A Gentleman's Guide to the NBA: When Players Agree to Take Plays Off

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2018

Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) and New York Knicks center Kyle O'Quinn, center, fight for position during a free throw during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 31, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

It was during his NBA debut when Jordan Bell heard the question posed for the first time. "You going?" Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic asked him.

This was late September, and Golden State, which had acquired Bell from the Chicago Bulls during that summer's draft, was hosting the Nuggets. Bell, then a 22-year-old rookie, was standing next to Jokic, alongside the Oracle Arena paint, waiting for a Warriors player—he doesn't remember which one—to shoot his second free throw. He was planning on chasing after the rebound, just as he had in three seasons for the University of Oregon, for which, thanks to his bounce and 6'9" frame, he'd averaged 6.8 rebounds per game.

"I'm not going," Jokic added. Bell wasn't sure whether the Nuggets star was lying or joking. But he knew it had to be one of the two. Moments later, the second free throw left the shooter's hand.

Jokic, keeping his promise, didn't budge.

Bell was dumbfounded.

Soon after, he approached Jarron Collins, a Warriors assistant coach who also played 10 seasons in the NBA, and asked him about the episode.

"[Collins] was like, 'Yeah, it's a thing that happens,'" Bell recalled recently. "He said that sometimes there's no point of putting that beating on the body, so just be like, 'Yo, you got this one.'"

Thanks to Jokic, Bell learned earlier than most this important lesson about NBA life: In a sport in which games can last nearly three hours and seasons almost nine months, it becomes essential to save strength for the more important moments. After all, 100 percent effort on 100 percent of plays would sap even the greatest of deities of their godly gifts and transform contests into stumbling slogs.

And so to avoid this descent into the mud, many players strike unofficial pacts with their opponents. Possessions are punted, secrets are traded, game plans are passed along. It's not that these players don't care about the outcomes of games. Think of it, instead, as a sort of gentleman's pact between players, one governing action across the NBA.

As Sixers center-forward Amir Johnson said: "Sometimes you just feel like resting."

No part of the game presents more opportunity for such handshake agreements than rebounds off free throws. "Everybody does it," Celtics big man Greg Monroe said. "It's just one less play you have to worry about bumping a knee or something like that."

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

There's logic behind the custom. The average NBA player hits about 77 percent of his foul shots. And so, the thought process goes, why exert energy fighting for a ball that the vast majority of the time will splash through the net? Some marksmen even take offense if they see their teammates pursuing a foul shot.

"C Lee doesn't like it when I go; he told me not to," Knicks center Enes Kanter said, referring to Courtney Lee, a career 85.6 percent free-throw shooter. "And I know he's going to make it, so I don't go."

Typically, veterans propose the potential pact while lining up outside the paint, which is often how young players first hear of the tradition. Wizards forward Markieff Morris said he learned about the practice early on in his career while preparing before a foul shot to box out former player Kevin Garnett.

"He goes, 'You going, young fella?' and I was like, 'What do you mean?'" Morris recalled recently. "He's like, 'You going after this rebound?' That's when I really picked up on it."

Most players question opponents about their intentions before committing. "Z-Bo does that a lot," Johnson said, referring to Kings veteran Zach Randolph. "You going?" is the most common phrase, but, according to Johnson, "What we doing? We going to wrestle or take a break?" is used frequently as well.

Other players just announce their intentions and let their opponents decide for themselves, though those declarations are usually followed by a demand.

"Make it look good," Nets center Jahlil Okafor said. "Meaning, 'Make it look good on film.'"

Deceiving the game film is essential when it comes to executing these in-game agreements. Players might be cool with taking plays off, but nobody wants to be singled out for doing so by coaches the following day. The practice is most tricky when defenders are asked to pick up opponents full-court, a chore that, when done at full throttle, can be one of the more grueling tasks in the game.

"Sometimes there are guys that come up and are like, 'Relax, I'm doing it for the coaches,'" Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie said.

Added Warriors guard Shaun Livingston: "Usually the older guys. Young guys have the energy to pick up. The older guys will be like, 'I'm just applying a little pressure to make it look good on film.'"

On offense, players will sometimes tip off their opponents mid-possession if they know the ball's not coming their way. This can happen when they're tasked with standing in the corner or when a team is inbounding the ball.

Of course, not all players are as gentlemanly as others.

"Guys lie all the time," Morris said.

Most of this lying occurs prior to free throws. But the prevalence of these sorts of handshakes offers some of the league's more ruthless players the opportunity to deke relaxed opponents.

"A lot of times if a guy says a play's not for him, that's just a decoy," Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes said. "They'll say that, and all of the sudden a back screen will come."

Like Morris and every other player B/R spoke to for this story, Barnes declined to name the league's most frequent liars.

There is, however, one player who's developed a reputation for duping defenders with his body language—so much so that he was singled out by Barnes, former player Caron Butler and also Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr.

"Any time Manu puts his hands on his knees, he's getting the ball," Smith said, referring to San Antonio Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Said Butler: "Manu is the king of that. He always puts his hands on his knees and acts like he's out of the play, and that's almost always followed by a cut and him getting the ball."

And then there are players like Sixers rookie Ben Simmons, who acknowledged not caring for treaties made between opponents.

"You should be playing hard every time you step on the floor," Simmons said. "Guys get paid to rebound. You don't know if the ball's not coming to you. When someone says that, or that they're not really picking me up full-court, I know I got you."

And so, Simmons said, he's developed a routine for handling those moments.

"They ask me if I'm going, and I usually say 'No' then go for the rebound," he said. "Maybe after that they learn their lesson."

    

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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