The several years behind us and before us will define the future of the NBA. The denigration of competitive spirit and moral fiber amongst certain players and upper management has left an irreparable stain on the legacy of the game that in the past brought us pioneers and idols like Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird, Chamberlain, etc. The question is…how long will this go on? Will the fans and the sports community do their duty to end this behavior and bring the absentee sense of integrity back to the game of basketball? These answers should emerge in the near future.
How can the everyday American relate to Dwight Howard? We can’t, not a single one of us. Dwight preached “loyalty,” (yes, this is very real) while destroying the Orlando Magic front office and giving up on his teammates and fans, effectively holding a franchise hostage for over a year. Almost as embarrassing was his public statement, “there are a lot of nights where I don’t sleep, ” regarding the self-induced uncertainty in the destination of his playing future. Dwight, you have a max contract in the NBA. You are living every boy’s dream, playing a game for millions of dollars while also collecting an absurd stream of endorsement money. That statement is a slap in the face to the American public, many of whom are struggling to make end’s meet in the current recession. The American public has reason to lose sleep at night, Dwight Howard does not.
So how did things get this bad? The reasonable response is to begin with the advent of free agency in the NBA. Hell, teams have been moving around as long as players have. As Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote in the film Baseketball, “The Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles, where there are no lakes. The Oilers moved to Tennessee, where there is no oil. The Jazz moved to Salt Lake City, where they don’t allow music.” The latest example is the movement of what was formerly the Seattle Supersonics franchise to Oklahoma City, which has left a nigh irreparable relationship between the people of Seattle and the NBA, Commissioner David Stern, and owner Clay Bennett. The tongue-in-cheek of Parker and Stone highlighted a negative trend in professional sports, the love of the game being left behind in the pursuit of big business.
In recent years, the decision to test free agency has been amplified by larger contracts and the “super friends” mentality. There were days in the past when a star leaving a team for their rival was seen by fans on the same level as committing adultery (e.g. my own and this little girl’s current feelings towards Steve Nash). This is now accepted as business as usual every offseason. A generation ago, players stayed with their respective teams for the majority of their careers. These players cultivated friendly (or not so friendly) rivalries with certain opposing teams or players. They stayed true to the front office that took a chance on them, the teammates that treated them like family, and the fans that embraced them. They were appreciative.
The current media age, coupled with ease of travel and communication, has galvanized a generation of young players. Rather than creating rivals, these players are constructing lasting bonds and friendships. These players have known each other since their AAU and college recruitment days; they watch each other play on TV every night. Social media keeps them only seconds apart at all times. So why would these superstars want to play against their close friends when the NBA has given them the chance to team up? The NBA is enabling and cultivating this selfish attitude in its star and even mid-level players; it is unacceptable.
What many teams had anticipated for years, the epic 2010 free agent class, turned into every small/medium market NBA team’s nightmare. Pat Riley saw an unprecedented opportunity, exposed a loophole in the system, and signed to the Miami Heat three of the top ten players in the league. The rest is history, and now every big market NBA team is scrambling to keep pace. Two years ago we saw Carmelo Anthony pout his way from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks to join up with Amar’e Stoudemire, as they both awaited the potential arrival of Chris Paul. Last season Dwight Howard began his drama; he is currently lobbying to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets, also known as Deron Williams and Joe Johnson (talks seem to be dead for the moment). The Lakers have a big three of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Steve Nash (not to mention Pau Gasol), and are also in on the talks for Howard. The dynamic of the NBA is changing. Rather than being dictated by the spirit of competition and the enjoyment of the fans, the players are taking over more than anyone could have envisioned, in any professional sport. When you put only five starters on the floor, the impact of one player is greater than it is in football, baseball, or hockey. LeBron James departure from Cleveland is the paramount example, dropping the Cavaliers from first to worst immediately after taking his talents to South Beach.
So how can the small market teams keep up? How will the NBA balance the business interests of the franchises and the league with the individual interests these “super friends” and big market teams are creating? The answers are unknown; the next several years will help shake things out and determine which direction the league is ultimately headed. Ideally league officials will find a way to stymy this trend before it creates severe negative shockwaves throughout the NBA. Current hope for change can be found in Oklahoma City, one of the few teams in the league that has built a serious contender by hitting home runs with their draft picks and filling out their roster with contributors who don’t demand max salaries, a near NFL success model (honorable mentions to the Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, and Indiana Pacers, several young teams on the rise). If teams built in the model of OKC can beat back these “super teams,” owners and GMs may revert to the more balanced/traditional method of assembling rosters. This will benefit the competitive balance and the team-first mentality that seems to be disappearing from the NBA at an alarming rate.