Disco Fever: An Offseason Review
London Disco HQ, 6/14/2020
I hadn’t expected Kevin Harris to be sunshine and roses in the year end meeting after a 23-57 season, but I could tell right away that his reputation as a hands-off, easygoing owner had been exaggerated. His promise when I parachuted into this job the week before the season that I wouldn’t be held accountable for the 2019 results had clearly been forgotten as he leaned up over his desk yelling in my face.
“And for the 4th bloody year in a row our record got worse! Spending $80 million of my money to do so! You better have some impressive ideas of how we’re going to turn this thing around or I’ll be forced to start looking for your replacement already.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Mr. Harris, I thought I made it clear when I took the GM position that I couldn’t even start fixing things until this offseason and that the best thing for the team in 2019 was to play some of the rookies, let them take their lumps-”
“They sure lived up to their end then! You may have gotten your high pick, but we barely averaged 15,000 attendance for the year. You have to do something this offseason to get the fans excited about the Disco again, make some big moves.”
“Sir, we have a good young nucleus and Matias Gutierrez is just entering his prime, even though we’ll have a decent amount of cap space I don’t see us enticing any of the top free agents to London just based on how we finished last year. I’d love to make a big move up the standings but I think continuing to build slowly and respecting the talent cycle of our players-”
“I don’t give a shit what you think! This isn’t the college ranks; in the WBA it’s sink or swim! Your 5-year deal is now for all intents and purposes a two-year deal. Since we aren’t even in possession of our first-round pick for next season there is no reason we shouldn’t be trying to get better now. Make it happen or I’ll find someone who will.”
I left the office red-faced and trembling, resolute to figure out a way to avoid going down in flames after 2 short years with a roster that looked to be going nowhere fast and an overpaid, undertalented coaching staff that wasn’t doing much to improve them. Matias Gutierrez was certainly a good basketball player, but he was on his 4th team in 6 seasons for a reason. Was he a winner? Was he the franchise cornerstone some had painted him to be when I arrived here? Just before the end of the season we had covertly sent him over to Germany for “the miracle treatment” popularized by Mario Bailey in the hopes that it would get him over that hump, now it was time to see the results and make some critical calls for the future of the franchise.
With 3 empty seats already occupying the table in the staff meeting room, I was reminded again of the instability of a franchise in turmoil. Head Coach Normand Scott had gotten wind of his impending termination and gracefully retired at the tender age of 61, joining the head scout and another staffer I’d been so unimpressed with I never bothered to learn his name as former employees. A distinction I feared I would be sharing by the end of the year.
That left just myself and the Allens, father Brent and son Jeff. Both were assistant coaches last year- Brent was making almost as much as me and had done nothing but blow smoke up my ass and attempt to ingratiate himself with the players; he probably expected to be named the next coach but wouldn’t be making it out of this meeting employed at all. Jeff was still a young buck, working hard and trying to improve every day. If he wanted to follow his dad out the door I couldn’t stop him, but I was counting on him seeing a chance to make a name on his own. “So, Matias is back.” I opened the conversation.
“And lookin’ better than ever, I’d say!” I knew Brent would be the one to pipe up. “He’s gonna average 20 for certain next year, maybe more!” I gave a noncommittal smile and looked over to Jeff, “It’s been made clear to me that the rebuild is officially over and we need to start winning right now. Is he ready to be our franchise player, then?” He spoke slowly, and let the doubt show in his eyes. “He’s who we’ve got. He did have a good camp.”
“Of course he’s ready!” Here came Brent over the top again. “Kid’s one of the best ballhandlers in the league, gets a ton of steals, and thanks to that camp his offense is there now! He is a franchise player; we get him a couple more pieces surrounding him and things will come together.”
“As it stands, we have the #3 pick and about $11 million in cap space to find someone. Now Scott Farmer just announced he was returning to Philadelphia State for another year so #3 might be too late to get a premium point guard prospect from the college ranks and the rest of the class doesn’t look like much in terms of immediate help. We’ll need some major hitters from the IBF to declare or that pick won’t be much help to us. Now, who could we target with our cap space?” I was very clearly looking at Jeff this time but of course Brent decided to answer once more.
