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Amid the havoc wreaked by three trades he made last week, involving seven other teams and 23 players, Gersson Rosas of the Minnesota Timberwolves missed one of the most important news bulletins of his professional life.
Three days before the N.B.A. trade deadline, BlackBerry announced that it was taking another significant step away from the device-making business to continue its recent focus on operating as a software cybersecurity company.
“You broke my heart,” said Rosas, who hadn’t heard the news until I relayed it to him after the deadline.
Rosas, Minnesota’s first-year president of basketball operations, had been feeling rather triumphant otherwise after a series of trades that began with a Jan. 16 swap with Atlanta, which sent Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham to the Hawks in exchange for Allen Crabbe. When things finally settled after three further trades, Minnesota had at last acquired the former All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell to end a seven-month pursuit.
The BlackBerry development, though, undeniably stung. Rosas, you see, is one of four lead decision makers for N.B.A. teams known to still do the bulk of their business on a BlackBerry.
Rosas, Houston’s Daryl Morey, Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti and Toronto’s Masai Ujiri compose the confirmed quartet. Milt Newton, Milwaukee’s assistant general manager, is another Blackberry devotee. Perhaps more will become known after this article hits, but Rosas described the adherents as “a small community.”
BlackBerry stopped producing its own phones in 2016 but had a licensing agreement with a Chinese company (TCL Corporation) to keep making them, which led to the KEYone model in February 2017 and the KEY2 in June 2018. According to the Feb. 3 announcement, no new phones will be released through TCL after Aug. 31.
So barring the emergence of a new licensing partner to keep the brand alive, BlackBerry loyalists — subjected to a steady stream of doomsday headlines over the years — are thus forced to brace for the worst this time.
“It’s something,” Rosas said, “I haven’t been able to give up.”
I completely co-sign the sentiment. There is simply nothing in the smartphone game that can replicate typing on BlackBerry’s physical QWERTY keyboard — nothing.
I still assemble the first draft of every story I write on my KEY2. That’s largely because of the keyboard, but it is also because the phone is ultramobile and, unlike bigger devices that encourage the easily distracted (like me) to multitask, it helps me focus. I will bust it out on planes, in restaurants and at coffee shops any time the planets align and a stream of paragraphs hits me. Whenever I encounter N.B.A. executives who I know still use various BlackBerry devices, we always end up talking about our phones.
Rosas carries an iPhone as a companion device for music, watching videos and its greater selection of apps. (Confession: So do I.) Yet he estimated that roughly 35 percent of the work and negotiations that went into Minnesota’s three trades last week were BlackBerry-driven.
“In this day and age, you’re really using every device and mode of communication that you can — phone, email, laptop, iPad,” Rosas said.
While making it clear that there is no substitute for direct communication to “make sure you and your trade partners are on the same page to confirm deal terms and confirm everything that’s been talked about,” Rosas said, “the BlackBerry is a constant companion.”
It has been that way for Rosas since he broke into the league full time as a scout with the Rockets in 2004. Rosas also scouted for U.S.A. Basketball at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Just being a scout at heart, I’ve always been a guy who did my reports digitally,” Rosas said. “There’s no beating the keyboard. The feel, man.”
The most recent BlackBerry models typically received high marks in the areas of cybersecurity and battery life, but it’s that “feel” Rosas described that has kept the device from going extinct in the N.B.A.
Two of the league’s more popular veteran guards, Detroit’s Derrick Rose and the free agent Jamal Crawford, also can’t quit the phone that former President Barack Obama famously relied on so heavily throughout his two terms in the White House.
“I won’t give it up,” Crawford said emphatically.
Yet the last few BlackBerry holdouts around the league have come to expect grief from colleagues for hanging onto a smartphone often mocked as a relic.
“We always get our chops busted for being the guy responsible for the green bubble in group messages,” Rosas said, referring to the green background that pops up in text exchanges with an iPhone when the message comes from a phone with a different operating system.
Asked if Newton gets a hard time from fellow Bucks employees about his insistence on using a BlackBerry, Milwaukee General Manager Jon Horst said: “Constantly.”
Absorbing such barbs, mind you, had never been more enjoyable for Rosas than they were last week. On Wednesday, Minnesota and Houston were the headliners in a four-team trade that landed the highly coveted Robert Covington with the Rockets and sent the Timberwolves a Nets first-round pick in June and Malik Beasley, the promising Denver swingman. Then on Thursday, trade deadline day, Rosas persuaded the Golden State Warriors to surrender Russell in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and the Wolves’ first- and second-round picks in 2021. (The Wolves also sent the veteran center Gorgui Dieng to Memphis, the third team in a deal that landed Andre Iguodala in Miami.)
Minnesota and Golden State reached an agreement in principle on the trade on Thursday morning, prompting Rosas to seek out Karl-Anthony Towns, the franchise star, with an early phone call.
“He was shocked,” Rosas said. “I actually woke him up. He was like, ‘You’re not messing with me, are you?’ I told him, ‘No — but don’t say anything. Keep it to yourself.’”
