Interest has waned in the NBA in recent years, and I can safely say I'm speaking on behalf of thousands of sports fans across this country. Attendance, ratings and merchandise sales would all back me up on that point. Several factors can be pointed to in regards to the reasoning behind the drop-off in popularity for the NBA. The image of players, the lockout, the emergence of new up and coming sports and entertainment options, but none of those may have played as major a role as the product itself.
The high paced, beautiful, fluid game of the 80s and early 90s had become replaced by essentialy football on the hardwood. Fast breaks, deft passing, smoothly run offenses and the pure jumpshot were pushed to the wayside in favor of lock down defense, shot blocking big men, bruisers banging on one another inside and of course, the cliche'd lost art of the mid range jumper. The NBA game seemed to reach a pace of play that rivaled that of baseball, despite the fact the rules of the game were designed to prohibit such slow and plodding shows.
I can't pinpoint the exact time my interest in the NBA began to taper off, but it had a lot to do with watching the plodding, methodical style of the San Antonio Spurs reel of NBA championships. The ever intense, but often difficult to watch Heat/Knicks rivalries that had more contact and physical play in Madison Square Garden than most heavyweight fights of that era had something to do with it. It had to do with the Lakers dumping it into Shaquille O'Neal and allowing his brute force to force his way to the basket and force the Lakers into NBA titles. A game which once required skill on an almost artistic level now was just all about brute force. The athleticism, the grace, and the creativity that helped make guys like Dr. J, Dominique, Jordan and Magic so much fun to watch were no longer the traits required to win NBA titles. Now it was all about being more physical, being bigger, and being stronger. Not neccessarily about being a better basketball player.
Basketball games were supposed to be about offense, and scoring, and being able to be creative to make things happen with the ball in the hands of great offensive players. There is a reason the great nicknames were "Air", and "Pistol Pete", and "Magic". It's because of the amazing things they did offensively. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest defensive players of all-time, but it's his offense that made fans buy his jerseys, and his offense that carried his Bulls. Basketball games were supposed to feature both the winner and loser scoring in the triple digits. However, during this century that has changed. You were seeing playoff games with scores in the 80s. You were seeing teams who would eventually win championships, or play for them, score under 70 points in playoff games. How can professional basketball players fail to score 70 points with a shot clock and 48 minutes to play while high school teams at the same time can score more than that, without a shot clock, and in just 32 minutes? Something wasn't right.
In addition to being a fan of sports to the tune of watching them, I'm a fan of sports video games. Through video games I can best perhaps portray how my view on the NBA has changed. My favorite NBA video game of all time? Tecmo Basketball for the old, and original, Nintendo Entertainment System? (For the record those Warriors teams with Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond were among my favorite to play with) Why? Because it's the only basketball game I can recall playing where basketball was beautiful. It was about the scoring. The players and teams on that game were the kind of players and teams that basketball great, and the gameplay reflected such. It allowed the high scoring, high flying action without having an arcade feel, it still had a simulation feel, because at that point in time, that's how the game was played. To get the same fast paced feeling in today's NBA video games, you almost have to treat it like an arcade game, because that fast paced style would not be an accurate simulation.
Fortunately, things have changed in the league. The point/forward is all the rage. For the last decade championship teams were built from the inside out, and while that still may be true, what constitutes an inside guy is perhaps changing a bit. No longer is it neccesary the 300 pound banger who lumbers up and down the court is the cornerstone of a championship team, but rather someone between about 6'8 and 6'10 who can run the floor, can play in the post, can rebound, but can also pass, shoot, and fly through the air defying gravity. It's now the player who defines what is so beautiful about the game of basketball, men of large stature moving with the agility of someone smaller and lighter on their feet.
The league is blessed with plethora of young stars who in addition to having great skill on the court, also possess good, clean images off of it. The rise of the point guard position to one of artist and creator, and not of just a dump it in to the big guy role player is a big reason the NBA of today is on the way back, and why the NBA of today is capturing the attention again of more and more people. Star point guards like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Deron Williams now seem to be restoring the glamor in the position. (Quick, name the point guards during the Bulls dynasty, or the point guard of Houston's back to back NBA championship teams, or the Spurs point guard pre Tony Parker)
In addition to the point guards, the new breed of small forward who can either play up as a big, or play down as a guard, only add to the excitement and athletic prowess of the players on the court. The Lebron James, Dwayne Wades, Carmello Anthonys, Brandon Roys and Rudy Gay among others headline this incredible group of players.
Even today's big guys are fitting the bill of athletic and fluid, making for an all around better game. Guys like Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudamire are the new breed of big guy. If not these freaks of nature athleticaly, you have the big guy who can spread the floor with shooting ability, guys like Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, there is still a place for your Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal type, and those players are still great in their own right, and can still carry a team, but it's no longer a neccessity to have one to contend for an NBA title.
Last night I watched two different games, and in both was treated to high scoring affairs that showcased the good in basketball, at two distincly different levels. There was the much aniticpated Suns/Lakers tilt. In this game the questions about if the Suns could still run with Shaq in the lineup were answered with a resounding yes. The thing was, the Lakers could run too. Watching Kobe Bryant do what he does, and watching bigs like Pau Gasol and Amare Stoudamire run the break and finish strongly made for entertaining basketball, the way it was supposed to be. The high scoring final score was indicitive of such. There were a combined 254 points scored in this game, how can that not be exciting to watch? The Suns, even in losing, had over half of their 46 field goals come via an assist. A total of 11 players in this contest scored in double figures, with five topping the 20 point mark. In fact, there was room for 11 double figure scoreres despite Bryant getting 41 on his own and Stoudemire pouring in 37 for the Suns.
The other game that had my attention was the Hawks and Kings (marred only by having to listen to Steve Smith on the broadcast), and it too was another high scoring affair where points were a plenty. The Kings scored 119 points, on 40 field goals. Of their 40 field goals, there were assists on 23 of them. Five Kings were in double figures, and four Kings took at least 8 shots and shot right near 50% or better. Even in a losing cause the Hawks scored 107 points with six men in double figures.
What you had was two of the league's best teams overall playing to a high scoring affair, and then you had two of the league's bottom feeders doing likewise. The importance of this, the importance of having the good and bad teams play a similar style of game? It just further shows how the entire league is getting back to what made basketball great.