Ranking the NBA's Most Innovative Minds

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IDecember 1, 2012

Ranking the NBA's Most Innovative Minds

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    Innovators live on the cutting edge of today and tomorrow. The NBA has several.

    On the court, in the office, on the sideline or behind the microphone, NBA minds are always pushing the envelope.

    They change the way we watch and consume basketball as a product.

    These 10 NBA minds have helped to forge this world we all love so much. They deserve credit for innovations that have made basketball the greatest game on the planet.

    Read on to see who these men are.

10. Charles Barkley

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    Whether you love him or hate him, Charles Barkley has changed the way we all watch the NBA.

    Without even getting into his Hall of Fame career as a player, we can say this: Barkley has given us new faith in the pregame and postgame studio-show format. What the NFL is constantly trying to ruin, the NBA has perfected. (Yes, with the minor Shaq hiccup.)

    Football continually tries to cram more personalities on its studio shows, hoping that something will click and the television chemistry will shine through. TNT didn't have that problem. Its three-man team was doing just fine. And while the addition of Shaquille O'Neal didn't seem totally necessary, he has improved the show at times this year.

    TNT's decision in 2000 to place Barkley at a desk with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson was a master stroke.

    Inside the NBA, TNT's postgame show, is Barkley's showcase. The show won the 2012 Emmy Award for Best Weekly Studio Show.

    Thanks in part to Barkley and Smith's antics, this program is a resounding success.

    He may be tough to understand at times, but Barkley has done a lot to innovate the product we consume each week.

9. Mark Parker

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    Look down. Are you wearing anything with a swoosh logo? Chances are, if you are a fan of basketball, Mark Parker had a hand in designing and producing a lot of your clothing.

    Parker is the CEO of Nike, Inc., a position he has held since 2006.

    His start with the sports apparel behemoth came in 1979 as a footwear designer, a gig he hasn't necessarily left behind as he moved up the Nike food chain. Parker still has a hand in a lot of the design work that goes on behind closed doors.

    Recently, Parker has started guiding Nike down a more environmentally responsible path. He pioneered the new "Green Shoe," which is said to have much less environmental impact.

    In 1990, Parker's company created the Reuse-A-Shoe program and has since recycled 28 million pairs of shoes.

    Parker and Nike are innovating so much, they may be a couple years ahead of the NBA players.

8. Marv Albert

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    Marv Albert’s voice just sounds like basketball.

    He gets us all in the mood to watch a great NBA game. Without even listening to the words he is using, when that familiar intonation comes on the television, I know what to prepare myself for.

    At 71 years of age, I’m not sure how many more years of calling NBA and NCAA games for TNT and CBS Albert has left.

    He started with the New York Knicks back in 1967 and remained with the team for 37 years. In 1999, he began doing NBA games for TNT.

    He is also the voice fans will know from the EA Sports video game series NBA Live. He started being featured as the play-by-play voice for that franchise in 2003.

    It is difficult to say exactly what has made Albert so special. Perhaps that is because his style is simple, much like the game he covers. Basketball can be boiled down to putting a ball in a hoop.

    When that happens, Albert has reverse-innovated what to say. Instead of trying to create new ways to  describe the simple act, he follows up made baskets with a simple “Yes!”

7. John Hollinger

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    There are some great NBA writers and analysts out there; however, not many have gone as far as John Hollinger of ESPN.

    Hollinger is on the cutting edge of statistical analysis innovation. He has drawn from the work of Bill James in baseball's sabermetrics to create his own basketball statistic. The all-encompassing "Player Efficiency Rating," or PER, is Hollinger's baby.

    Though PER is constantly under a lot of scrutiny, it has been a good indicator of a player's abilities.

    It is pretty clear that Hollinger is one of today's most innovative basketball analysts.

6. Claude Ruibal

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    There is a reason why we are able to watch cool plays and thunderous dunks online any time we want.

    A major part of that reason is Claude Ruibal. He's the global sports director for YouTube and has a major hand in the company’s relationship with the NBA. 

    On Dec. 1, it doesn’t matter where on the planet you are located. If you wish, you can watch a basketball game between the Idaho Stampede and the Austin Toros.

    Starting this season, all NBA Developmental League games will be streamed live on YouTube, another leap forward in this unique partnership. 

    The NBA continues to embrace digital media, and YouTube has played a dynamic role in the growth in popularity of basketball and the NBA. 

    When LeBron James trucks through the lane and posterizes someone, I know without a doubt that I will be able to watch the play again and again later that night or the next morning. 

    According to Ruibal in an article on Mashable.com, “As one of the most popular sports, with a broad roster of top prospects, the NBA D-League is a perfect fit for the YouTube platform.”

