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

The first time Jordan Bell heard the question posed was during his NBA debut.

"You going?" Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic asked him.

This was in late September. Bell's Warriors were hosting the Nuggets for a pre-season game. Bell, then a 22-year-old rookie out of the University of Oregon, 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.

"I'm not going," Jokic added. Bell wasn't sure whether the Nuggets star was joking or lying. Moments later, the ball 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 relayed 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, finding ways to save strength for the more important moments is vital. 100 percent effort on 100 percent of plays would sap even the greatest of deities of their godly gifts. Even worse, it would transform contests into stumbling slogs.

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. This is often when young players first hear of the tradition. Wizards forward Markieff Morris said he learned about the practice early on in his career while preparing to box out former player Kevin Garnett before a foul shot.

"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?" are used frequently as well. Other players, meanwhile, just announce their intentions and let their opponents decide for themselves. Those declarations, though, are usually followed by the following demand:

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

Deceiving the game film is critical 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 the following day by a coach. 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. "Usually the older guys do that," added Warriors guard Shaun Livingston. "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 will happen when someone is tasked with standing in the corner or while lining up prior to an inbound's pass.

Unfortunately for these great gentlemen, many players around the league don't hold the same respect for this code. 

"Guys lie all the time," Morris said.

Most of this lying occurs prior to free throws. Some players view the existence of these handshake agreements as an oppurtunity to pad their rebounding stats. And for the league's more ruthless competitors, the prevalence of these pacts presents a juicy opening. 

"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."

Barnes, and every other player B/R spoke to for this story, declined to name the league's most frequent liars. There is, however, one veteran who's developed a reputation for duping defenders with his body language. 

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

Nick Wass/Associated Press

 "He's the king of that," added former NBA player Caron Butler. "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."

It's a custom that some of the league's younger players have elected to carry on.  

"You should be playing hard every time you step on the floor," Sixers rookie Ben 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 added, 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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