David Stern retired a month ago. I still don’t know how to feel about that.
When it came to his legacy, we were presented with numbers, how much league income had grown, how many new international markets there were now, and it’s all quite impressive, but it isn’t very visceral. If you’re connected with the NBA, David Stern was a master. If you’re a fan…not so much.
There are things we don’t know. If Bill Simmons is correct for instance, and Michael Jordan was going to be suspended for gambling and Stern worked out a deal to make a public retirement for the good of the league, that is a smart play, and probably one of many. David Stern was no fool, and mostly likely the smartest guy in most rooms he ever entered. It’s hard to judge someone when you don’t know the scope of what they did.
But looking at the NBA today, it’s a wreck.
Despite players getting more money and owners getting more money, labor is still a problem. In fact, we’re coming off of a labor stoppage that did not solve the fundamental problem of the NBA…the guaranteed contract. Structuring NBA contracts like football contracts solves nearly every personnel related problem the NBA has, but it still can’t get done.
The NBA is being pressured by a handful of small market owners (cough, cough – Dan Gilbert) into making moves that handicap everyone. It wasn’t so long ago that Chris Paul couldn’t go to the Lakers because some owners felt it was unfair. Between that and a preposterous luxury tax (You mean to tell me that you’re a billionaire, but you won’t field the best team possible because you might have to pay a few extra million?) the fans have been deprived of seeing truly loaded teams compete with each other. Instead, we get to see terribly incomplete teams sort of compete at best.
But worst of all, most unforgivably of all, in today’s NBA its okay not to compete.
It’s the smart thing to do, some say. All the moves the NBA has made in aggregate have made it okay to not try to win, but still expect revenue from the fans. I’m from Philadelphia. The Sixers weren’t always good, but this year, they are intentionally bad. I grew up liking the Jazz (They had a muscular superstar who wasn’t so good at dribbling the ball, but still competed. Who does that sound like?) but I couldn’t pay someone to watch one of their games. I hate the Celtics but they made for great rivals and right now I’m pretty sure their cheerleaders could beat them. And David Stern’s NBA made that okay.
Sports are about competition. It’s the whole point. If you’re not willing to try to win, then don’t charge money for games, it’s that simple. The NBA wants it both ways, and that stinks.
The game itself changed.
There was a lot of intensity to rivalries. Playoff basketball was sometimes a brutal affair, hard fouls and staredowns were part of that. Maybe the aggression had to be culled from time to time, but you knew the players cared. Also, if you didn’t have good offensive ball movement, or rotating team defense, you couldn’t compete at an elite level. Now things changed. The Malice at the Palace changed basketball, because it scared everyone so badly.
I don’t recognize basketball today. The rules have changed so that a ‘star’ player can completely play isolation ball, plow into a defender, and get bailed out with a foul while everyone else stands on the perimeter and spaces out. As the game has gotten more international, it resembles a soccer match more than a basketball game. Flopping is just part of it, but players petitioning the referee over the slightest contact is just sad. When I sit with my friends and compare players of this era, the one thing that comes up the most is that the new generation just doesn’t seem tough enough to compete with the Jordans, Barkleys, Malones, Birds, Ewings, and so on.
No one has the slightest idea how a game should be called. It varies wildly depending on who is working a game, and it’s deteriorated to the point that the moment Joey Crawford walks onto the court you know exactly how the game is going to go. In a recent interview, Mark Cuban brought up the most damning point of all, that basketball is the only major sport that people suspect is fixed by the referees. When you think about truly horrifying moments like the Lakers-Kings game 6, 4th quarter, its hard to believe that the referees were just simultaneously incompetent especially in a world where a ref actually got caught for fixing games.
All this I wrote before Bill Simmons revisited these issues in Grantland and I cannot surpass this paragraph:
“When 36 percent of your league is willfully throwing away the last five weeks of an 82-game season, you’re doing something wrong. Stern stuck his head in the sand. He pretended self-sabotage wasn’t a recurring danger, just like he pretended the broken officiating system was fine … and the always-disappointing All-Star Saturday was fine … and the annoying 2-3-2 Finals format was fine … and the stunning lack of minority league executives at every CBA bargaining table was fine … and the embarrassing Chris Paul trade veto was fine … and The Decision was fine … and the Maloofs destroying basketball in Sacramento to the point that the fans had to revolt was fine … and Clay Bennett extorting Seattle for a new arena and ultimately hijacking the team was fine … and the league owning the New Orleans franchise as it landed the no. 1 overall pick was fine … and starting off Silver’s commissioner transition by hovering over him for an extra eight months was fine.”
He makes the additional point that Stern was so concerned with expanding the game; he forgot to bolster it domestically. And honestly, it’s a mess right now. There are a lot of teams that aren’t good and aren’t trying, there are other teams that simply aren’t good and are incompetent, there decent teams, and then there are flawed good teams. There aren’t any great teams. In trying to create parity, the NBA eliminated excellence.
But should a man be judged by the minority of his career? He stayed too long, it’s inarguable. But the rest of his tenure had some of the greatest moments ever, and it easily surpassed the cocaine riddled post ABA league. If a guy gives you twenty five good years, do you condemn him for the five lousy ones? Its not even like the international thing didn’t work out, some of those players (Dirk, Yao, Tony and Tim) have become exceptional. (Shame Arvydas Sabonis was ahead of his time.)
And this isn’t a longing for the good days. Basketball players have never moved the way these guys do. For some reason we like tearing apart Lebron for not being homicidally competitive when we ignore a multiple champion that’s bigger and stronger than Karl Malone but faster than most guards. We have seven footers like Dirk (or near 7 footers like KD) shooting the lights out, although no one right now is quite like Steph Curry. We have old fashioned killers like Kobe and Wade. The player situation isn’t bad at all.
But all I can think about is what could have been. We could have Chris Paul, Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers squaring up against Durant, Westbrook and Hardin every year, and trying to fend out the Clippers Celtics West lineup of Pierce, Garnett and Blake. The Pacers would be threatening the Heat and the Knicks would still suck. All of these teams would be a little deeper a little better. But I didn’t get that.
As unfair as it is, with Stern gone, all I can think about is what we’ve missed out on.