Rosas conceded that he had “paid a premium” for a player the whole league knew he wanted, but the Wolves desperately needed a shake-up. They were mired in a 5-27 funk, and Towns, the highly rated center, was clearly losing heart when Rosas found a way to deliver Russell, one of Towns’s best friends.
The onus now falls on Towns and Russell to form the sort of lasting partnership Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury could not create in Minneapolis and give the long-suffering Wolves — who will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 seasons — something to build around.
Rosas is rebuilding, too.
He can joke about it now, but he put up with a severely cracked screen on his trusty gadget through all four trades he made in a 37-day span. One of his 4-year-old twins threw it onto a wooden floor in a fit of pique around Christmas, quickly revealing one of the hazards for today’s BlackBerry users.
You are unlikely to find a new screen at the nearest corner store.
“It didn’t bounce the right way,” Rosas said with a laugh. “In Houston, we were always stocked up with replacements. I’m going to have to go back to the well and build up the inventory.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Unbothered
As seen repeatedly throughout the Bucks’ first 52 games, Giannis Antetokounmpo plows ahead as he chooses, attacking the rim with abandon and paying little heed to outside commentary. He kept that same approach when it came to the trade deadline mayhem on Thursday, insisting that he was just fine with Milwaukee’s decision to essentially sit it out.
The Bucks explored their options, knowing they could always use an extra shooter or big body, but they ultimately decided that there was no swap worth upsetting the in-house balance that has contributed to a 45-7 start.
“I’m happy that we have the same team,” Antetokounmpo told reporters.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: I’d LOVE to hear your input 3 months later. — @imyoursteppops from Twitter
Stein: Saturday night was, uh, interesting. I probably received 50 tweets from Knicks fans along these same lines as their team’s winning streak hit four games with a victory against Detroit. I came away admiring the loyalty and coordinated effort of the fans — but also wondering how many in this angry lot, still aggrieved by a tweet I fired off in early December, actually read the whole tweet.
Nowhere, on any platform, did I say I disagreed with the firing of David Fizdale. The Knicks were 4-18 at the time and had just lost games to Milwaukee and Denver by a combined 81 points. The very tweet you cite A) was sent out the night before his firing and essentially predicted it and B) acknowledged that “a team has to do something” in those circumstances. Firing Fizdale was a natural response. The tweet also made the point that the Knicks have “veered way too far off course for anyone to think that a coaching change is all it takes” to put the franchise back on a hopeful track. Which remains 100 percent true.
I’ll add some further context in a special section below.
Q: With the Clippers waiving Isaiah Thomas, could you feasibly see the Celtics picking him up as an offensive upgrade to the Brad Wanamaker minutes? This may be a Boston fan’s fever dream, but I had to ask. — Yowana Wamala (Charlotte, N.C.)
Stein: It doesn’t strike me as feasible.
The Celtics’ big need, as we’ve been talking about all season, is frontcourt size to combat power players like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Before last Thursday’s trade deadline, they also reportedly pursued swingmen who specialized in long-distance shooting, such as Washington’s Davis Bertans and Detroit’s Luke Kennard, without success. If Boston makes a post-deadline move to upgrade the roster, since it has a capable complement of ballhandlers when the team is healthy, I would expect bolstering the frontcourt to be the priority.
Thomas’s steep fall since making All-Star appearances as a Celtic in 2016 and 2017, accelerated by various injuries and ever-present concerns about his defense, has been hard to watch. I am not a “New England expat,” as you described yourself in your email, but I am the league’s self-anointed keeper of the All-Lefty Team. So I, too, hope Thomas, 31, gets another shot somewhere after averaging 12.2 points in 23.1 minutes in 40 games with Washington this season while shooting 41.3 percent on 3-pointers.
Q: Kobe Bryant was voted as an All-Star in his second season, not his third. The 1999 N.B.A. All-Star game didn’t happen because of a lockout. — David Clark
Stein: You are correct, sir.
Two weeks ago, in a newsletter that contained a list of 24 separate statistics in the Numbers Game section in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, I mistakenly wrote that Bryant earned his first All-Star berth in his third pro season and in each of the 17 seasons that followed.
As you stated here, Bryant actually was voted in by the fans as a Western Conference starter in his second N.B.A. season. He then made 17 All-Star appearances in a row after the 1999 game was indeed canceled by a work stoppage that shortened the 1998-99 season to just 50 games.
I regrettably had one other error (pointed out by @MasrtaRedSnappa) in that bundle of Kobe superlatives. The Lakers missed the playoffs in each of Bryant’s last three seasons — not the last four as I wrote. But Bryant, of course, did not play in the 2013 postseason after tearing his left Achilles’ tendon in the Lakers’ 80th game that season.
There were 17 in-season trades before Thursday’s trade deadline, starting with Utah’s Dec. 24 acquisition of Jordan Clarkson from Cleveland in exchange for Dante Exum and two future second-round draft picks. Twelve of those trades happened last week.
