How Trash Talk Could Change the Outcome of the NBA Finals

How Trash Talk Could Change the Outcome of the NBA Finals

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers exchanges words with Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during the second half in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 10, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.

SourceJason Miller/Getty

Why you should care

Because “The Answer” already taught us that buttoned-up is boring. 

In the end, it was a female-canine analogy and an ill-placed fist to LeBron James’ nether regions that swayed the 2016 NBA Finals in the Cavaliers’ favor. Draymond Green, it seemed, had miscalculated his trash talk.

During a scuffle late in Game 4, the Warriors’ do-it-all forward found himself on the ground and being stepped over, so he swiped up at James’ midsection (and uttered that choice word — twice). Green was suspended for Game 5, and the rest is history: Cleveland completed a historic three-game comeback to capture the city’s first NBA championship.

With a finals trilogy between the teams set to commence on June 1, Green is back under watchful eyes. And while Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Co. versus LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will result in the finest offensive counterpunching that fans could ask for, the league’s most excitable trash talker could decide the series. If Green can goad James and the Cavaliers into a poor showing or two, Golden State will have ample space to pull away. But LeBron is no easy nut to crack. To truly break the man who just passed Michael Jordan on the all-time NBA playoff-scoring list, Green may have to cross the line of acceptable behavior in today’s NBA. The question is: Where is that line, and how did it change?

Hearing what guys are complaining about, of course trash talk is softer. Guys are friendlier, more sensitive today.

Chris Webber, five-time NBA All-Star

“I hate that label,” Hall of Fame point guard and NBA TV analyst Isiah Thomas tells OZY, upset by the mere mention of trash talk. “Verbal skills used to be a positive in a player’s game — a unique way to disrupt the opponent’s game plan.” Thomas, a 12-time All-Star who led the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons to championships in 1989 and 1990, says that the best players of his era — from Jordan to Bird to Payton to himself — separated themselves by “mentally, physically and verbally” dominating the opposition. “Now that art form has deteriorated into a negative aspect of sport.”

Green is a throwback to past eras when mental terrorism was par for the course. He’s not the only current NBA player to run his mouth, but his immense skill and unsettling verbal barbs make him the best of a dying breed. Chris Webber, five-time All-Star and current NBA analyst on TNT, questions the toughness of today’s players. “Hearing what guys are complaining about, of course trash talk is softer,” Webber says. “Guys are friendlier, much more sensitive today.”

James complained to the media following his altercation with Green last June, and Green was suspended. The Warriors were quick to point out that LeBron’s public airing of grievances was a violation of the unwritten players’ code, with forward Klay Thompson telling reporters, “We’ve all been called plenty of bad words. Some guys just react to it differently.” But who’s to say that Green deserved to go unpunished? Today, the move was par for the course for a league filled with increasingly connected and exponentially exposed stars.

ESPN analyst and 16-year NBA veteran Jalen Rose credits the league’s efforts to rid the game of excessive physical play, plus a generation of cross-platform athletes who are mindful of what they say and how they say it. “A player can thump his chest and talk trash, but ultimately physical intimidation has been taken out of the game,” Rose tells OZY. “We have social media, cameras everywhere and microphones on the floor. We understand that nothing is out of bounds.”

Of course, digitization isn’t the only factor in a changing of the guard. On ESPN’s NBA Countdown in February, recently retired NBA legend Paul Pierce said that AAU basketball — the new path to glory for nearly every young prospect — has “killed trash talking.” In Pierce’s estimation, the close-knit circuit in which young players across the country all know each other has eliminated trash talk for young basketball players.

Jaron Blossomgame won’t comment on past eras, but his recent exploits in college and at the NBA draft combine reflect the mindset of today’s young players. Blossomgame, who just completed a stellar four-year career at Clemson and hopes to be a first-round pick on June 22, says that the better the talent, the less trash he hears. “Throughout the course of a [college] season, a few guys will say something crazy,” Blossomgame says. “But you don’t hear much from the stars. They understand that everyone’s watching.”

At the NBA combine in mid-May, banter was sparse. “I honestly can’t remember one bit of trash being talked,” Blossomgame says. “It’s more of a business setting. You’ve got GMs and scouts all around, and teams really look into character when they’re drafting nowadays.” Blossomgame says that players enter the league knowing that their image is being carefully critiqued.

For the boundary-pushers, though, basketball’s current lack of renegades presents an interesting opportunity. Consider the curious case of the Ball family. Lonzo, a presumed top-three pick in this year’s draft, is rarely heard from — on or off the court. Instead, the patriarch, Lavar, acts as the hype man, stirring up controversy and promoting the family apparel company, Big Baller Brand. Ball senior’s ability to create a news cycle via public trash talking could become commonplace in the new era of sports promotion.

Some gritty stalwarts of old-school, on-court derogation — like Green and Houston’s Patrick Beverley — remain, sent to remind LeBron of his few inadequacies at every opportunity. “This is still sports — it’s not for the faint of heart,” Webber says. “There are guys who are weak-minded. Draymond wants to find them and gauge what kind of night it’s going to be.”

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