So I just got done reading Bill Simmons' (The Sports Guy) NFL picks on ESPN.com, where he spends most of his time discussing the general suckiness of the NFL. Too many bad teams, not enough great ones. Parity running towards overall badness. And after flicking through a bunch of NBA games on LeaguePass last night, it sort of strikes me that the same thing has happened in the NBA. I mean, does a casual fan want to see a San Antonio/Detroit final? Or, even worse, a San Antonio/New Jersey? "Um OK, when does the Celtics/Lakers series start?"
The problem as I see it is this: everyone wants the small market teams to be able to compete (otherwise it's just boring), but they don't want them to be TOO competitive. When all is said and done, you want the Lakers/Celtics Finals, or the Steelers/Cowboys Super Bowl, or the Yankees/Dodgers World Series. Because—and baseball's been the best example lately—when someone like the Florida Marlins or the Arizona Diamondbacks ends up in the Series with a bunch of overpaid mercenary players, WHO CARES? No one grew up rooting for those teams, and everyone knows they'll be dismantled before the champagne is even dry in the locker room. They're just a team that exists for the present (with crappy uniforms to boot) and more often that not people are just waiting for them to go away.
I didn't mean this to be a diatribe against MLB, although my disdain for baseball of late is well-documented (and will probably be discussed at greater length down the road). The problem comes from the fact that I was watching the Bulls/Lakers last night—the 1991 Finals rematch—and the game was just plain awful. It was only magnified by the halftime retirement of Scottie Pippen's number, when one couldn't help but realize that if you gave uniforms to Pippen, Jordan, Rodman, Oakley, Grant, Randy Brown and Craig Hodges, they could probably whip both teams, in back-to-backs, even.
There, of course, is nothing that says that these teams have to be great. But the casual NBA fan, seeing a bit of this game and thinking back on Michael and Magic, would have to assume that the rest of the League was terrible as well. I mean, the Lakers have an 18-year old playing center and a guy named Smush running the point. Are they an NBA team or the Junkyard Gang? It would be hard to convince someone that the League's best teams are in Detroit, San Antonio and Phoenix; and that the League's best player was in Cleveland.
A big part of the problem, the way that I see it, is overexpansion. There are already 30 teams in the L, and DavidStern seems intent to expand further—to Beijing, Mexico City, Oklahoma City, Neptune. There seems to be the thought that since the entire world is providing NBA players now, that there's this incredibly deep talent pool that has only begun to be tapped into. You know what? I don't buy it. For starters, how many foreign-born bona-fide STARS are there in the League? Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash. Anyone else? Yao Ming remains a work in progress, Darko Milicic STILL hasn't done much of anything, and don't even get me started on Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Maccabi Tel Aviv might be the best non-NBA team in the world, and their best player is Anthony Parker—an American who couldn't make it in the NBA.
And as with American players, NBA teams are pursuing younger and younger internationals, which is having a detrimental effect on their games (as well as making it harder and harder to predict success). We're bringing them here so young that they're not even getting a chance to learn the European game—which is what made some of the biggest successes of the past, like Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic—so successful in the first place. Now they're just like American players, only they don't have as good a grasp of the language, and they may need to take hip-hop 101 before setting foot in a locker room.
Look at someone like Tskitishvili, who was drafted in the top 10 by the Nuggets and hasn't done a damn thing since. He's played all of zero minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves this season, and has already demanded a trade. Or Darko "Before Carmelo And Dwyane" Milicic who hasn't had much more luck with Flip Saunders than he's had with Larry Brown. (He has, however, been arrested for having his front windows tinted too darkly.)
So yeah, 30 teams isn't enough? I think you could argue it's at least two or three too many, given the performance of the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors (and the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, who, with the exception of Chris Paul, don't really have much to write to their either homes about). The Grizzlies failed in Vancouver, the Hornets flamed out in Charlotte (and, before the flood, were well on their way to doing the same in New Orleans). Is adding international teams—and the resultant insane road trips—really the thing to do? Not to be xenophobic or anything, but if the Beijing team made the Finals—or hosted the All-Star game—wouldn't that be patently unfair to fans of the NATIONAL Basketball Association?
Since my structure of this whole piece is fucked beyond belief anyway, I'm just going to jump back to the downfall of typical powers. Chicago sucked for years after Michael Jordan left. The Lakers fell apart between Magic and Kobe, and now after Shaq. (They actually sucked between Magic and Phil Jackson, but hey.) The Knicks have pretty much sucked since the 1973 championship, except for when Spree and Camby made their improbable run to the '99 Finals (and have been unwatchable the entire time except for that run). The Celtics haven't been good since Larry Bird retired, except for their own one improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000.
So what to do? Because obviously the owners can't be counted on to do the right thing—the Knicks have spent money like George Steinbrenner on crystal meth and have absolutely nothing to show for it. The Lakers picked Kobe over Shaq—and then replaced Shaq with an 18-year old and Kwame Brown. Oh, and Chris Mihm. That's all right then.
Quite frankly, desperate times call for deperate measures. When one of the big teams loses their biggest player—the best example being the '97 Bulls, who lost Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen AND Dennis Rodman—the number-one pick in the draft just isn't enough. Let them grab another team's player in an "expansion" draft, and give them a regional draft choice. Carmelo to the Knicks? Dwyane Wade to the Bulls? Because honestly, you want the smaller market teams to be able to fight back, but when the sheep start eating the lions regularly, something's just plain wrong.