Toronto is 17-3 in 2020 — with 15 consecutive wins and those three losses by a combined 11 points. The Raptors are on pace for 61 victories, which would be three more than they managed last season with Kawhi Leonard on the roster. The Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard’s new team, are on pace for 57 wins.
A 7-4 start represents the season’s peak for both Minnesota and Phoenix. The Timberwolves are 9-32 since, and the Suns are 14-29.
Before Andre Iguodala made his Miami debut Sunday, 241 days had elapsed since he had appeared in an N.B.A. game. On June 13, 2019, Iguodala scored 22 points for Golden State in a Game 6 N.B.A. finals loss to Toronto.
As my industry colleague Dan Devine of The Ringer recently noted, it may have struck you as bizarre timing that Steve Mills left his post as team president of the Knicks just two days before the N.B.A. trade deadline — until you remember that James Dolan fired Glen Grunwald as general manager four days before the start of training camp in 2013. Dolan also parted ways with Mills’s predecessor Phil Jackson six days after Jackson oversaw the Knicks’ N.B.A. draft in 2017. Earlier this season, furthermore, David Fizdale was allowed to run practice and address the media on the day that the Knicks fired him.
Overtime: The Knicks
Let me add some further context since little of this apparently came through in my tweet the first time:
The Knicks, I’m afraid, are not even close to being fixed. A 13-19 record under interim coach Mike Miller is certainly passable — Miller has gotten far more out of this group than Fizdale — but the Knicks have beaten two teams with winning records in those 32 games. Two.
A four-game winning streak in February, with as many unanswered questions as we can list about the Knicks’ organizational structure going forward, does not amount to much. I’d say that was evident on Sunday night when the Knicks brought the winning streak to an unceremonious halt by blowing an 8-point lead in the final 90 seconds of the first overtime in Atlanta and losing to the Hawks in double overtime.
My original tweet was always more about the organization than what was happening on the floor. As detailed in this December piece, right after Fizdale’s ouster, my belief was that the Knicks were long overdue to offer the biggest check they could to Toronto’s Masai Ujiri or another top-tier, proven N.B.A. team builder to oversee the comprehensive rebuild that this franchise has needed for ages.
We’ve since learned that James L. Dolan quickly lost the stomach for navigating hurdles in pursuit of the under-contract Ujiri and planned instead to hire the veteran player agent Leon Rose as his next team president. My sense is that the Knicks’ owner also grew weary of hearing from external sources that Ujiri was the obvious choice, abruptly cooled on that idea and, as we’ve so often seen in the Dolan era, decided to plot his own course no matter how much sense it made to try to import Toronto’s president of basketball operations.
“Decent first step” are the words I used in Friday’s paper to describe the looming Rose hire because, well, it was the fairest description I could settle on while still processing the move (and its suddenness). Rose is a well-liked, well-respected figure in the game, so on that basis you have to give this a chance. Maybe he can bring the Knicks a measure of credibility they don’t currently possess.
Be advised, however, that there is no shortage of skepticism around the league that Rose, with zero front-office experience, can really change Dolan’s universe — skepticism that the Knicks have earned based on their many, many missteps since last reaching the N.B.A. finals in 1999. Rival teams and agents have long accused the Knicks of letting the talent agency Creative Artists Agency influence their basketball decisions. Now they are hiring C.A.A.’s most veteran basketball agent. (Full disclosure: I am a former C.A.A. client.)
The so-called “agent model” they are adopting, furthermore, has flopped (with Lon Babby in Phoenix and Arn Tellem in Detroit) as often as it has flourished (Bob Myers in Golden State and Rob Pelinka with the Los Angeles Lakers). The skeptics are also bound to point out that, as recently as last May, no one was looking to the Lakers for any sort of blueprint. LeBron James chose to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in July 2018 independent of anyone working for them — and they were a franchise in disarray, after Magic Johnson’s unforeseen resignation as team president in April, until Anthony Davis forced a trade to the Lakers to team up with James.
The hiring of Steve Stoute as the Knicks’ new branding consultant has also quickly raised questions. Profiled on Sunday by my colleague Sopan Deb, Stoute appeared on ESPN’s “First Take” on Tuesday and acknowledged that he will have “a loud voice” with the Knicks going forward. Stoute may indeed be a “branding guru” and a “music guru,” as he described himself in the interview with my longtime colleague Stephen A. Smith, but Stoute’s complete lack of basketball background will rightly give Knicks fans pause if he indeed has the level of input he’s describing.
The timing of the latest Knicks shake-up remains absolutely nonsensical: Steve Mills stepped down as team president two days before the trade deadline, and word of Rose’s impending arrival leaked on deadline day. Perhaps this could — could — all work out if Rose is given the proper authority and autonomy to try to build out a fully functioning front office, but he has tons of work to do and lots to overcome. Let’s see how Rose copes in the Knicks’ one-of-a-kind caldron.