthews, who is both older (30) and has had a serious injury, is the only, even if minor, concern for the Mavericks. If the Barnes-Curry-Ferrell-Noel core can make the right leaps, this will be a team that can contend for a spot in the NBA Finals next season. With that ceiling and a few lucky breaks in their favour, the Mavericks could very well send off the greatest scoring forward in NBA history with his second Championship ring.

If you are keeping score at home, Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-foot European sharp-shooter, who shoots 2’s with as much ease as he shoots 3’s, develops the second most unstoppable shot in NBA history, plays at least 20 seasons with the same team, scores over 30,000 points, wins regular season MVP and has at least one NBA championship.

See the pattern?

Yes, I am going there…

There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.