The NBA's obsession for star power has compromised the position of role players.
At the risk of sounding a bit audacious, I must say that now more than ever I miss the good ol’ days of the NBA. Coming from a basketball fan that never lived to see Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, George Gervin, or Dr. J play, this assertion sizzles with irony, but the past 10 years of basketball feel more like a century than a decade.
The game is changing so much and I can’t help thinking it is changing for the worse. It used to be a league of will and desire, where the best teams fought endlessly for championships lead by elite talents but propelled by top notch role players.
Now we prepare for a 2010 free agency class promising a plethora of superstars for sale, which had GMs cleaning out their rosters like a dirty attic, unloading contract after contract for minimal value in a wild goose chase for “The King.” What general managers fail to realize, is that talent alone does not win championships.
These overpaid stars of the new millennium refuse to get their hands dirty and scrap. They no longer take a charge, dive for a loose ball, and leave it all out there every night. And the NBA not only enables them to do so but protects them as they do so. These guys are no longer ball players; they’re 100 million dollar investments and their owners will not allow their investments to be risked night after night.
Due to these owners' reservations, referees are encouraged to call flagrant fouls every time a guy doesn’t land on his feet or his funny bone stings after a collision and because of this the “no layup rule” is no longer relevant in today’s NBA (more on this soon...)
Defenders have been stripped of the utility of the hand check, which is now considered a foul and players like Kevin Durant shoot 10 free throws off this violation alone. It is impossible to keep up with the speed and strength of an NBA player for 48 minutes without the occasional hand check.
The way referees favor their whistle these days makes watching the NBA like watching NFL players play flag football. In the first round of this year’s playoffs, we saw Dwight Howard get fouled out or close to it almost every single game of the series off of tick tack, harmless fouls. Imagine if players like Dikembe Mutombo had to deal with the same whistle that Dwight Howard encounters every game, and their guards couldn’t slow Jordan down with a hand check. The man would score 50 points a game.
Basketball players used to get dirty. Players used to hate each other's guts when they stepped on that court, and even some coaches. I remember Jeff Van Gundy hanging onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg as if ZO was his daddy and he didn’t want to go to school. Now, there are no real rivalries. Now, everybody is a nice guy, because whether or not they leave it out there every night, or bring their city even remotely close to an NBA championship, the owners still cut the checks and the fans still run out and buy their jerseys.
It hadn’t dawned on me just how much the game play itself has changed until I saw ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Winning time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks. ” Listening to Dale Davis and Anthony Mason talk about the “No layup rule,” gave me a trip down memory lane. Mason and Davis explained that the main principle of the defense was that it was illegal for the other team to score layups. Either you blocked the shot or you put the player of the line, but those were the only two alternatives. “Picking up a player on the other team was a sin in my day,” recalled Mason.
I remember when the only time you saw a player dunk was if they got up high enough to dunk it over the help defense (when people actually played help defense), or they were on a fast break. In the '90s there was no uncontested dunk in the half court, now guys sidestep out the way as the offender loads up his best dunk.
Ewing used to jump with Jordan as he slashed the lane, and more times than less Jordan had to change his shot, which most of the time he would still make, but he was the best player to ever play the game. Of course every now and then Jordan ascended over Ewing, and delivered his fans a poster, but Ewing was never remembered as a poster. Ewing is an icon for his courage and his heart and people loved that he rather get dunked on than watch Jordan have a dunk contest in his paint.
This is why my stomach curled as all other basketball fans beamed at LeBron James' historic 48-point game versus the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, where he scored the team's last 25 points straight to bring Cleveland one game closer to an eventual NBA finals birth.
The feat on paper is one of the greatest individual performances of all time, however if you watch the game with an intelligent basketball eye, you will see Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, or whoever else was supposed to step up for help defense step away and watch LeBron molest the rim. Play after play I watched LeBron turn the corner and slam the ball through the hoop uncontested, until he got into so much of a rhythm that anything he shot went in.
I’m not taking anything away from James but suppose this was the conference finals of the '90s. Whether it was the Knicks (Ewing, Oakley, Mason), the Heat (Alonzo Mourning and P.J Brown), The Pacers (Antonio and Dale Davis), the Magic (Shaq and Horace Grant), or the Bulls (Rodman, Longley), that James was going against, they would not have suffered the same humiliation as the Detroit Pistons did that night.
