The NBA's Future in Europe and David Stern's Master Plan

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The NBA's Future in Europe and David Stern's Master Plan
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The NBA is going to Europe sooner than you think.

Of course in the year 2011 this seems like a completely far-fetched, implausible, mind-boggling prediction. But I’ve got some evidence that may sway you.

Sports, like people and the government, have phases. The NFL is currently in its golden era for quarterbacks. MLB is in its post-steroids age trying to recreate a new image for its sport. And the NBA is sort of stuck in a crossroads.  

You saw the NBA enter its modern era in 1984; the birth of the NBA lottery, the three-point line and commissioner David Stern. Stern's vision for this sport was to create superhuman athletes the world could recognize. After all, the guys on a basketball court aren’t wearing a helmet. It’s easy to relate and to recognize them.

So Stern teamed up with Nike, Gatorade and Michael Jordan to create a model for the modern sports idol. Jordan became an international obsession with his winning ways, killer mentality on the court and his accessibility through the expanding media and advertising.  

With Jordan’s help the league exploded and kept expanding in the overseas television market up until 2004, when Jordan had been gone for a while. Other superstars like Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter put together athletic highlights but weren’t winners or marketable abroad like Jordan. The league was in a free fall after a terribly officiated 2007 Finals between the Heat and Mavericks.

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Stern knew it was time to start a new era of the NBA. So he arranged super teams in Los Angeles, Boston, Miami (and soon to be New York) maximizing the largest television audiences and exposure for his sport. His idea was that young, average fans will gravitate towards these "super teams" and one day he will be able to scrap out the bottom-dwellers. I’ll explain more about that below.

It’s harder to make the championship game in the NBA than any other sport. And it’s done that way on purpose.

Since 2000, eight teams in the Eastern Conference have made the Finals and only three Western Conference teams have appeared in the title game (Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks). So 11 total teams in 10 seasons. Compare that to 15 in Major League Baseball and 16 in the NFL.

Basketball is a sport dominated by its scoring superstars and if your franchise doesn’t have at least two elite players, you literally have a zero percent chance of even sniffing the golden NBA trophy. The NBA extended all of its playoff rounds to seven games back in the early 2000s, a move that commissioner Stern hoped would eliminate all upsets and put the league's marquee players in the Finals.

Stern’s theory is that pro basketball suffers globally (the league's long-term goal) when teams like the 2004 Detroit Pistons win a championship without a star player. More than any other sport, fans root for individual players' success often times more than their own hometown team. I don’t blame these people for abandoning ship and worshipping Kobe Bryant instead. The NBA is completely unfair the way it is set up in 2011.

Realistically there are only five teams that could win the 2011 NBA Finals. The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks.

That’s it. The rest of the 25 teams in the league are honestly just playing for some moderate fame and a paycheck. That’s it.

So that’s why boatloads of NBA teams have tried to roll the dice by tanking late in an NBA season. Tanking really doesn’t have a pure definition. It basically means that certain NBA teams employ a strategy to lose on purpose.

Players stop exerting maximum effort, coaches put in horrendous lineups and management pulls the trigger on some reckless trades in an attempt to lose as many games as possible. The NBA draft lottery rewards teams with the most losses, with a higher percent chance of drawing the top overall pick.

It’s crazy because this idea of tanking doesn’t exist in any other sport. If you tried this stunt in the NFL, you’d be immediately fired. In baseball draft picks don’t matter much and continual losing will result in a demotion to the minors.

Which teams have struggled and therefore tanked the past 10 years? New Jersey, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Sacramento, Toronto and Memphis are some cities that come to mind. What do these cellar-dwellers have in common? They play in smaller television markets.

There will always be a competitive unbalance in life. There will always be rich people and always be poor people. There will always be sports dynasties and bottom-feeder franchises. But the NBA, more than any other league, wants this to happen. It is all a part of Stern’s ultimate plan to get his league in Europe.

Here’s where my conspiracy theory takes shape. I think that the NBA wants these small-market teams to fail on purpose. Stern knows that not one human being wants to see a Memphis-Milwaukee Finals. The NBA is a business and therefore wants its best resources (star players) playing in the largest television markets, to attract the biggest audiences, gaining buzz about this growing sport.

You can’t tell me that the Grizzlies actually wanted to part ways with Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittenton. And Minnesota knew they were about to reignite the Boston dynasty when they traded 14-time All-Star Kevin Garnett to the Celtics for a bag of peanuts. There are two explanations for trades like this:

1. The league has set them up—similar to the WWE.

2. This is all part of the NBA’s master plan to globalize and these executives are in on it too.

 

If David Stern can keep star players from staying away from these smaller markets, eventually owners of these teams are going to start losing money. And eventually they will want to sell their franchises back to the NBA, similar with what’s going on with the New Orleans Hornets right now.

The tanking is going to continue. Like I stated above, if you can somehow draft someone like Kevin Durant, your franchise might have a future even in a small market. But with the tanking come hundreds of late-season, meaningless games between two teams who want to lose. Once tanking is brought to light by ESPN or even CBS’s 60 Minutes, sports fans would be outraged that organizations are supporting this losing cause.

What’s the solution to fix the NBA’s competitive problem? Scrap the smallest market teams that continue to fail and move the rights of those franchises to Europe. Stern would set up an expansion draft with all the other top players in the world. The schematics of the NBA would change but there could still be an Eastern and Western Conference but now also a European Division. Traveling would be crazy but teams could go overseas for a three-week period and vice-versa with foreign teams coming to America.

Free agency would now become like soccer, with teams buying and selling players. Eliminating the smaller market teams removes bad businesses from the NBA. Plus there is no denying that basketball is starting to overtake soccer as the world’s most recognized sport. Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Zydrunas Ilgauskas are just some of the current foreign players who have gained prominence from the league. And you can add to that list guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutumbo, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Detlef Schrempf as successful players who originally put this idea into Stern’s little head.

There are a few problems with this idea. Fan backlash from the eliminated franchises could get ridiculous. It would put many American basketball players and team employees out of work.

It could also be one of the greatest ideas to ever come to sports. World basketball All-Star games and championships. The most competitive sports. Also having games on at all times during the day, instead of reruns of Maury. Basketball would now be on the biggest stage. LeBron James even recently said the league could prosper with fewer teams.

The NBA is entering a crossroads in eras. The Michael Jordan age solidified the league as entertaining and competitive. The new super-teams are just the early indication for where this sport is about to go.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is “You have to adapt before they adapt to you.” The NFL has already begun experimenting with in-season games in London and the NBA will follow suit this year in March, when the Raptors and Nets travel to London to play a regular season game. The NBA needs to jump the gun and beat the NFL in globalizing its product.

 

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