As I consider the state of the modern NBA game, especially during this playoff season (2015-2016) more than a few issues immediately come to mind. Perhaps the genesis of my thinking comes from a nostalgic longing for the NBA of the late 1980’s through the mid 1990’s. The game was more physical, possessing a kind of grit that harkened back to those youthful days of playground toughness and half court pragmatism. In fairness the modern product is likely more appealing to a broader audience insofar as the scoring is prolific. The three point shot has transcended puberty and is now fully grown. The game is more wide open and final scores have steadily increased. Starting back in 1980, the three-point shot was attempted on average just 2.77 (basically 3 per game). By the mid 1990’s the NBA had decided to move the the three-point line in from 23’9″ at the top of the key to 22′ across the board. The result was a notable jump in three-point scoring, a jump so lopsided that prior to the 1998 season the NBA decided to push the original line on back. However, the proverbial ‘cat was out of the bag’. As of 2016 the league average for 3-point attempts is the highest it’s ever been hitting 24.1 attempts per game. Over 21 more shots per game since it’s birth in 1980.
The simple fact of the matter is that modern NBA players are not only shooting more 3-pointers, but they’re making them in record numbers. In 2009 the 3-point percentage for made shots equaled 1996 totals when the line was moved in, the highest ever. As a result many NBA teams have made the conscious decision to embrace the 3-point shot as a matter of strategy. At the same time, 2-point shot attempts have decreased in noteworthy fashion. More so than when the 3-point shot was first introduced in the NBA game. Since 1995, the frequency of 2-point shots has been stable although consistently lower than ever before. What does that portend? Well the half court game with the center as back-bone has changed, if not slowly disappearing. In 2016 it would seem that the prevailing offensive attitude is ‘shoot threes until the cows come home, if you miss, shoot some more.’ If they can trade 3 for 2 then they will outscore their opponent. Combine that mentality with the systematic legislation of defense out of the game and the result is the NBA has the kind of product that it currently has, for better or worse depending.
The Idiots Guide is about solutions and as such, we have come up with three significant thoughts, suggestions that the NBA can use to improve the state of the modern game.
#3. Universal System of Punitive Sanctions for NBA Referees.
Throughout the decades before the Tim Donaghy incident, the NBA had always suffered from bad public relations with regards to game officiating, especially during the playoffs. Sadly, conspiracy theories are as much a part of the NBA as the free throw line. Every NBA fan has at least one story and most, many stories of egregious calls and officiating in playoff competition. There’s a good reason for that and it doesn’t have anything to do with tin foil hats. I submit to you the Bucks vs 76ers 2001 Eastern Conference Finals where the officiating was disastrous and appeared tilted in favor of MVP Allen Iverson’s 76ers. Even if there was no overt conspiracy, the mere hint of impropriety is enough to anger fans. ‘Homerism’ aside, there has been far too many instances of officials ruining games at best and changing the final outcomes at worst. Players are tired of it and fans are sick of it. We suggest that the NBA come out with a comprehensive system of punitive sanctions for referees. The kind that makes paramount the consistency and effectiveness of their performances. It’s true that they have a very difficult job, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be performed at premium levels. The fact of the matter is fans pay good money, television networks pay great money and players get paid exceptional money all in the name of the great game of basketball. Having that bastardized in any way by sub-par officiating is a gross miscarriage of…it’s just wrong.
#2. NBA Coaches need to Grow a Set and Bench Star Players when Needed…
It’s an age old conundrum, the power struggle between the pragmatic and experienced NBA coach versus the pampered, privileged, typically self centered millionaire player. Allow for the caveat of said player being the darling acquisition of the team owner and it begs the question, ‘Who’s really in charge’? In 1997, then Golden State Warrior player Latrell Sprewell was involved in a physical altercation with head coach P.J. Carlesimo that resulted in a rather serious assault on Carlesimo. That was an extreme example of the tension that can exist between a star player and a coach. There are might be a half dozen NBA coaches out of the 32 that have the requisite respect and power to properly discipline a star player, to bench a star player without repercussions from ownership. The NBA unlike the other major sports is completely star driven. There are only 5 players on the court at any one time and 12 players in total. This gives the star player a unique kind of gravitas. In certain game situations when a star player performs outside of the agreed upon system, takes terrible shots and makes awful decisions, the head coach should be empowered to pull that player and sit him. The current politics of such an obvious move is more complicated than it should be. It doesn’t take much in the NBA for a player mutiny to occur (See: David Blatt, Cavaliers). Complicit ownership who feel beholden to a star player often enables this nasty kink in the chain of command. Given the choice between the coach or the star, the coach is usually the person packing his bags, literally at the end of the day. This has to change. Sacramento Kings coach Geroge Karl spent the 2015-16 season as a lame duck with no power to effectively discipline his malcontent star player DeMarcus Cousins. As a result the team was awful and Karl ended up losing his job on several occasions during the season, before losing it for good at seasons end. It’s lunacy of the highest order. There aren’t many professions on earth in which the boss is beholden to the employee. The NBA should be no different if it wants to continue to flourish.
#1. Mandatory D-League Assignment for ‘One and Done’ Rookie Players.
Fans of professional basketball would be derelict in their assessment of the game if they failed to admit that a majority of modern young players are lacking certain fundamental skills. At the risk of sounding like an old fashioned stickler, the fact of the matter is that many of these young players particularly those of the ‘one and done’ variety are lacking a basic knowledge of the operational functionality of the game. In many cases these kids are just two years removed from high school gymnasiums with a one year stop at the university level. Their university experience as part of a program typically served more as a function of the process of getting to the NBA, than improving and evolving as players and human beings. At the end of the day it’s the NBA that suffers. In spite of the prevailing wisdom among the talented young, basketball is a team game where individual achievement is a product of, not the reason for success. Many of the best young players are a by-product of a system that cuddles them, that ingrains in them a belief that they are special, that their individual talent allows them privilege above and beyond that of the team. This is a problem. Over time the NBA has a higher percentage of players that are ‘green’ and as a result the game gets watered down. Worse still is a system where these players might never get a real opportunity to mature and maximize their potential. Who is going to teach them the graduate level of the game? As stated earlier, coaches have largely been neutered in this regard. They have job security to think about, enormous egos to placate. Idiots Guide suggests a system where ‘one and done’ players and/or players under the age of 21 be automatically assigned to the D-League for an agreed upon amount of time prior to playing full-time at the NBA level. This would is some ways mimic the minor league system in MLB. The rookie minimum salary and such should not be affected, the primary purpose of the D-League assignment is to refine the talent. Any improvements in personal maturation and development will be a welcome consequence. This is the suggestion and as with the aforementioned suggestions, it is my hope that the NBA give them serious consideration. The future of the game is at stake. Basketball is a wonderful game and the prospect of an improved NBA is not lost on it’s amazing and dedicated fans.