“Teams survive on TV money, season-ticket revenue and luxury suites. They don’t care about the upper decks. They care about getting fat checks in March and April for the following season, then banking that money for a few months and collecting interest on it. They care about getting us to pay for a spring’s worth of playoff tickets up front even though our team might survive only eight days in the postseason. And if they stink, they care about only one thing: creating an illusion of regret.” – Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons
The statement sounded good, with the general manager apparently committed to landing his hard-to-sign first-round draft pick and thereby soon bring relief to fans of a franchise essentially troubled since its inception.
And then you realize it’s David Kahn talking about signing Ricky Rubio. David Kahn of the long-suffering Minnesota Timberwolves. And you start thinking about what ESPN columnist Simmons so succinctly summarized as the “illusion of regret.”
“The illusion of regret is crucial. It’s the single most important dynamic in the NBA right now. It drives every lottery drawing, every trade deadline and every free-agency period.”
For years (let’s say pretty much all of 1989-1997 and everything after game seven of the 2004 NBA Western Conference Championship), the Wolves have mostly been a more cohesive version of the New York Knicks, a slightly-less-invisible northern counterpart to the Los Angeles Clippers. Management and public relations have played the regret card repeatedly in two decades plus, from apologies about overrated and/or underplayed Christian Laettner and Ray Allen (shades of Marko Jaric) to shoulder shrugs about aging Kevin Garnett’s lack of supporting cast to today’s Rubio buyout issues.
Perhaps this is why yours truly is a tad skeptical of Kahn’s determination, even with seemingly airtight emphatic statements like, “Don’t believe anything you read, or any kind of emotional outburst, or any kind of emoting of any sort that [Rubio] will not play here. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m looking very forward to him starting his career here with the Minnesota Timberwolves in what I assume will be a year-and-a-half.”
Also of note in Kahn’s statement to True Hoop was his remark that “We have people at most of [Rubio’s] games.” You know Timberwolves fans want to believe this (badly), but recall a Simmons’ annual “Trade Value List” column published in mid-February in which The Sports Guy goes out of his way to make the following aside:
(Follow-up story: Another NBA team sent someone to Spain to watch Rubio play for FC Barcelona a few weeks ago. The individual ran into one of Rubio’s advisers and asked him how many times someone from Minnesota had come to see Rubio this season. The answer? Zero.)
On one hand, Simmons’ source is hardly the most formally acknowledged (as opposed to, say, True Hoop getting it right from the horse’s mouth); on the other hand, Simmons is hardly the sort to name-drop (or in this case, source drop) in order to fill out an entertaining column. Both The Sports Guy’s and Kahn’s mentions of scouting Rubio have two things in common: The inclusion of each within the respective ESPN piece was conspicuous and each is diametrically opposed to the other. Was Simmons’ piece the very “emotional outburst or any kind of emoting” to which Kahn referred?
“The illusion of regret is also relatively evil […]: convincing people to pay for the unlikely chance that something good might happen, then making them feel like idiots when it doesn’t. This is how the NBA differs from any other professional sport. In a league with 12-man rosters, in which only five guys can play at once, you’re really only as good as your franchise guy. If you don’t have one, you’re screwed.”
I was talking to Henry Abbott, he who reported the statement on Rubio from Kahn, last week on the phone. (Hey, if Simmons can casually mention David Stern, i can name-drop the True Hoop Network boss.) The conversation somehow came ‘round to Darko Milicic; while i understand the Timberwolves’ acquisition here, naturally blastworthy (at least by BiE’s reckoning) is a statement like this one: “I hope he will give it one more shot. Even if he ends up returning to Europe, I hope he wants to end his NBA career on a positive note. In our situation, he’ll play.”
But Abbott presciently interrupted my derisive stream of consciousness with, “Yeah, but he’s playing!”
Indeed, Milicic was on the court for 19 minutes of play – including much of the fourth quarter – in his first game with the Timberwolves, a 109-107 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Fans were reportedly cheering for his return, a sound mostly unheard in an arena outside of Novi Sad since Darko came to the NBA in 2003. In three of the four games since then, Darko’s seen at least 23 minutes of playing time.
And yet, after Milicic’s second game with Minnesota in which his 25 minutes at Miami had some in the sportswriting world readying “feel-good story of the year” bylines, Darko barely maintained a diplomatic tone in replying that envisioning playing in the NBA in 2010-11 is “Hard, really hard … But you never know what could happen. I went through a lot of bad experiences in this league … If it’s a good experience, it’s only 26 games.”
Why does BiE get the feeling the “sorry” lines are being prepared in Minnesota?
“That’s where the illusion of regret comes in. A non-contender needs to convince its fans every spring, You better lock down another year of your seats, because if you don’t, you’re gonna miss out when we kick ass and make the playoffs and it’s going to be impossible to get good seats and you’ll be jealous!”
A team like the Timberwolves doesn’t necessarily have to be a loser. They’ll just need to start laying out some dollars, an action management has consistently resisted in past years (and thus probably costing the one-man-short Garnett-Starbury Wolves at least one NBA title), in the upcoming free-agent free-for-all.
One obvious sign, however, point to the would-be Rubio Suitors as expecting to do exactly the opposite. Figure the league’s seventh-smallest payroll to shrink even further. How do we know the Wolves won’t bust the budget (or even tweak it a little) to produce a contender? This is pretty good evidence. Note that language in there, too:
Combine that with being one year closer to Ricky Rubio and maybe signing European big man Nikola Pekovic, and you have a recipe for another exciting offseason. And just as we work tirelessly to improve the team on the court, we’re doing whatever it takes to win back our fans.
Wait a minute, they’re selling discounted 2010-11 season tickets on the premise of “another exciting off-season”? Do you need season tickets to look up free-agency rumors on the internet? And don’t forget the capper: “So stick with us. Be able to say ‘I was there when…’” Yes, i wouldn’t want to miss out when the Rubio-Pekovic-Milicic Timberwolves kick ass and make the playoffs and it’s going to be impossible to get good seats!
Finally, there’s one last question about the whole likelihood of Rubio to Minnesota: What’s there for him? Let’s assume that the Lebrons, Boshs and Wades of the free-agent universe eschew the Timberwolves for greater pastures and the team is relegated to wooing talent around the Renaldo Balkman level. So Rubio, by then potentially a back-to-back triple crown winner with one of the most dominant European teams of the past ten years, is going to play with a team whose top player could well by Ryan Gomes (assuming Al Jefferson goes free agent or is traded for 30% of value before the 2012 tipoff)? Seriously, just look at this depth chart.
Ricky Rubio, marketing machine in the making, is going to leave sunny Barcelona and the adoration of millions for a medium-sized U.S. market in which NBA basketball is a distant second in sports fans’ hearts to NFL football (and maybe even NHL hockey)? Ricky Rubio, one of the youngest ever to start at point guard for FC Barcelona is going to have to share minutes at point guard with Jonny Flynn, the Wolves’ other first-round bonus baby?
Maybe it’s just the cynicism that comes with the discussion of big money, but even despite Mr. Kahn’s urgent willingness to do the right thing with Rubio (i.e. pay him and build a Minnesota Timberwolves team around him), BiE has a hard time believing that Rubio will play more games in a Minnesota uniform than will Stephon Marbury in Barcelona gear. Tough time to be a Timberwolves fan…