A funny thing happened on the way to NBA commissioner David Stern's dream match up.
LeBron James lost.
While many casual basketball fans may be disappointed, most true fans of the game (outside of the greater Cleveland area of course) are glad to see Cleveland lose.
This is not because they are Skip Bayless clones that prefer to nit-pick the game of LeBron James. In actuality, this postseason likely proves that LeBron has in fact passed Kobe Bryant as the newest best thing.
Of course there are still holes in LeBron's game.
Although he has received defensive accolades for the first time in his young career, they are probably a little premature. When push came to shove in his series with Orlando, James reverted back to the defensive anonymity that has marked the majority of his career.
Sure, he flashed the occasional blocked shot from the weak side, but that is not what should mark a stellar defender. An NBA All-Defensive First Team member shuts down the players he guards. He makes an impact on defense, or at least makes his presence known.
Instead, viewers witnessed the Magic nail consecutive three point shots and easily reach an unguarded lane. Additionally, the penetration that they were able to get by such fleet-footed burners as Hedo Turkoglu provided for kick out passes that were rarely intercepted.
Obviously, coach Mike Brown deserves a lot of blame for failing to make adjustments. Perhaps his coronation as NBA Coach of the Year was a little premature as well. But an MVP should essentially be a coach on the floor, and in this department, James failed on defense.
However, offensively he proved that he is without peer, and has finally eclipsed Kobe Bryant.
Now before he is compared (again) to Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, a more obvious comparison comes to mind while watching Shaquille "The King" O'Neal.
That's right, James is the most dominant player since O'Neal during his Los Angeles Lakers tenure. Defenses have the same problems matching up with his power, and more importantly, officials have the same difficulty in calling fouls.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic were called for a foul every time James reached the lane. Now either this is a conspiracy perpetrated by Stern to ensure his dream match up, or the referees just flat out don't know how to officiate James. It's safe to say that the smart money is on the latter—although I am not prepared to rule out the former!. But I digress.
The real issue is what this means about the future direction of the NBA. You can equate it to what is happening with the Republican Party (sorry to bring up politics, I will make this brief and non-partisan).
During a time of transition, two camps emerge. One camp that wants to revert back to what made them powerful in the past. In the case of the GOP, it is moving farther to the right and alienating those in the center. Essentially, shrinking back to the base in order to purify the party.
In the case of the NBA, this is focusing on stars as opposed to teams. The logic is that during the height of the NBA's popularity, the 1980's, the stars were what people watched. The Larry Birds, Jordans and Magics were what people watched, and what they cared about.
The second camp wants to change with the times and expand the tent. With the Republicans, it means becoming more inclusive to minority groups and tackling a populist issue, such as energy or health care.
The second camp in the NBA wants to focus on the teams, and allow the superstars to become the icing rather than the cake. The problem with this analogy is obvious to both casual and rabid fans of basketball—the second camp does not exist in the NBA.
Instead, the commissioner has essentially doubled-down on the superstar approach. This is a flawed logic from a business perspective because of what it leads to.
This season I saw this first hand. When Detroit traded for Allen Iverson, Pistons fans were saddled with Iverson fans. These folks were with their man Iverson through thick and thin, no matter which team he played with.
I think I speak for all Pistons fans when I say that we will be glad to be rid of these fans. No longer will we be burdened with Iverson apologists blaming anyone but "the Answer" for his sub-par and selfish play.
This is also the reason you will not see a lot of Pistons fans jumping ship to cheer for Chauncey Billups in Denver. Billups was not hyped up as a superstar during his time with Detroit, and as a result Pistons fans were sad to see him go but they stayed put.
This is the smartest business model for the league to follow if you follow through on the progression of this marketing strategy.
Imagine a girl named Emily begins to watch basketball with her mom and dad. Her folks are Portland Trail Blazer fans, not Brandon Roy fans. As a result, when Roy retires, Emily doesn't have to. Emily will continue to root for the Blazers because she has a connection with the team, not the player.
Therefore, Emily will buy Blazer jerseys for Roy and his replacement 10 years down the road. She also will buy those jerseys for her kids and the pattern will continue.
Now imagine she is brought up as a Roy fan. Suppose Roy is traded to the Knicks, and Emily is only able to watch a handful of his games due to the fact that she lives on the west coast. Her fanaticism will likely wane, and when he retires she also will hang'em up.
The NBA has now lost a fan, not to mention the succesion that that fan likely could bring.
That is what is maddening to true fans of the game. Stern missed the point of what made the NBA successful in the 1980's-the teams. People loved the Magic v. Bird match ups because they loved their teams. Bird and Magic were part of tremendous basketball teams that spawned amazing rivalries.
In the age of free agency, these rivalries become more, not less important. NBA teams need to be treated like NCAA teams. Create great programs and hype those match ups.
Those in the commisioner's camp will likely point to the 2005 NBA Finals as proof that their way is the right one.
In that match up, the two most dominant teams of this young century squared off in front of a much smaller than usual TV audience. It was the proof that Stern needed before he began changing the rules to tip the balance back to the offense rather than the defense.
The reason this matchup was not widely watched was because of the superstar marketing pitch. Most fans did not know or even care about the Spurs or Pistons. The reason was that the NBA had not marketed these teams for what they were—defensive juggernauts that could stop anyone.
Instead, the fans viewed it as two teams without high flying superstars. The most well-known player in the series was the least marketed and least appreciated player in the age of Stern, Tim Duncan. The clash was viewed as two teams that were handicapped by a lack of star power, rather than celebrated for being the two best teams of their era.
Had the league marketed these teams for what they were, fans would have learned to love them, or at least hate them. Spurs and Pistons fans recognized the beauty in what they saw, and as a result, both teams have been atop the league's attendance charts for years.
So will the latest monkey wrench in Stern's plans have an effect? Probably not. Stern has committed to his brand of marketing, and he is too stubborn to admit defeat. Sadly, he is missing out on some great basketball.
The Magic essentially built their team the way that New York Knicks fans wished their team had during the late 1980's and early 1990's when Patrick Ewing was at the top of his game. They have surrounded a dominant post player with perimeter shooters that can also slash to the hoop.
The Magic, despite playing in Florida, have a surprisingly loyal fanbase that will become much more vocal as the Finals commence. Sadly, they will be some of the only ones rooting for their team.
A large demographic of casual basketball fans likely have watched their last basketball game of the season, and that is why the superstar model of marketing will never work.
Had the league devoted even a small portion of the money they spent on the "Kobe versus LeBron" talk that dominated the airwaves for the past two months on developing the Magic as a story, viewership would remain strong though out the playoffs.
Casual fans are not what should drive a sport.
Instead, the sport should market itself in such a way that casual fans do not exist. Rather, fans have an emotional investment that makes them anything but casual.
This has just been a suggestion, Mr. Stern. Now go back to planning for LeBron wearing a Knicks uniform.