The Choices We Make: Changes in the NBA

By Mario Carter
Elm Columnist

Among some within the professional sports intelligentsia, the NBA is rapidly approaching levels of cataclysmal proportions. Apparently, the single greatest problem that currently faces the league is not an ineffectual draft system that produces such a dearth of talent or an enthusiastic eagerness on the part of owners to lavish severely underwhelming players with high salaried contracts. Rather, it’s the notion that an elite player may want to form a championship contending team with another elite player or two in a big market venue as opposed to wasting his prime years playing for a middling small market franchise that has little to no chance of being truly competitive. In the days following the trade of Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks, many took to the highest hills to denounce this most unforgiveable of evils.

FoxSports columnist Jason Whitlock wrote that these players were, “Soaked in the arrogance of fame, wealth, immaturity and business ignorance, the players have dramatically reshaped the league with their impending free-agent maneuvers.” ESPN columnist Rick Reilly described this trend of “Big Threes” forming with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and possibly with the New York Knicks by lamenting, “This is what the NBA has become: very tall, very rich twenty-somethings running the league from the backs of limos, colluding so that the best players gang up on the worst. To hell with the Denvers, the Clevelands, the Torontos. If you aren’t a city with a direct flight to Paris, we’re leaving. Go rot.”

After reading both columns that seemed more intent on employing the use of literary histrionics and hyperbole than actual logic, I was tempted to the use the word flimsy but I almost felt that it would be an insult to say this as I’ve heard other flimsy arguments possessing more substance and depth.

Leaving aside the general unconvincing arguments on their face, this line of reasoning also suffers from a lack of historical reference that even the most casual of basketball fans would have. Are we supposed to pretend that the formation of star teams at the expense of other franchises is a new development?

As someone who is still fairly new to basketball, I do not have the same kind of personal recollection that others have but I was not aware of the overall level of competition deteriorating when Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and scores of other talented players left their underperforming franchises to seek success elsewhere.

But recounting examples misses the point. What is really at stake is the freedom of the player to determine his own career. There is no reason that a superbly skilled player should continue wasting his abilities for a team that shows no immediate sign of advancing forward. In fact, it would rise to the level of professional irresponsibility for that player to continue his service with a franchise that is certain to go nowhere. And for all of the artificial impassioned pleas for the players to think of others before they consider their own career aspirations, it occurred to me that Whitlock, Reilly and others were not so much arguing for franchise loyalty as they were for a kind of indentured servitude.

In essence, they have established an impossibly high standard which dictates that players demonstrate a greater commitment to their franchises and fans than to their own professional livelihood. It should not be the responsibility of players to sacrifice their prime playing years for the sole appeasement of their franchise and fans. (Actually, it would be quite selfish to demand this.) The responsibility should be on the organization to provide adequate role players in which to surround him with so that the team becomes competitive.

To use straw man arguments as Reilly does by claiming that these players only want to be a part of franchises that are in cities that have ‘direct flights to Paris’ is not only horrible writing but represents intellectual laziness at its core. There is a reason that Tim Duncan continues to play for the San Antonio Spurs. There is a reason that Dirk Nowitski continues to play for the Dallas Mavericks. There is a reason that Kevin Durant continues to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder. These franchises (which are in relatively small cities compared to New York and Los Angeles) have made a commitment to ensuring that their stars are surrounded by a quality role players that can help the team reach of championship-contending status. Former Houston Rockets point guard and current Inside the NBA analyst Kenny Smith perfectly illustrated this when he said, “If [a small-market team] builds the right pieces around the right guy, he will stay.”

On a side note, I don’t see the downside of wildly underperforming franchises closing down. If they cannot stay afloat financially, why should they continue to exist? (One benefit of this would be that there would be a greater concentration of talented teams which would improve the overall product.) As much as there seems to be a common consensus that basketball is only a game which requires a ball to go into a hoop, people tend to forget that the NBA is a business.

In my opinion, critics who make this argument come from the perspective of regarding professional team-oriented athletes in the way that you would normally reserve for personal friends instead of the way they should be seen as: pragmatists. They after all, base their decisions on personal interests just as much as we all do. We should no more view Carmelo Anthony negatively (Disclosure: I am a Knicks fan) for leaving a team that clearly was not going to be competitive championship-wise for one that actually has potential, anymore than we should view a professor at a college who might leave to receive better opportunities at another institution. Such people should remember this because there is nothing unbecoming than a sports fan who revels in petulance.

March 11, 2011
Volume LXXXI Issue 18

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