Every March, the NCAA Tournament takes over America, and the NBA—in hibernation before its stretch run—is subjected to numerous "see, this is why college ball is superior" arguments. Of course, it's not even the right comparison to make; better to look at the two regular seasons, or the NBA playoffs vs. March Madness.
But folks just aren't themselves during these thrill-a-minute next few weeks, and so, drunk on the moment and utterly lacking in perspective, they come back to one time-honored cliché: In college, kids want to win. In the NBA, some dudes don't even care.
Certainly, in the NCAA Tournament, and college ball as a whole, there are more players for whom these are the only important basketball games they will ever be in a position to help decide. It's their one fling, and they have to give their all. Their time is running out from the minute their college careers start.
If a mid-major makes an unlikely run to the Sweet 16, of course they will be pouring in every drop of effort they can give. But the flip side of this, to speculate, is that in some cases, mid-majors go on runs because they care more than bigger programs. The bigger the school, the higher the probability that some of the players are figuring they will be back next year or will go on to play meaningful basketball somewhere after college.
Much has been made of the one-and-done phenomenon hurting college ball, but if anything, it's the guys who stick around (or are forced to show up in the first place) when they've got bigger things on their minds who, relative to the fiery underdogs, are trying less hard. They may even be opening the door for lesser schools to get a shot.
Of course, there are players who simply can't stand to lose, and many of them are household names with NBA futures ahead of them. The fact remains, though, that guys for whom March Madness is a given won't play with the same rabid intensity as the team that was never supposed to make it out of the first round. Underdogs don't get places by being cuddly and endearing.
Naturally, March Madness comes across as more competitive, more passionate, than the NBA during its too-long regular season. There are teams that never had a shot at the playoffs and players who check out early on, or just go for stats. Professional basketball is a job, and all of us know folks who slack at their jobs when feeling less than inspired. With guaranteed contracts, the NBA makes that easier than any other sport. However, this mistakes a structural problem with the sport for an issue with the players.
March Madness is a situation in which players are hard-pressed to not be competitive; some just may be more driven than others. The NBA gives some teams no reason to try their hardest at all times during the regular season. I've never heard anyone suggest, though, that NBA players aren't busting their humps in the playoffs.
It's also hard to make the case that, when the regular season does matter, the NBA has an effort problem. Take the Western Conference this year. With such a tight race and no clear favorites at this point, most every game out west is a potential statement game. No player who won't exert himself in that situation will be seeing many minutes on a playoff-bound team. When the regular season matters, players act like it does.
Maybe the issue is what it looks like when players try in the pros vs. college. In college, effort is almost tangible. Players labor to make baskets, possessions can be deathly deliberate and we often mistake missed shots for strong defense. On the average, players are slower, less athletic and forced to work hard for everything that goes their way.
In the NBA, super-human physical specimens who spend years honing their games can sometimes make it look too easy, or so freakish that it doesn't dawn on you what they've just done.
We can criticize the decision-making of, say, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, but no one in their right mind would say these superstars aren't trying hard enough. Being able to do what they do is part raw ability, part attention to their craft. They've learned how to make the game easier for themselves. It can be hard to relate to, certainly harder than with guys who seem intent on making basketball more difficult than it needs to be. We shouldn't make the mistake, though, of equating the effort we can see with all the work that led up to what's in front of us.