    This idea is incredibly innovative and on the cutting edge of digital media and technology usage.

5. Rajon Rondo

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    It is going to be hard to look past the recent fight, but Rajon Rondo's innovative passing is something to behold.

    What Steve Nash and Jason Kidd started years ago, Rondo has perfected over the past couple seasons. The creativity that flows through his game is largely unmatched in the NBA today. While athletic and physical attributes help him along the way, his innovation is readily apparent.

    Knowing where nine other guys are on the court at all times allows Rondo to thread no-look passes through impossible holes. He is able to know where and when to hit teammates with a pass before they even know what is happening.

    This is how he is averaging a league-high 12.9 assists per game. His mind has come up with new ways to rack up assists, sometimes to the detriment of his own team. Still, Rondo's fakes are unthinkably creative.

    No other point guard in the league can do some of the things Rondo does on the basketball court. In the NBA of tomorrow, perhaps more players will use some of his ball-fakes and passes. For now, Rondo is the league's most innovative point guard.

4. Steve Nash

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    Steve Nash has changed the way we judge point guards. While Jason Kidd may be the father of the modern point guard, it is Nash who has injected the creativity we see today.

    His assists are not always the run-of-the-mill passes to open shooters. On the contrary, Nash uses the basketball like a yo-yo.

    While his career is undoubtedly on the back nine, Nash still has what it takes to distribute. Even with subpar supporting players, he dished out 10.7 assists per game last season in Phoenix.

    Young point guards like Rajon Rondo, John Wall and Kyrie Irving are starting to implement facets of mid-2000 Steve Nash into their games. That is the definition of innovation: Doing something that the youth of the day start to replicate.

    When Nash won his second MVP after the 2005-06 season, Irving, Wall and the like were school kids playing around in the park. They were emulating what they saw Nash doing on television.

    As this new generation of stars starts taking over the NBA, particularly at the point guard position, we'll get an even better sense of just how innovative Nash was as a player.

3. George Karl

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    Some NBA franchises are going to always find it difficult to attract superstar free agents. Whether it be taxes, climate or proximity to celebrities, some locations just don't appeal. Therefore, those franchises need to be innovators. For that, I give you George Karl.

    As former Bleacher Report NBA Lead Writer Rob Mahoney writes on the Denver Nuggets and their head coach: 

    Karl is simply more willing to adapt to life without a superstar than many of his contemporaries, and his open-mindedness allows the Nuggets the explore every bit of their bizarre potential.

    The Nuggets are not trying to attract the big free agents, because they know they have little chance against most glamorous franchises in New York, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles. Instead, they are using innovation, and the innovation of their head coach, to try to win against these superstars with an assortment of role players.

    As Mahoney states, pace, rotational flexibility and scoring balance are the pillars of Karl's philosophy.

    He uses lineups to confuse opponents while also exhausting them both mentally and physically. Teams with superstars tend to hide their role players' weaknesses; Karl's Nuggets play to the entire team's strengths.

    The Nuggets, who have six players averaging 10 or more points, are hovering around .500, but are still in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

2. Gregg Popovich

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    Gregg Popovich is smack in the middle of a mini-NBA controversy. After holding his four top active scorers out of a game against the Miami Heat on Nov. 29, Popovich came under heat from the commissioner's office.

    This isn't the first time Popovich has withheld healthy stars from a regular-season game. He does this to ensure his best players remain healthy throughout the season and into the playoffs. With an aging set of stars, in his mind this is the only option.

    Who are we to argue with Popovich, when his record as coach of the San Antonio Spurs is 860-403. That includes 15 playoff appearances and four NBA titles. Clearly, Popovich knows what it takes to win.

    Popovich has innovated the way coaches go about their job in the NBA. Winning 68 percent of his games as the Spurs' leader has given him the resume and platform to be one of the NBA's leading innovators.

1. David Stern

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    The thing about innovation is that it is not always adored. You can love it or hate it.

    Either way, David Stern left his mark on the NBA. The commissioner has piloted the league the past 28 years and led the growth and expansion of this outstanding product we love. When he steps down in a little more than a year, it will be the end of the most prominent era in basketball history.

    Stern has forged the creation of seven NBA franchises, including two of the league's best teams in the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies. He has also seen to the relocation of six franchises, including those same Grizzlies and, most recently, the Brooklyn Nets.

    There have been multiple controversies and lockouts, but through it all, Stern has seemed to have the best interest of the league at heart. None of what we watch today would be possible without Stern. From the implementation of the NBA dress code to the introduction of a new style of game ball, Stern has been at the forefront of NBA innovation for nearly 30 years.

    He will undoubtedly leave the game in a much better state than it was when he arrived. Of an innovator, that is all we can ask.