David Stern's NBA is turning more into a reality show than a competitive sports league
You have to forgive the average, brainwashed sports fan of today's ESPN generation for identifying NBA commissioner David Stern more with Vince McMahon than guys like Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell.
That's because today's NBA seems more like a staged reality TV show than an actual sports league where athletes compete on their own merits. In which other sport does free agency and the offseason overshadow the actual regular season and the sport's championship event?
More fans cared about where LeBron was going this past summer than who won Game 7 of the Finals between the Celtics and Lakers. You know, the supposed pinnacle of the sport?
Yeah, between a public relations machine spiraling out of control and player salaries being on par with the GDP of some small countries, Stern has a problem. A huge problem. Compared to a decade or two ago, he has lost a step for sure. The NBA—and Stern—are, contrary to what Dennis Green thought about the Bears, no longer who we thought they were.
But every now and then Stern will make sense. And one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments happened just this last week when Stern talked about contraction.
If there is a league that needs contraction, it is the NBA. Without a doubt. Having 30 teams is ridiculous. Back in the league's heyday, they had 23 squads. Then the Hornets, Heat, Magic, and Timberwolves came along to make it 27. The Grizzlies and Raptors made it 29. The Bobcats replaced the Hornets in Charlotte in 2004 to make it a round total of 30.
Think about it. Assuming each team has a roster of 12 active players, that's 84 guys who have jobs as NBA players today that would not have had one 20 years ago. I am all for creating jobs in this economy, but spending millions of dollars on basketball players is not exactly the idea I had in mind. And it's diluting the talent pool and lowering the quality of basketball the NBA used to put out.
On top of that, there is the question of viability for some of these franchises. In the wake of this past offseason (and, honestly, the several years leading up to it), the NBA has become a league of glamor cities, big markets, and desired player destinations.
Not even a structured salary scale that gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a serious advantage in paying LeBron James more than Miami helped keep James from taking his talents to South Beach.
If LeBron doesn't want to play in Cleveland (just 30 minutes from where he grew up as a kid), if Kevin Garnett doesn't want to play in Minnesota, and if Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are already planning exit strategies out of Denver and New Orleans, respectively, why even have teams in these cities in the first place? And how about Toronto losing Vince Carter and Chris Bosh just six years apart?
What good are the Memphis Grizzlies doing the league? Nobody wants to go there. And after breaking the bank on Rudy Gay, you have to be kidding yourself if you think they will have what it takes to keep both O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol in the mix.
It is a nice little nucleus they have there, but there is no way that an owner of a team located in Memphis can spend that lavishly on it. And when the time comes, some of these guys will leave Memphis just like LeBron left Cleveland. It happens all the time.
The same goes for these Charlottes, Indianas, Milwaukees, Sacramentos and Minnesotas. Nobody outside of fans within these specific markets (and compared to the bigger cities, these fans are a very few number) wants to see these teams succeed. Glamor players won't go there—or stay there, for that matter.
When a small market team like San Antonio succeeds, they do it the right way by building through the draft and maximizing on homegrown talent. But then when push comes to shove, nobody wants to see a team like the Spurs succeed, as evidenced by some of the lowest ratings in NBA Finals history whenever the Spurs are involved.
It makes the league's trading in of Seattle for Oklahoma City even more perplexing. The Thunder are very fortunate to have Kevin Durant land in their lap the way he has, and a humble superstar like Durant and San Antonio's Tim Duncan are few and far between.
For Oklahoma City, it will be a challenge to afford burgeoning stars like Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green in the wake of being able to hang on to Durant long term. And in the rare instance that they do, these big contracts will be the first ones out of town at the first sight of underachievement.
Don't believe me? The way this summer shifted the dynamics of the league will be felt for a long time to come. LeBron and Chris Bosh want to go to Miami. Amar'e Stoudemire wants to go to New York, with Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul not too far behind. Just last summer, Ron Artest takes a pay cut to go to Los Angeles.
Even guys like Hedo Turkoglu turned down Portland because it wasn't quite the "cosmopolitan city" that Toronto was, never mind the fact that the Raptors are light years further from a championship than the Trail Blazers.
In the end, only four or five teams have realistic shots of a championship every year, and almost all of them are located in big markets (or, in Orlando's case, a desired player destination with good weather year-round). The ones that aren't—in this year's case, Oklahoma City—need to prove their long term viability. Last year, it was Cleveland—and we all know how that ended.
Getting rid of teams like the Grizzlies, Bobcats, Hornets, Pacers, Timberwolves, and Raptors won't hurt a fly. The Grizzlies and Raptors are only 15 years old, and the Grizzlies have only been in Memphis for less than a decade. The Hornets have been in New Orleans for eight years, and nobody cares.
The league thought Charlotte needed another team after losing the Hornets, but they were wrong. The Timberwolves are a little over 20 years old, and Ricky Rubio doesn't want to play there. Heck, Stephon Marbury wanted nothing to do with them back in the day, and KG couldn't win there despite being the MVP of the league.
And I just threw the Pacers in there because I forgot that they even existed. If you also suddenly remembered that they are still in the NBA, then I completely understand. I was going to have the Cavaliers, Nuggets, and Bucks as well, but those teams have been around for over four decades, so contracting them would not be quite as painless.
Shredding the league down to 24 teams—back to four divisions and six teams in each division—would make a lot of competitive sense for the NBA. It would save them money by cutting ties with fruitless franchises and markets while concentrating the talent pool. It would give more teams a chance, and at the very least make sure that fans of every team have something worth rooting for.
Get it right for once, Stern. Otherwise, start putting your product on pay-per-view.