“All we’d have to do is trade Quade Nash or Frank Ryan for a 2nd and we would have the space to offer Alston Irving! He’s the kind of guy Matias could use so he could play off the ball more. If we moved both we could get into the Shermar Mahara sweepstakes as well.” This time, I didn’t bother to acknowledge his input with a response and simply asked Jeff “Do you agree?”
Jeff looked pained but shook his head. “I don’t see either of those guys deciding to come here. After the season we had none of the top players respect us. Best we’re gonna do is get a couple vets in here on good deals and prop the team up to look decent next year when Bixby’s contract goes off the books and we get some real wiggle room.” This was the kind of good insight I was looking for and I decided I’d heard enough. Brent looked like he was going to get started again so I jumped right in and cut him off.
“Agreed. A big part of the problem around here has been the bloat, people on contracts they no longer deserve. Brent, I hate to say it, but that includes you. This league isn’t about hope and faith on a big name or a single plan anymore, we need to start managing our cap responsibly and being honest when we’re evaluating our own assets. I haven’t seen that from you, and with so much of the staff already moving on, I think it’s best we part ways today. Good luck to you in the future.”
His eyes had started to bulge as I talked and a line of red crept up from his neck to his face before I finished, causing him to look a lot like me leaving my own tongue-lashing the day before. He sputtered out a couple of insults before turning to Jeff and appealing for him to leave as well. As I’d hoped, Jeff quietly looked away and made it clear he was sticking around. Step one of the full roster overhaul was complete.
To the untrained eye, my scouting methods looked a lot like hanging out on the futon in my office watching Youtube videos. Herve Burgois had just declared for the draft and I felt like he completed a pretty safe 3-way plan for us at the #3 spot, but I was looking for some more tape on the guy. He certainly would fill a hole for us defensively but I worried he would top out at about the same level as Matias offensively. Jarius Sulivan had the foundations to become a great player, but he was so raw. Would I even be around by the time his game had matured? If I picked him and sat back it didn’t seem likely. Jared Torrey was in the same boat and possibly even more raw. Back when I thought I had a golden mandate to run the team for 5 years, any of those would have worked. But to win right now, I was going to need more than that.
At least the head coach search was going smoothly, Jeff Bemis had been the top candidate and it seemed like the interest was mutual. He’d already made the playoffs twice as coach of the Fugu and helped the Honey Bees to the WBA finals as an assistant last year. His Zoom interview earlier earned the signoff from Kevin Harris, and he had a couple staffers in mind to bring along. They were all coming in tomorrow to put pen to paper and I didn’t expect any surprises. The sun was finally setting and I was tidying up and getting ready to call it a night when my cell phone rang. It was a strange international number so my first instinct was not to pick up but curiosity got the best of me and I relented. “Hello?”
“Yes, is this Mr. Breese, General Manager of the London Disco?”
“It is indeed. Who am I speaking to?”
“Mr. Breese, this is Cesar Moreno of Agencia Española de Deportes, representing Benet Da Gama. Are you familiar with my client?”
My stomach tensed up. Da Gama was the Jordan of Europe right now. “I would be a pretty bad General Manager if I wasn’t. 2-time MVP of his league over there, but I thought his deal was pretty iron-clad?”
I could almost hear his smile through the phone. “Not so much. There were certain clauses that weren’t met and triggered a release, and Benet has grown frustrated with Sutor. He wants to play in the WBA.”
“That’s great news, but I’ve only got the #3 pick. Once word gets out that he’s declaring, he’ll be the surest #1 overall pick since Lonny Jordan. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have him but I’d have to make something happen immediately.”
“I suggest you do so, there was a reason I called you. Benet wants to stay in Europe, he has no idea where Arizona is and he doesn’t want to find out. To me it looks like you are the only destination that has the ammo get up to #1. His name is in the draft pool, but we’re holding off on making the official public announcement for 24 hours.”
I already knew this was the move I was waiting for, the one path to a star and some cap space, the thermal exhaust port shot. But could I swing the trade? “I’ll see what I can do.”
