Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stern needs to put an end to tanking

David Stern takes a lot of abuse. Black sports columnists have accused him of trying to "whiten" the NBA in order to cater to the Caucasian audience while their white counterparts have lambasted him for allowing the negative aspects of the so-called Hip Hop culture to shape the image of the NBA. He just can't win.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that Stern has managed to save the NBA from imploding. Even though television ratings are down, David Stern has managed to keep the NBA's collective head above water. The NHL is barely breathing people aren't watching the Stanley Cup finals, let alone regular season games. Nobody wants to offer the NHL a respectable television contract and many games, including the playoffs, have been forced into the realm of basic cable.
Imagine the state of the NBA if somebody like Bud Selig was at the helm. Selig inherited a sport with tremendous global appeal and vast untapped markets. Instead of tweaking the organizational structure in baseball to foster a little good natured parity, Selig has allowed money to rule and the result is dwindling fan interest. Baseball apologists will point to the recent success of small market teams but soon the Yankees, Dodgers and Mets will pick apart the likes of the Tigers, Cardinals and even the White Sox leaving recent contenders struggling to rebuild while the big market powerhouses dominate the post season.

Stern took the NBA's helm in 1984…smack dab in the middle of the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era. The NBA was a star driven enterprise that had struggled to find an audience until Bird and Johnson entered the league. After that, Michael Jordan elevated his game and the Bulls to lofty championship status thus solidifying the trend of building the league around players.

Stern never cared for that. First, it gave the players too much power and the demand for dominant players soon fueled a crippling salary increase that decimated small market teams. Players like Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter inked huge deals and proceeded to underachieve. Nobody noticed how bad it was until Michael Jordan left. The face of the NBA went from being that of a determined champion to that of the demanding prim Donna who talked better than he played.

It took some time, but slowly, Stern guided the NBA toward the team-oriented concepts embodied by the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons. Stern tried to take the focus off of petulant athletes like Allen Iverson and draw attention to unselfish warriors like Jason Kidd. The push was some what successful and is the reason the NBA is still active.

Now Stern's got to face another problem. The current lottery system the league uses to prevent teams from dropping games on purpose is failing. Several team clearly tanked their seasons in hopes of securing one of the top two picks in the draft. With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant looking like future superstars and several other players promising to be more than serviceable, sacrificing the season for a low lottery pick makes sense.

Part of the problem is that the lottery has been weighted to all but guarantee the worst team in the league one of the top two picks but the serious issue is the NBA's insistence that all potential draft picks have at least a one year buffer between their high school graduation and their professional careers. This has forced players to play a season at the college level which has given NBA scouts a better look at their prospects. Now there's less risk. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the NBA held its breath while waiting to see if Lebron James was up to the challenge because the jump from high school to the NBA is huge. How would Lebron fare in a world where he wasn't a physical freak of nature?

Kevin Durant and Greg Oden would have been top picks regardless of college but their success at the collegiate level has erased any doubts about their abilities. More over, the extra year of college revealed that Mike Conley, Jr. is ready to play the point at the NBA level. Out of high school he might have drifted to the late first or early second round but after a fantastic run in big time college ball, Conley might prove to have a bigger immediate impact than his massive teammate. Oden's great but needs to hone his game. NBA scouts don't think Conley has too many weaknesses, a conclusion made possible by a year of college hoops.

Before, a lottery pick could be a bust…and an expensive one at that. Drafting players out of high school was tricky. Nobody knew what to expect and, with the exception of Lebron James, even the players who attained NBA stardom after making that leap took several years to do it. Kobe Bryant struggled early in his NBA career and Kevin Garnett needed some time to muscle up. The year of college is so significant, some experts believe that the Cleveland Cavaliers might have passed on Lebron in favor of Carmelo Anthony if Lebron had not been from the Cleveland Area. The hometown hero factor sealed that deal.

Stern can't let teams tank in order to gain an advantage through the draft. The NBA can't endure the scandal of intentional losses. It's so pervasive that columnists and fans are torn between being disgusted in the practice or applauding their team's desire to improve. Teams should never be rewarded for something so unethical.

The answer is twofold. Stern must work with the Players' Association to draft provisions that allow teams to cut over paid under-achievers. Teams should be careful about who they throw money at, but to often players get complacent when they're in the middle of a big contract and that hurts not only the team, but the league as well. It fosters the belief that NBA players are greedy, selfish and lazy. Simply giving teams such an option would discourage the behavior. The argument against it would be that teams could dump players for reasons other than effort but if a reverse arbitration system was established every cut would have to pass muster.

That allows teams to solve problems through the open market which diminishes the need for intentional losses. However a team at the bottom of the standings might still see the benefit in passing the "L" column to ensure that top pick. That's where the NBA needs to address the availability of fresh talent. Generally there are only three or four real impact players available in the draft in any given year. That's why teams want to as many lottery balls as they can. Which is why the NBA should dump the lottery: just give the worst team the first pick….After the second provision is implemented.

Lebron's popularity in Cleveland drives home the importance of home town heroes. Fans fell in love with Lebron instantly and that love would have been there regardless of Lebron's early performance. His success makes everybody else love him, but Cleveland's adoration is unconditional. So give those highly rated players the option of signing with their home town team. The player could choose between where he was born, where he played high school ball or, if he played at the college level for a minimum three years, his college town.

That would give Greg Oden, for example the right to sign with the Pacers before the draft. The benefiting team would have to sign that player to the maximum contract and sacrifice their own first round pick. They would also be limited to one hometown exemption every three years. That would coincide with the typical rookie contract and prevent players from manipulating the system to opt out of the draft. How excited would Indy be if Greg Oden came back home to play for the Pacers? Would the Wizards see their attendance numbers increase if Kevin Durant wanted to play in his hometown?

More importantly it would make teams think twice about tanking. The Boston Celtics probably wouldn't have seen much benefit in losing games down the stretch if there was a distinct possibility that Greg Oden and Kevin Durant might sign with their home town teams three days before the draft.

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