Monday, May 30, 2005

Professional Basketblogging

It's very common among sports fans, particularly white sports fans, to like basketball but dislike the NBA. Let me say from the outset I see where these folks are coming from. The NBA is very different from other sports, and a lot of those differences don't favor the NBA.

One big problem with the NBA is the number of perennial losers' gyms in operation. At least half the league is simply hopeless. The Golden States and LA Clippers of the world simply aren't going to win the title, ever. These teams are missing pieces that no one is trying to find.

The NBA has a lot of the same problems as Major League Baseball, but in the NBA the effect is greater. In baseball a few teams with massive payrolls dominate year in and year out, but there are always cracks through which a medium-market team can sneak in and win it all. That's why the system in baseball, unfair as it seems, works OK. The Angels (based in Anaheim) or the Pirates (based in Pittsburgh) can occasionally put a great team together.

The reason this works in baseball and not basketball is that baseball is kind of a mystical game, even at the highest level. What exactly makes a championship baseball team? Take a look at ten different championship baseball teams and you'll see ten different ways to win it all. The only thing they will all have in common is that they will all have one of the best starting rotations in the league. But even the correct makeup of a rotation is a bit of a matter of opinion.

In basketball, there are basically three ways to win a championship. The league is divided into the teams that know this and are constantly trying to achieve one of the three formulae, and teams whose owners either don't know the formulae (Mark Cuban of the Mavs) or don't give a shit about winning the championship (Donald Sterling of the Clippers).

The three ways to win an NBA championship, in order of how easy they are to achieve:

1. Solid defense, and an offense that consists of a big post player as the #1 option, a reliable jump shooter as the #2 option, and some B+ player as a #3 option. Examples include teams like the Showtime Lakers (Kareem & Magic) the Bird Celtics (McHale & Bird) and the Shaq Lakers (Shaq & Kobe.)

2. Spectacular defense, including borderline dirty play, especially under the basket, and an adequate offense with at least one elite scorer. The Pistons did this last year, and also during the Isaiah Thomas days.

3. Have Michael Jordan.

On some level I think the newfound existence of option #3 is part of the problem. Michael Jordan created the illusion that there is a third way to win the title (this may have also happened with Clinton and his own famous Third Way.) In reality, there are still only two, unless you have Michael Jordan, which you don't because he's retired.

So this year you have three teams left that can win it. The Heat are going with option #1, as are the Spurs. The Spurs have the better defense (it's probably a notch above solid) while the Heat have better offensive weapons (Shaq/Duncan is a wash, but Wade/Parker is a big advantage Heat). It's a pretty classic matchup, especially since the Heat run the floor better, which will give them a chance to make up for their probable slight disadvantage in the half-court game.

So the question is, how do teams like Phoenix and Dallas happen? You can cut the Suns some slack - they just built this team. Even so, clearly their idea of just adding a true center to the existing mix is not going to work. Where does the D come from? You need defense to win, probably more in basketball than any other sport. I don't know what team was the last team with a bad defense to win the NBA title, but I don't think it was in my lifetime. It was definitely before I started paying attention to basketball.

But somehow, teams like the Mavs do happen. Every year the Mavs have an elite offense and a terrible defense. And every year they go out and tinker with the team a little bit, trying to gain some x-factor or other. Why don't they nuke the team, keep a post player and a jumpshooter, and start over? They're never going to win a championship the way they're going at it.

Long story short, I see what people don't like about the NBA. The same teams seem to rise to the top pretty much every year. A lot of years one conference is without a championship-type team and you wind up with a boring, uncompetitive finals.

Yet something about this actually fulfils a very core piece of what sports fandom is all about to me. I really believe that the modern system of American pro sports, where there are three dozen teams in the league and the idea is that any of them could win it all, is just unnatural. You can't really sustain that. You're always going to have some teams that consistently cannot compete.

In basketball, the long guaranteed contracts and the small roster size basically mean that teams that aren't always striving for a championship simply cannot win one. There can be no Florida Marlins phenomenon, where the team rises from obscurity, wins a title, then gets trashed and rises six years later to win another title. Basically in the NBA you have to be in it to win it every year.

If you don't believe this is the way it is, you probably pull for a team that isn't one of the teams that's consistenly trying to win. In which case what I'm about to show you is probably going to make you a little sick to your stomach.

In the past 20 years, do you know how many different clubs have won NBA titles? Six. Lakers have six, Bulls have six, Pistons have three, Spurs have two, Rockets have two, Celtics have one. And the Celtics don't really count; that title was the tail end of a long, long dynasty that is all but forgotten.

So the bottom line is that there are five modern basketball towns - Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, San Antonio, and Houston. Those are the cities that have a chance at an NBA title. Now, this year it certainly appears that Miami has possibly been added to that list.

However, I warn you that it is not that rare that a team will appear to have assembled a great group that goes deep into the playoffs for many years but can never get over the hump. As unlikely as that seems with Shaq and Wade, it's a distinct possibility for the Heat.

Anyway, I have no point. I just like the NBA, and you can't stop me.

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