It was the middle of the night in London before I finally got Arizona’s GM on the phone. “You’d give up Gutierrez to move up 2 spots? Who are you looking to take?” Dan Dingleberry was playing it cool, but it was sounding like he was of a mind to trade the pick. If I didn’t play this wrong and seem overeager it might just work. “One guy emerged out of the few we liked and we just want to make sure we get him. Moving Matias will us a chance to chase a free agent or two, hopefully to improve this total lack of depth I inherited. You include that #26 pick and we’ve got a deal.”
After a chuckle over the thin bench quip, all I heard was silence from the other end, but I took that as pondering, and a potentially good thing. “I had another deal on the table but I think I like this one better. Let me think about it and call you back in the morning.” It was sounding like my marathon day at the office might just pay off.
“Long night, huh?” Jeff Bemis had come in early to sign his contract, and found me crashed out on the futon in the corner. “Hey, Jeff. Yeah, I’m working on a potential deal. Go become official and I’ll fill you in.” He nodded and shut the door. I rubbed my eyes and groaned as I sat up, my legs were dead asleep below the knees from hanging off the edge of my sleep space, the tall man’s curse. I wondered how much Jeff Bemis knew about De Gama, all we had discussed during the interview was ways to use Matias and he could be pissed at me if this trade went through and sent him out of town before they even met.
Before I could think of a way of approaching that, my phone dinged an e-mail notification and my fax machine started whirring to life. I opened up my inbox and was pleased to see it was from Dan Dingleberry, and even happier when I read the simple subject line: “You’ve got a deal”. By the time I got over to the fax it was mostly printed and I could see it was a trade agreement with his signature on it, just needing my approval before it went out to league office. De Gama was officially a go.
I forwarded the e-mail to Benet’s agent with a short message and he responded instantly. I was full of adrenaline and excitement over seeing this plan come to fruition so quickly, and couldn’t even think clearly of what the next step here would be, but Cesar thankfully already had a schedule planned out. I pulled the trade agreement back out of the fax and folded it into my pocket before heading over to the meeting room where Bemis should be finishing up.
The new coach and owner Kevin Harris were having a toast when I entered. “How’s it going guys? Looks like you’re just finishing up in here, welcome aboard Jeff! That deal I told you about earlier just went through, feel like taking a flight with me to meet with our star player?” Jeff paled a bit as he looked up. “Could it wait a day? I just took a redeye from California, I’m not exactly anxious to fly right back over the Atlantic to Argentina.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry about Argentina, I was talking about a quick 3 hour jump to Spain. Turn on GSPN for a second, that should fill you in.”
The door to the War Room was hanging wide open and people were shuffling in and out, with cameramen and reporters set up across the entire back wall. This was pretty atypical in the era of professional franchises being run under a veil of secrecy like communist dictatorships, but since the news of the trade and De Gama’s late entry into the draft class broke, I had made no secret of our plan and the franchise was in the spotlight for the first time in recent memory. Kevin Harris even looked somewhat stunned at the level of attention we seemed to have picked up overnight.
I had a draft board hung up with exactly one name on it, just for show. Coach Bemis and I had been spending most of our time speculating and scouting names we thought we would be there at 26, but the media focus would be entirely on #1 so I played into that for them. The phone was ringing off the hook but no offer was going to derail my plan at this point, we’d already sent the pick in to the league office.
“I really lit a fire under your ass, didn’t I?” I had to give Kevin Harris credit, his warning about my performance had opened my eyes to the need to get more aggressive this offseason, but I wasn’t about to admit that to his face. “I told you all along this offseason would be move making time. Are you starting to have faith in me yet?” He gestured toward the camera crews. “You certainly listened to me regarding the big moves, now I just hope the results are as persuasive. Oh, eyes on the telly, looks like it’s about to go down.”
The commissioner stepped up to the podium and announced our first #1 overall pick in team history as we broke out the champagne. After a few minutes of backslapping and a couple of coachspeak quotes for the press, we tossed the media from the room and got the real draft board out in preparation for our other pick at 26. We had our eyes on 3 prospects in particular: shooting guards Eliseo Larocca and Glen Peiffer and big man David Goines, but I almost tried to move up when Mihalis Zizilevs fell out of the top 20. It wasn’t meant to be as Cancun snagged him with the very next pick, so we decided on Goines as I felt he could develop into a productive 4 who could even play some at small forward. After 10 crazy days, we were still only halfway done with the offseason. Before we tackled free agency, I needed a good night’s rest.
