Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from “Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever,” a new book by Jake Fischer, which is on sale now.
As Karl-Anthony Towns strolled onto the Barclays Center stage on June 25, 2015, Bill Duffy readied to finally learn the fate of his newest star client. Seated at Jahlil Okafor’s green room table, Duffy turned to find D’Angelo Russell’s group. He locked eyes with the point guard’s representative, Aaron Mintz of CAA Sports.
The agent business can be cutthroat, replete with backstabbing and shadow dealings. Many representatives, too, have formed competitive friendships with their rivals, sharing in the unique moments their profession brings. And as the clock ticked down on Los Angeles’ No. 2 selection, Duffy jutted his palms toward the arena’s rafters, shrugging to Mintz he had no clue what the Lakers were about to decide. Mintz shook his head in return, scrunching his shoulders in equal uncertainty.
Mitch Kupchak revealed nothing over the phone. “He’d say, ‘We haven’t made up our mind. We haven’t made up our mind,’” Duffy recalls. “He said that repeatedly.”
Few Lakers officials truly knew their general manager’s preference until the morning of the draft. “The way Mitch Kupchak ran things, it was very covert,” says Clay Moser, the longtime Lakers staffer.
“We couldn’t figure out what was gonna happen,” Jahlil Okafor recalls. “I didn’t know. I was super nervous.” The Duke center visited Los Angeles twice pre-draft. Lakers staff bordered the sideline to watch his full-court workout. With media attending his second session, Okafor flashed his mid- range jumper. Okafor hadn’t played live basketball since the championship game in April, and his physique looked as such. Even still, Okafor impressed Lakers officials with athleticism and skill level.
The giant wanted to be the next of Los Angeles’ great centers, only Lakers brass were just as enamored by D’Angelo Russell’s dexterity.
Russell’s workouts hadn’t gone as smoothly. He bombed his first Los Angeles visit so badly, the Lakers called his agent to organize another visit, where Russell once again struggled in a three-on-three game with other, lower-ranked prospects. “I sucked, man,” Russell says. “I didn’t think I was going to be a Laker. I’ll tell you that.”
Lakers evaluators worried the pressure had gotten to Russell’s head. As much as they loved his skill set, they fretted the activity between his ears. “There were real concerns about D’Angelo’s kind of emotional maturity makeup,” Moser says.
Los Angeles dialed Andy Miller of ASM Sports. The powerbroker who represented Nerlens Noel now managed Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian couldn’t miss during his agency’s Las Vegas pro day in mid-June. ESPN even filmed a SportsCenter segment from the gym. “There was so much hype,” recalls one ASM agency figure.
Some teams questioned Porzingis’ toughness, but a closed workout was the perfect environment to showcase Porzingis’ speed and shooting stroke at such size. “He’s like 7-foot-4 out there with an 8-foot-5 wingspan and incredible touch,” says Dirk Nowitzki, the Hall of Fame shooting big. “He can move, he can put it on the floor.”
Before the ASM showcase, Miller made one directive clear: Sam Hinkie was not permitted to speak to Porzingis. ASM staffers would allow Knicks president Phil Jackson to meet their client, however, Miller detested Hinkie’s free agency inactivity. While Sixers supporters cheered Philadelphia’s $20 million in cap space that preserved flexibility for future trades, able to take on bad contracts at the cost of extra draft capital, the strategy clearly burned agents like Miller economically. One fewer team bidding on players shrunk the free agent marketplace and downsized the scope of player reps’ leverage. Hinkie also hardly returned Miller’s phone calls.
With a media groundswell boosting Porzingis’ draft stock, Miller could get away with stonewalling the Sixers’ president. “Andy did that whole thing,” says one ASM rep. He refused to disclose Porzingis’ medical, just like Joel Embiid’s camp had done with several teams the previous June. Only Minnesota, Los Angeles, and New York received Porzingis’ information, although Orlando retained his 2014 information on file. “Without that physical, no owner was gonna draft him,” says the ASM voice. “He’s this big-ass name and you don’t have his physical and something’s wrong with him, then you look like a complete idiot.”
If Philadelphia passed on Porzingis, Miller would have successfully steered his client to the Knicks, a franchise in dire need of a running mate for Carmelo Anthony who could bridge the future of Madison Square Garden. And now Porzingis’ pro-day performance inspired the Lakers to host him for a more intimate evaluation. Miller couldn’t have accepted the invitation quicker. Los Angeles, even more so than New York, bred superstars. “I was like, ‘Oh shit,’” Porzingis recalls. “‘I would love to be a Laker.’”
