The NBA: The Fall of an Empire

The fall of

Rome was inevitable. When your main guy gets stabbed by his right hand man, its like Lassie biting Timmy. This brings me to the fall of another empire; the NBA! The present day N.B.A. should stand for Not ‘Bout Advancement. I say this not because of fellow Columbia University Alumn, David Stern, and his stern perception of how the league should be ran and his continual abolition (a fitting word) of hip-hop from the NBA culture. But I say this because in my ephemeral existence on this enriching earth, I have seen this league deteriorate right before my eyes. Surprisingly, dreadfully few people recognize this corrosion, that while it has lasted only seven years, it has been of dramatic influence on the Association. Despite the great dominance of the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers, and the great runs by the Pistons, the league lacks the lure it was once had.

I once used to get up early on Sunday mornings, post Superbowl might I add, to watch the two or three NBA games of the week. That game would be advertised all week, and the superstars of those teams were not only people I wanted to watch play basketball, but they were also people who I saw come into the players they were; all the way from college, to the draft, and into the prime of their careers. Those Sunday games do not exist anymore though, and probably completely ceased to exist during the ’01-’02 season. My rare regular season viewings take part on Christmas Day, where the game of the year is usually propelled by something other than the mere concept of league competition. The other viewings I watch are the occasional playoff/finals rematch when nothing else is on television (King James is cause for maybe 1 or 2 more games a year). The fact of the matter is, there is just no reason to watch these regular season games that are void full-on competition and playoff inspired defense.

It was 1998/1999 that the corrosion of the Association began. Now, one could point to the fact that ‘s departure was the cause for all of this, but the fact of the matter is that that was not the reason. Sorry Mr. Stern, I cannot let you off the hook that easily. In fact, Mr. Stern, the obvious start to the decomposition of the league was the lockout of 1998 that resulted in the shortened season. I was a high school basketball player during that time, and it really hurt that I could not watch my favorite players on television during my freshman basketball season, and I know that my teammates felt the same way. One of the many pleasures of the NBA for young basketball players is being able to imitate the professionals in practice and in games, and being able to learn from them and venerate them.

As a result of the lockout, many young basketball players and other young fans, lost faith in the players, the owners, and upper league management. Much like the NHL, there was a need for the league to recruit fans back into the arenas and to get them watching on television once again. The NBA however was a little more popular than the NHL, so people still showed up to the arenas, and because the season started at a time where the playoff race would naturally begin, the TV ratings were not down too much. Have they ever made it back to where they were? Yes. But you must grow in order to be successful in the world of sports, and the NBA has not done that. Why doesn’t Stern see the need to make watching these regular season games more desirable (other then sending players to the free throw line 3x more a game to increase point production), like hockey has attempted to do? I don’t know, but here are some of the problems that he might want to address, along with their possible resolutions.

Decline in Scoring – Has anyone but me noticed the intense drop off in individual and team scoring these past few years? In the seasons before 1999, there were always two or three great scorers averaging above 30 points per game. Jordan, Olajuwon, Robinson, Malone, all these players were 30 point scorers, and had good teams. No offense to my boy Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant, but the rare post-lockout 30 point/game scorer is on a sub .500 team. As for team scoring, that’s down as well. Being a defense-first guy myself, I would love to blame this on the reoccurrence of defensive players becoming more emergent in the league, but defense isn’t even played during the regular season, so we know that is not the reason. And while there may not be one specific reason for the decline of scoring there are several minor ones; the lengthening of the three point line, the early entry of collegiate players, foreign players who have succeeded in less competitive arenas, and a 2 second allowance in the paint which led to the emergence of zone defenses, at least for a while. I just do not see how Stern could allow all of these things to go on when he knew the NBA was going to have to recover from the lockout, and the loss of the greatest basketball player of all time.

Solution
: I’ll admit shortening the three-point line could change a lot of things, but I never thought it was too close before, so why not move it back to what worked in the past? As for the early entrants, I think the age limit is a beautiful idea. It is not going to work like everyone thinks it will, but at least it might do something. And foreign players who score 30 a game, average 8 assist and 7 rebounds in

Europe against people who would not make the rosters of the top quarter of division 1 programs, are not all going to come in the league lightening up. Not to mention, why does it seem like 75% of these players end up riding the pine throughout their first contract and then disappear into oblivion from thereafter? The NBA has to do something about the number of foreign players getting drafted. Whether its impose a cap, which I know is extreme, or at least make an initiative to better scout these players or allow them to play in development leagues while a team retains ownership of them. And as for the illegal defense rule….scrap it!