“Sorry boss, I like the moves you’re making but I’m looking to win a chip next year if possible. Albacete is just more ready to win now.” Alston Irving had at least given me a courtesy text letting me know he wasn’t coming. I couldn’t blame him, with the signings they made the Burning Hell had to be considered title favorites. Lonnie Jordan was an MVP caliber player and from the same draft class, which seems to be a bonding factor for this generation as opposed to a potential rival. I just wished he could see the big picture though, we would have the cap space to keep adding talent for 2 years.
That would be a tough argument to win against a guy poised to win 2 rings in that time though, so the talent search would have to continue. Ajan Estay had been receptive originally to a 4 year deal for pretty good money, but Gabon had come over the top with a 5 year full max, so he was out of the picture for the time being. RIght now, the only free agent indicating we’d made the best offer was Jeremy Aarons, a great ballhandler but maybe physically a bit slow to run the point. I wasn’t eager to throw a full max out to anyone but a superstar, so we were going to have to play the waiting game.
“Gabon Giants sign PG Casey Pointer to 5 year/$130 mil contract.” I saw the breaking news scroll across the ticker of my TV and reached for the phone instantly. Ajan Estay’s agent wasn’t exactly in a good mood when he answered the phone, but I couldn’t blame him- that $105 million offer from the Giants had to be off the table now and his client’s loss was about to be my gain. Looking at the teams with cap room left and the needs they had, Estay was officially the last premium guard on the market and nobody but us was looking to open their pocketbook for him.
My phone was ringing again. I could see from the caller ID that it was another GM trying to fleece me for Da Gama so I just let it go to voicemail. “Hey Breese, you’ll never guess what I just picked up in Indonesia. Listen to this: I’ve got a trained orangutan, only goes about 4’6” but he shoots 98% on his free throws. Has a bit of the terminal cancer, he may not be around too long, but he’ll be good for the first 40 games of the season at least. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give him to you straight up for…. Da Gama? Remember buddy, 98% free throw shooter! Think about all those guaranteed points on technical fouls! Call me back!”
The deal was finally going through. I never expected to consider a $73.5 million purchase cheap, but most experts thought Ajan Estay was going to sign for at least 90 prior to the offseason. He’d put up numbers as good or better than people getting an extra digit in their deal this year, but had been stuck in some rough situations that didn’t help his perception around the league. Hopefully this was going to be a completely different situation for him. Suddenly, the fax kicked on again and another contract started printing out. I thought Aarons or perhaps Shawne Olson had decided to surprise me, but when I saw who it was for I angrily pulled my phone out of my pocket and texted his agent. “What the hell, bro? I told you guys to wait until we’d signed a couple people so we could go over the cap!”
His crisp reply came immediately “Cordell waited as long as a player of his magnitude was willing to wait. We had other offers, you should be glad he didn’t take one of those.” Being overpaid by $20 million last year hadn’t been enough for Cordell Parks. I guess I could kiss Jeremy Aarons goodbye, this nuked my cap space from above the mid level exception to around the low exception and doomed me to be filling out the roster with spare parts.
“The Hitmen outmaneuvered us for Joe Vanlandingham, but either Dennis Evans or this Jayson Terran kid could step in and give us decent minutes. I’m thinking we send Evan Bobbins and David Goines down to the D-League so they can maximize their court time, how does that work for you?” I was in the last offseason meeting of the year with coach Bemis, with owner Kevin Harris following over zoom from his yacht, and my gas tank was officially on E. “I’d like to see how Bobbins looks after camp, he could be our 3rd best guard and from what I can tell he’d be pissed if we sent him down, but if he’s not one of the first couple guys off our bench I agree with you. As for Goines, I totally agree, a year down there could do him a lot of good.”
“Glad we’re on the same page.” This coaching staff really was a massive upgrade from last year’s crew. “I guess that brings us to training camp. I’ll let you take it from here coach, I just wanted to thank you guys for a fun offseason, and I’m looking forward to a good season of Disco b-ball!”