By Marcus Shockley
As the Northeastern United States digs out from under the massive devastation of Hurricane Sandy, people look for ways to prevent the pain and mayhem caused by storms like this. While it may be possible to one day control the weather, in times of desperation people will start grasping at wild ideas, such as the concept of trying to stop a Hurricane by nuking it that comes up whenever there is a massive storm that lashes our coasts.
While the idea of trying to stop a massive force of nature with a “massive force of man” is an idea that is laughable from a nuclear perspective, it has become reality for the NBA under David Stern’s tenure.
David Stern recently announced his retirement as NBA commissioner, effective in 2014. Stern has ruled over the NBA for almost 30 years and has done serious damage to the league and its overall on-court product, and it’s not clear if his successor will be able to rectify it.
Is David Stern the worst commissioner in the history of sports? No.
Has he done some good things? Yes.
Is he a good commissioner? No.
Under David Stern, the NBA diverted its entire marketing force to promote individuals over teams, a direct departure from every other team sport in existence, and diametrically opposed to the model created by the NFL under Paul Tagliabue, who many, including myself, consider to be greatest commissioner who has presided over any sport thus far. Tagliabue turned football into the financial and popular juggernaut that it is today, and one key element of the NFL is that fans root for teams, not individual players. Sure, they love their players as long as they are wearing the team uniform, but Indianapolis Colts fans did not flock to root for Denver when their beloved Peyton Manning was traded to the Mile High City. Fans of NFL teams root for their favorite team, and while some fans might change teams, it’s rare and it’s not because of where the players are going. An added business caveat to this: injuries, while unfortunate, do not normally diminish the immediate value of an NFL franchise.
This concept, which is used effectively in college sports, worldwide soccer and even the poorly managed Major League Baseball, creates more valuable teams, a more loyal fanbase and vast financial power for the league as a whole. It’s exactly the opposite of what David Stern has done.
Over the past 30 years, David Stern has effectively made moves that have created an NBA that is entirely focused on the marketability of individual players and that has grown revenue by some amount, but also created a fragile economy for the sport, limited parity and created an environment where it’s more important to have one ‘star’ player than it is to make the playoffs consistently.
The biggest issue today is that the only way for small-market or mid-market teams to succeed in today’s NBA is to get your hands on one of the few superstars in the league – such as Oklahoma City or San Antonio did with Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan respectively – and hope they don’t leave as soon as they really hit their professional peak (as Dwight Howard and Lebron James have done). Once a team like the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat manage to lure three superstars to their team, the only way for another team to compete with them is to send an equal or greater force against them, much like attempting to nuke a hurricane.
There are several reasons for this, but the most egregious is how stars get more beneficial calls than other players, and the lack of true zone defenses is designed to allow the stars more points. As an example, Shaquille O’Neal, one of the most gifted centers to play in the NBA, was allowed to charge his way to the basket, knocking his opponent to the floor, and it was rarely called. Considering Shaq’s impressive physical skills, this gave him an incredible, nearly insurmountable advantage in the post that other teams could not contend with. The result? Four NBA championships for O’Neal and his teams. Now, this is not to say O’Neal could not have won titles even if the games were called fairly, but giving a player of his ability that kind of advantage is exactly what David Stern had in mind. He’s repeated this pattern for years, and it’s created players who are far too powerful. The fans follow the players – if Lebron leaves Miami for Charlotte (won’t happen), suddenly there will be a rash of new Charlotte Bobcats fans and an exodus of Miami Heat fans. This creates a fragile economy for the sport – if Lebron is injured, the Miami Heat suddenly have significantly less fans, as the Chicago Bulls found out last season when Derrick Rose went down with an ACL injury.
This focus on the individual players has stymied economic parity and growth in the NBA. It’s not currently possible for a team to be competitive in the NBA without loading up on ‘name’ players who will get the benefits of being stars. Are you a fan of the Wizards, Cavaliers, Hawks, Orlando or any of a dozen other teams without a group of stars? You’re out of luck. You’re team’s not contending this year or any year in the near future. The NBA still suffers from the image that there are ‘favored’ teams, something very few people believe about the NFL.
I don’t know if Adam Silver will correct these problems, but it’s definitely fixable. It’s a problem built over 30 years of misguided marketing, where individual player shoe releases make more noise than some of the teams in the league.