He and his brother Janis drove directly west from Las Vegas, quibbling over music choices on the stereo. They couldn’t have known their four- hour trek, fresh off Porzingis’ pro day, would leave him depleted for his Los Angeles visit. “I was just so tired in that moment and it was a tough workout,” Porzingis says. His jumper looked flat as shot after shot clanked off iron. Porzingis saw his chance at No. 2 slipping away with each miss. “I didn’t feel like I showed what I could actually do,” Porzingis says. “I felt like that opportunity wasn’t there anymore.”
Indeed, just before draft night, Kupchak phoned Ohio State head coach Thad Matta one last time. The general manager kept highlighting how Golden State’s five-man “Death Lineup” of Stephen Curry and interchange- able wings dismantled the great LeBron James.
“What position are those guys playing?” Kupchak asked Matta, rhetorically. “They’re just playmakers. That’s the way the NBA’s going right now, is playmakers.”
Matta chuckled on the other end of the line. “And D’Angelo is definitely a playmaker.”
Arriving back at the Barclays Center podium, Adam Silver made things official when he announced Russell as the Lakers’ No. 2 selection. “I think Steph shifted that there,” says Bill Duffy.
“The NBA was changing,” adds a Duke staffer. “Jah got caught up right in the middle of it.”
Lakers coaches were preoccupied with how Hollywood’s spotlight could impact any 19-year-old. Many had minted Russell as Los Angeles’ next star to succeed Bryant. Then he converted only 32.7 percent of his 223 threes through January, after shooting 41 percent at Ohio State. Local sports talk hosts began comparing his production to that of Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis, who both averaged over 14 points and seven rebounds as first-years.
Palpable pressure expected Russell to still make the NBA’s All-Rookie team. There’s nowhere in Los Angeles the Lakers’ heir apparent can hide.
After practices, assistant coach Jim Eyen sat Russell down for film study. “As he’s learning the pro game, you don’t really want him to get caught up in stats,” Eyen says. He made sure to highlight Russell’s hockey assists more than the helpers that registered in box scores. “‘This was great. You did this right. No you didn’t score here, but you made the play that led to the pass that led to the score,’” Eyen explained. “‘You read the situation exactly like you needed to.’”
Scott would pull Russell when he thought the rookie was freelancing instead of setting the table for teammates. He’d offer varying reasons as to why he benched Russell during crunch time situations. “I think Byron coached D’Angelo from the heart. He did what he thought the best thing for D’Angelo was. It would have been easier had he just taken the path of least resistance,” Eyen says. “But he didn’t. It’s a lot more difficult to try to do it, what you feel is the right way and discipline when you need to discipline. Pat him on the butt and give him accolades when he deserves it and just do what you feel you need to do for not only the team, but for the long term of the player and the team.”
Russell, frankly, disagrees. Scott didn’t handle sophomore forward Julius Randle with the same kid gloves. “He’s an idiot,” Russell says of his coach.
Russell felt Scott often yanked him from close contests purely to spark controversy and attention for his postgame media availability. “I just think he was malicious for no reason,” Russell says. “He’s a solid man. But as a coach, he was bad. He was just bad at his job.”
When Scott summoned Russell back to the bench, Russell took his most circuitous path in order to duck high-fiving the coaching staff. “I was just young. I used to do all types of shit to avoid talking to him,” Russell says. The guard bristled in his seat at the end of Los Angeles’ pine. Lakers officials diagnosed the dynamic as evidence of Russell’s immaturity issues scouts across the league had flagged before the draft.
Those skeptics didn’t hear Russell badger Lou Williams for scoring tricks or ask Metta World Peace how to handle public scrutiny. The teenager often hung out with one of Bryant’s private security guards on the road too. One night in Houston, Bryant returned back to his room after meeting with Tim Cook in the hotel lobby.
“Guys go out and party in every city,” the Hall of Famer told Russell. “I’m meeting with the CEO of Apple. Think about what you want to do when you’re done playing and work on it now, so when the basketball’s done for you, you’ve already built a brand.”
Russell admits he failed to grasp many of Bryant’s teachings then. “Everything he said to me comes back around all the time,” Russell says. “He used to say this, he used to say that, drop the jewels here.” They’d break down specific play sets and how to read various defenses. Russell was young, but he had veterans to check his swagger.
This excerpt of “Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever,” by Jake Fischer, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information to order a copy, please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.