Between NHL labor problems, NFL safety and money issues, and MLB’s own highly talked about monetary balance issues, it would seem that the NBA has a great chance to close the gap on the NFL as America’s favorite sport. Their past labor problems are not as bad as the NHL’s, NBA Commissioner David Stern essentially absorbed the blame, rightfully or not, and a season of superstars charged from the Olympics look to draw the fans in.
The NBA would be in great shape … were it not for the players. The core aspect of any sport is how appealing is it to watch. Several things make the game fun to watch: skilled players, feats of athletic prowess, cathartic violence … and underdogs. People remember when the little guy beats the heavily favored champ. No one likes to see the evil empire win (outside the fans of said empire). The problem with the NBA lies in that the game is quickly removing the underdog, and replacing it with several evil empires.
Of course the union of the Heat, the fabled “Decision”, created a super group that America loved to hate. The way LeBron James bailed on Cleveland on national television, the cries from players like Michael Jordan that HE never needed to join Magic or Bird or Ewing to win a title. The massive show where they promised six or more titles. It was WWE style arrogance at its finest.
The Knicks, with Amare, Carmelo, and Jason Kidd, joined them early this offseason. Another army of top players joining forces to rule the league. The Clippers, and the somewhat shady way they paired Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, had another one. It was already hard to cheer for the Oklahoma City Thunder because of how Clay Bennett tore out Seattle’s heart and stomped on it (according to Sonics fans, he also did this while eating a live puppy). The final blow came with the trades of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the Lakers.
Look at it from a balance perspective. The Lakers now have two guaranteed hall of famers in their starting five (Nash and Bryant), along with two possible hall of famers (Howard and Gasol), and a multiple time All-Star (The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest). When you bring that kind of firepower to the table, what chance does a Denver have? What chance does Phoenix have against a team constructed of half the combined starting lineups of the All-Star teams two years ago?
The game of professional basketball has become a league of haves and have nots. With players working together to play on the same team, the balance of the game is thrown entirely out of whack. It is essentially player collusion, and it is ruining the game. When a league of 30 teams only has seven truly competitive ones, it means that something went wrong. Unless your team is located in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, New York, Miami, or Chicago, your team has virtually no chance of competing.
Why does this happen? There are two simple reasons. The first is that basketball is the most player-centric team sport on the planet. One player can change the game in basketball more than in any other sport. A Michael Jordan on a bad team makes the playoffs. A Michael Jordan on a mediocre team goes to the championship. When a single player can affect so much, it makes the most sense for the best players to work together to ensure victory. While that is a sound theory from the players’ perspective, it means that the less desirable team is left to rot in the cold.
The second reason, from the league’s standpoint, is that these events are occurring in either large markets, or fan driven markets. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are the three largest media markets in the U.S. Miami is in the top ten. A larger media market means more people in the seats, more people buying merchandise, more people watching on TV. If it makes money for the league, even at the detriment of the fans, of course the league will do it.
The NBA had a chance to make itself king again. If it continues letting players dictate the complete balance of the league by not increasing a player retention clause, then all the NBA will be are kings of fools.