Those guys would have put James on his ass the first time he came down the lane, and sure, James would come back down the lane again, but surely that fear would be instilled in the back of his mind and he’d think twice before going up, and maybe even settle for a pull up which is definitely a lower percentage shot than a Tomahawk.
If the Pistons had gave up some money to re-sign a top level role player in Ben Wallace, instead of being naïve like the fans thinking they could win off “star power” alone, we would have watched the Spurs and Pistons battle it out for the '07 NBA Championship.
Think about it. If you look at the past decade of NBA champions, every squad that has won had top level role players. Kobe and Pau had Lamar Odom, Derrick Fisher, and Trevor Ariza. The efficiency of the Lakers since swapping top level role player Ariza for a more talented Artest has dropped noticeable, which serves as a prime example that adding more talent isn’t necessarily always the best for a team. Boston’s big three had James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown, and Sam Cassel.
Tim Duncan played with Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, and Avery Johnson during his dynasty and a handful of other guys who wouldn’t ring a bell if they were The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Shaq and D wade also had Posey along with Udonis Haslem, Gary Payton, and Alonzo Mourning, who were both humble enough to accept supplementary roles in order to finally win a ring. Had G.P. and ZO not reduced themselves to role players, we would have seen the '04 Lakers all over again.
As a matter of fact, in '04, Larry Brown won a championship in Detroit with NOTHING BUT role players, excluding perhaps Chauncey Billups, but I wouldn’t quite call him a superstar either. Tayshaun, Rip, and Sheed have shown their true colors as top level role players since the departure of Mr. Big Shot in that foolish trade for Allen Iverson which is another concrete example of a team getting more talented but less efficient.
Also let it be noted, the Detroit Pistons never found their way back to the finals after Ben Wallace, the least talented player on the team, opted to sign with Chicago.
Shaq and Kobe had no success winning a ring with Malone and Payton but were able to three-peat with Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Derrick Fisher, and Robert Horry aka “Big Shot Rob,” who has more rings (seven) than all of the superstars mentioned above, despite talent level.
The reason I take such time to solidify this point is to draw attention to just how facetious we have become as fans, journalists, players, coaches, GMs, and even owners. This never ending obsession with talent that the previous group has developed, disregards the foundation of the NBA; talent wins in street ball and pick up games but that alone is not enough to win on this level.
If you ask me, I blame Kevin McHale. This all started in Minnesota. When the Timberwolves dished out a whopping $126 million contract extension to Kevin Garnett, the largest in league history at that point, everything went out the window.
Once KG received that deal the players refused to play for plausible salaries, and began leaving championship situations to go play for whoever was willing to pay, i.e. Stephon Marbury. The GMs then dangled these new max contracts in front of young stars and made any promises they had to, to keep fans happy and to keep their jobs, instead of obeying the main principle of their job in creating winning teams.
The owners signed off on these trades, and free agency signings that did nothing to move them close to a championship but sold jerseys and filled the stadium night after night. So the few GMs who resisted the temptation of signing young, unproved stars to appease their owners and the fans risked their job security, and then had to deal with star-hungry fans chanting for their dismissal after every home loss.
Journalists entertained the naïve fans, writing that certain franchise player’s window of opportunity to win was closing and that their team had to do something immediately. Suddenly a decade full of championship runs wasn’t good enough to satisfy anyone, it was all or nothing, and in that same breathe I mention Isiah Thomas.
The guy who gave out all the max contracts, made all the deals for more talent, gave his owner jerseys to sell and seats to fill, gave journalists something to write about every summer, but yet NEVER delivered NY one conference semifinals birth.
Suddenly, the world hated Zeke instead of looking in the mirror and hating ourselves. We all wanted the quick fix. No one wanted to watch young players grow; we wanted to trade for players that we thought we’re already there. And now as Donnie Walsh picks up where Thomas left off, I find that fans and journalists are rooting for the same thing they were rooting for when Isiah came to town: a shortcut.
But there is no short cut for winning basketball, and the NBA isn’t what it used to be.