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Where’s the NBA?

October 27, 2010

Growing up as a suburban, lower-middle class, white kid from South Jersey, I had an appreciation for pro basketball in the 1980’s. How could I not? We had Dr. J and Moses Malone playing in Philly. Two of the most notable basketball players of their generation. But I also idolized Kareem and Magic in LA, Bird and McHale in Boston, Ewing in New York, Laimbeer and Isiah in Detroit, the infancy of Jordan in Chicago, Stockton and Malone in Utah, Dominique in Atlanta, Gervin in San Antonio, Lucas and Drexler in Houston…

Playing basketball during my elementary school years, we’d try our best to emulate the way these guys played. The only move I could ever copy was the Gervin finger roll. In the 1990’s, I perfected the Charles Oakley fouling techniques. I can still pull off his moves, you never forget how to hip check a guy into the hoop post or “inadvertently” elbow someone in the side of the head.

Sadly, while I still enjoy playing basketball, I couldn’t care less about watching the NBA. The only hoops I can get into at all is March Madness and I think most of that interest comes from filling out a betting bracket.

I don’t think I’m alone. The NBA is suffering both economic and attendance shortfalls.

It’s getting so bad in the NBA that even the commissioner, David Stern, has uttered the C-word: contraction. The NBA is currently at 30 teams. Losing a few wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially in anemic towns like: Charlotte, Toronto, Sacramento, San Francisco, New Orleans and Memphis. One of those teams can move to Seattle, which was robbed of their team, the Sonics, and resettled to Oklahoma City. That’s right, OKLAHOMA CITY has a pro basketball team! Does that seem like a smart move in the long run? After two years their attendance numbers look good, thanks in large part to a talented team, but what will they look like in 10 years when the novelty wears off?

However, all that pales in comparison to this: money and attendance aside, who’s really talking about the NBA? Where’s the buzz? There’s only one significant story for the last 4 months, and it was off the court, LeBron James screwing over Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach. You know why that’s the big story? Because the only other big story would be that no one cares about the NBA anymore.

I know one person who still watches 76ers games with any regularity, my Uncle Tom. And I have no idea why he watches them. Philly has a horrible team. I mean atrocious. In the last eight years they’ve had seven head coaches. Their current coach is a broadcaster that hasn’t been on the bench in seven years. Anybody need some guards? We have a glut of them in Philly, along with an virtually untradable (by virtue of his contract) “star” in Andre Iguodala.

In the 80’s and 90’s you had a league brimming with big names and matching talent. Look around the league now, name me some great players other than LeBron and Kobe. Oh they exist, but they’re not going to roll off John Q. Public‘s tongue like they did in the old days. By the way, those current names would be Wade, Pierce, Rondo, Durant, Nash, Paul, and Howard. Calling out notable players from the next tier down gets a little tougher.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, I could tell you not only the starting line-ups of several teams, but also who their best guys coming off the bench were. Naturally I tended to gravitate to the thugs (Oakley, Laimbeer, Mahorn), can you name me any of the thugs on the Minnesota Timberwolves? I can, their assistant head coach, Bill Laimbeer. And you want to know where he worked on his coaching skills, as the head coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. One of the toughest and dirtiest players in NBA history was relegated to coaching a women’s team in a league no one cares about.

The NBA is screwed up right now. Almost no fan interest, except in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami where there’s a lot of talent. And in every other city, what’s the point. Year after year, the NBA has proven that unless you have three of the best talents in the league, you’re not going to win. There’s no karma to it. No luck. The winners are easy to pick. Has there been a playoff upset in recent memory?

Watch Cleveland this year. Last year they won a league best 61 games. Essentially they lost one player in the offseason, though he is an NBA superstar. See how many games they win this year.

In other sports there are very few perennially awful teams: MLB – Pittsburgh, Kansas City; NFL – Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo; NHL – Toronto, Uniondale… well, the NHL may be a bad comparison, they’re another league in need of contraction (Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, Phoenix), however they do seem to do a better job spreading the talent around. In the NHL, it seems like there’s always a few new playoff teams every year. For the moment I’ll give them a pass, but I still think a 12 team U.S. division and a 12 team Canadian division would be better for the sport. But we’ll get into that in a later blog post.

The NBA is filled with awful teams with no hope of championships: Minnesota, Golden State, LA Clippers, Memphis, New Jersey, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Toronto, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Atlanta. That’s a third of the league resigned to hopelessness. What’s worse, there are some huge television markets with hopeless teams, the list I rattled off includes the #1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 15 and 20 markets.

And here’s another thing, it’s generally considered that the NHL is the lesser of the big four American sports. However, they’re having banner attendance years, rising fan gear sales, increased viewership, etc. And all this during a down economy. So what are they doing right that the NBA is doing wrong?

The NBA is a terrible product, with terrible marketing, terrible financial restraint and a very dim future. It’s time to begin thinking nuclear. New commissioner (a sacrilegious suggestion), cut teams, cut salaries, better refs, limit team logo and uniform changes, create a better talent feeder system into the league than just college basketball, improve player and team public appeal, increase rosters to allow more foreign players, return to the 1980’s era rules (allow hand-checking), which means accepting lower scoring games for better physical play (not just which team can make more 3-pointers), and abolish guaranteed contracts.

These aren’t the only or maybe even best suggestions, but there a lot of great ideas out there from interested and articulate fans. It’s time someone in the NBA office starts considering them, and not just the less painful ideas.

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