by Chris Foss
On the face of it, things couldn’t be better for today’s NBA. Scoring and the pace of games are high, labor and ownership are at peace, and LeBron James is approaching GOAT status even with nearly-comparable stars like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Steph Curry at the top of their games. I argue, however, that the NBA’s shiny surface veneer masks several serious issues which, if left unchecked, could put the league in problematic territory.
History shows us that sports leagues, like nations, economies, and people in general, go through cycles of health and sickness. The NBA flew high for a couple of decades after adopting the shot clock in 1955, struggled with scandals for a few years in the 1970s, then reveled in the Magic/Bird/Jordan era of 1979-93, a Golden Age that was never supposed to end. When Michael Jordan retired for the first time in 1993, the NBA began a long era of turbulence that current owners, players, and league officials should take note of, lest another downturn be in store in the coming years.
Jordan’s popularity fueled a huge, artificial bubble in growth; with this came gleaming new arenas for many teams, increased player salaries, and huge TV contracts. When Jordan retired, however, there really was not anyone to replace him as the face of the league. To make matters worse, the “Jordan Rules,” a defensive scheme employed by the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks to stop Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, became widely copied throughout the league to slow down offenses in general. The 1994 NBA Finals became the first in the shot clock era in which no team scored 100 or more points in a game. Coach Mike Fratello of the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers employed a particularly fan-unfriendly strategy, ordering his players to hold the ball until the final second or two of every possession. Games involving the Cavs regularly turned into 80 to 90-point affairs.
Jordan’s comebacks brought NBA TV ratings back up, but failed to arrest the dramatic decline in play brought about by the attempts to stop him. The Bulls themselves adopted many of these tactics, even adding former Piston Dennis Rodman to their frontline. NBA games from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s were largely stilted, boring affairs. Jordan bid adieu for the final time in 2003, and the NBA hit its nadir with the double whammy of the prolonged Kobe Bryant rape allegation and the “Malice at the Palace.” Bryant was emerging as the new Jordan, but his off-the-court problems precluded him from being truly accepted as the face of the league. Ugly on-court fights, meanwhile, had always plagued the league, but the Palace affair of November 19, 2004 was replayed endlessly for weeks on TV, online, and on burgeoning social media. Stern responded with a crackdown, banning main (albeit provoked) antagonist Ron Artest for the season, slapping others with suspensions, and instituting anti-fighting rules.
Gradually the NBA repaired its image problems, and as the years went by, it became clear that its problem children weren’t going to become the face of its future. Character trumped chaos: the likes of Tim Duncan, an (apparently) reformed Kobe, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James were winning championships, while the league’s problem children were regularly sent packing in the playoffs. Rules changes de-incentivized fighting and reduced rough play in general. The success and popularity of Steve Nash’s run-and-gun Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s was widely copied throughout the league, as a generation of players emulated his shoot first, ask questions later model. Purists cringed as defense was forsaken for offense, but the NBA didn’t mind; the game was becoming watchable again.
In the Adam Silver era that began in 2014, the NBA has been seemingly sunshine and roses. The unblemished LeBron James is the face of the league, with a nearly-unblemished host of players following just behind in his footsteps. Scoring has never been higher: as of March 19, 2017, only Dallas failed to average 100 points per game, compared to 2003-04, when only the Mavericks and Sacramento averaged 100, and the champion Detroit Pistons averaged 89.4, 25th in the league. The Kings just opened a new arena, capping a long effort to prevent the team from leaving Sacramento, and Golden State is planning a new venue of its own. So what are the trouble signs, and what can the NBA do to avoid them?
Salaries: This bugaboo from the 1990s is reasserting itself, especially after the 2016 TV deal ballooned the league’s already fairly-soft salary cap. Egregious sums were paid to many mediocre free agents during the summer. This may make players happy, but it’s not sitting well with many owners or fans, and it will sit even less well if the national economy trends downward in the next couple of years.
DNP-Rest: San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich started a trend that’s increasingly becoming copied league-wide. This past Saturday, March 18, marked the second national NBA Saturday night “showcase” telecast in a row marred by the mass sitting of marquee players, and it was greeted (rightly) by angry Clippers fans booing, even as their team took advantage of Cleveland’s Big Three getting rest and romped to an easy victory. The NBA regular season product is increasingly becoming tainted by this strategy, and fans who pay $50-100 on average for a ticket are getting hosed.
Too Much Offense? NBA “defense” has gone from the outright on-court assaults of the 1990s to almost nonexistent, even at times during the playoffs. Lack of defense reached an absurd level during the pickup-style All Star Games, the last two of which saw the teams nearly reach the unprecedented 200-point marker. It’s only a matter of time before one of two things happens: either teams just give up on defense altogether during most regular-season games, turning them into pickup fests as well; or a renewed move toward slowdown or physical basketball begins anew, driven by coaches and players frustrated at the gap in talent between James, Curry, Westbrook, Harden, and the rest.
What’s the NBA to do? In short, look to history as a guide to navigate the past. History tells us that a downturn is inevitable. Downturns in the NBA have come when the league’s gotten fat and happy. The “superstar” eras of Russell & Chamberlain, then Magic/Bird/Michael, predated eras of stagnation. Defensive play will inevitably return as teams utilize modern technology and come up with new schemes to shut down the league’s superstar elite. In terms of its marketing strategy, the league needs to make sure not to become too dependent on its current generation. James is in his 14th season and has already talked about retirement. Durant is in his 10th season and is enduring his second extended stay on the injured list in recent years. It’s only a matter of time before Westbrook runs himself ragged, and Curry has looked a little old and slow at times this year. The NBA needs to find and develop new stars. Looking abroad is a good idea: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis look like the real deal, for example. Since they are not in Cleveland or Golden State, meanwhile, they can help spread the appeal of the league throughout the country, even to its lowlier franchises, and cut into the gap between its haves and have nots.
The “DNP-Rest” problem, however, seems to be more acute and one without a great deal of precedent in the league. A punitive solution could be to fine players who miss games due merely to rest. This tactic has precedent; Stern used it, for example, to punish the Lakers for sitting out their stars in a meaningless season-ending game in 1990. A better idea would be, as Doc Rivers recently suggested, to further reduce back-to-back games. The league trimmed some back-to-backs this year, and should continue to do so. This would make the NBA season longer, but why not stretch it into July, when no other sports are really competing? In all, superstar diversification, stretching the season, and—most of all—not forgetting the mistakes of history are this Doctor’s prescription for the NBA to avoid or to mitigate another downswing.
https://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/points-per-game?date=2004-06-16 and https://www.teamrankings.com/nba/stat/points-per-game