Paucity of Star Power and Rebuilding Detracting from Regular Season Game Appeal – The early entries and the foreign players are really causing a lack of star power. No single 19 year old can lead a team to the playoffs, never mind a championship season. Solution: The age limit on entrants into the draft is a good start to solving this problem. I honestly believe these players should be old enough to drink before they join a profession where celebration includes popping corks. The age to enter the draft should be 21 (for both foreign and American players and don’t even get me started on why that age limit isn’t the same for both groups), because it gives these young men a chance to mature, grow up, and learn the game without being under a national spotlight that’s not only scrutinizing their basketball moves, but their off the court moves, as well. A mature knowledge of the game is essential to having better scorers in the league, and it will stop these rebuilding franchises from putting the future of their organizations in the hands of a sophomoric talent. Better scorers will result in more stars, and more stars will result in less rebuilding. I would like to see more regular season games where there aren’t a bunch of 19-24 year olds, with no experience, success, or established role in the NBA, trying to beat a team of hall of famers.

Bad Market –
The NBA free agent period is usually pretty boring. Hardly ever does a major player change teams, and when one does get traded, it’s rare that both teams become contenders. For example, the Hawks have traded for great players and shipped them right off the next day. And the Shaq trades left a great team crippled, both times. Solution: Multiple team trades should be encouraged. As the commissioner, it is Stern’s job to create parody in the league, something the NBA is truly lacking. By getting rid of a tax on players traded through multiple teams, it will encourage some better, and longer lasting deals to occur.

Boring Off-Season – Other than the draft, people have nothing to look forward to during the off season, and with the drafting of so many young and foreign kids that Americans do not know, why watch more than the first five picks? Solution: Why not hype of the combine a little more to make it parallel that of the NFL. Let’s see those newcomers show off their skills for the scouts and for nation. Make it a once in a lifetime event in order to get the big names there.

Who Is He? – This brings me to the problems of having so many foreign players in the league, once again. I would like to see teams get people I know, people I saw mature into young men in college, and represent their institutions respectfully at the draft and from thereafter. People who I grew up with, or who my neighbor’s raised, ore even who my son played basketball with in high school. People who I rooted for since they were 18. Not some foreign, 20 year old, athletic, seven-footer, who I have never heard of, that may or may not be good, and who some unknown scout deems deserving of my ticket money (see Darko Milicic). Solution: The NBA has to put a cap on these guys. You cannot have them coming into the league, at younger ages than our own American players, and then sitting on the bench for the first 2 years of there 3 year contract, before coaches are forced to put them on the court to see what they can do. And if we are going to have a difference of requirements between foreigners and Americans, then make it so that the foreigners have to be older. I do not know why the owners would not be in favor of this current age limit situation. I am sure they would rather draft someone like Lebron who was born and raised in

Cleveland, and who generates tons of ticket purchases because he is homegrown product, just like Stephan Marbury, and Tracy McGrady do for their respective markets.

The Cap – I cannot believe all of the accolades that the 2003-2004 Lakers got for assembling the freaking Dream Team within one organization. I mean should this really be allowed? That was the equivalent of the Yankee line-up, and it really should not be permissible. I know having free agency and then disallowing the assembly of the best players available is not right in practical terms. It’s like bringing communism to the American free market. But what if the Lakers won that year? And then they stayed together because they won, and went on to when the next year? And the next? And the next? Solution: You have to draw the line somewhere, and it starts with the cap. The idea of having cap exceptions, mid, high, and whatever else there may be, has to account for having too many of them. The Lakers should not have been able to sign Gary Payton for the mid-level exception, and then perhaps Malone does not come and you do not have that Dream Team. And take into account the situation with these 2005 Miami Heat. They have a lot of cap exceptions and it has allowed them to build a team with more talent then anybody, just because they are one of the favorites coming into the season. If Stern wants the Lakers and Knicks to turn into the Yankees and Red Sox of the NBA, then it might happen sometime in the unforeseeable future. But that takes the NBA far-far away from the parody of the NFL to the near predestination of the MLB. Last time I checked, the NFL was doing a little bit better…….wouldn’t you say?

But, hey! Who am I? You might think I’m just another sportswriter expressing his self-proclaimed, arrogant, erudition, like some idiot in a Holliday Express commercial. But in reality, I’m a fan of the NBA, just like anyone else out there who misses the 1980’s with Bird, Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Dr. J, and Moses Malone, and the 1990’s with Jordan, Isiah, Olajuwon, and Robinson. I miss it, don’t you? I don’t want to see the 21st century be the fall of that great 80’s and 90’s tradition. Although, that’s just how I feel. Yet, I’ll admit, I’m no major corporation commissioner, but I did sleep in a Columbia dorm room last night.

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