The League Is Back!
But there’s still something missing.
by Quinn Peterson
On many levels, things have been back on point since the ’07-08 campaign and any hoops fan can tell you how good it feels. Especially after that dry spell from 2002-2007, where the NBA was less eventful than a PGA Tour with no Tiger Woods. Think about what transpired during that time — bronze medals, brawls and boredom. Brutal.
It’s on its way (and I’m being optimistic here) back to the 90s, the ‘glory years’ of the League in terms of both quality and popularity.
For one, the stars are back now.
The Lakers dynasty did its best to hold the League down post-Jordan. But after their demise, it was ugly. LeBron was young and Kobe and the Lakers were in the dumps. Instead, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace became the faces of the NBA, along with Steve Nash and with Stephen Jackson’s fist. Great players (minus the fist), but not exactly who you’d want to market your business around unless you were trying to sell Better Basketball DVDs. True basketball fans can appreciate the beauty of defense and ‘playing the right way,’ but we’re trying to be entertained, too.
Luckily, LeBron and Kobe are now MVPuppets. Throw in Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Melo and CP3 and you’ve got a handful of stars, not just great players.
Not only are the stars back, but the young talent is back on the rise as well.
The League was riddled with kids (literally), as team after team drafted high school prodigy after high school prodigy. Guys dripping with ‘potential.’ Unfortunately, the result was a number of spurned college programs and wasted NBA draft picks. We’re still waiting on the evolution of many of those players, or have only recently seen it (think Andrew Bynum). Yao, LeBron, Amar’e, Dwight: They’re exceptions. Bassy, Darko, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Robert Swift: They’re the norm.
Now, it seems that GMs have smartened up (much with the help of the age rule), and it’s definitely benefited the overall quality of the League. Guys are making significant contributions two or three years in — if not immediately — as opposed to making careers out of riding the pine, being hurt or collecting dust. Kevin Durant, OJ Mayo and Derrick Rose are the top of the class. Future stars. But look deeper into the past couple drafts, and you find guys who are more than just developing talents. They’re damn good players.
Al Horford, Jeff Green, Joakim Noah, Thad Young, Rodney Stuckey, Nick Young, Wilson Chandler, Rudy Fernandez, Aaron Brooks, Glen Davis, Ramon Sessions all Class of 2007.
Russell Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, DJ Augustin, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Randolph, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Marreese Speights, George Hill, Mario Chalmers, Chris Douglas-Roberts all Class of 2008.
I apologize for the long list, but it’s important here. These drafts are deep with quality guys helping out immediately. Two and three years in, and all of these guys are solid contributors that any team in the League would take on their roster with open arms.
Those drafts from 2002-2006 weren’t complete failures, there are some decent players in there, but not with the frequency and swiftness of the two mentioned above. The League is seeing its youth blossom faster and more often and its paying dividends, as it has brought up the overall quality of the game.
Last year’s cable ratings during the Playoffs were record-breaking, and the regular season ratings, though they haven’t matched those of the 90s Jordan-era, are solid, too.
But there’s a reason why ratings haven’t surpassed those of the days when Mike ran the League. The reason is the one thing, I said, was still absent from the League completing its return to greatness.
Rivalries. Or lack thereof.
What happened to them?
Bulls/Knicks. Bulls/Pistons. Bulls/Pacers. Pacers/Knicks. Knicks/Heat. Rockets/Spurs. Even the early 2000s had Lakers/Kings and Lakers/Blazers. But now, we’re left with nothing. Not one genuine, authentic rivalry in the NBA outside of Cavs/Wizards. (And even that is largely because of guys running they’re mouths rappers getting involved. It’s hasn’t even been competitive when you look at. The Wizards have never won a significant game.)
Why? I wish I had an answer, but there isn’t one. No direct, concrete explanation. These are some factors, though:
• The League’s gotten softer, plain and simple, and with that, the gritty, chippy play that molds rivalries has just about vanished. Be it rule changes, societal changes, whatever the reason, the League is a little bit more fragile now. Remember what happened when the Wizards tried to rough LeBron up? Not that himself Bron is soft, but the widespread reaction to it was, as people defended the King and labeled the Wizards as dirty. They very well may have been, but in the 80s and 90s the name for it would have simply been basketball. Those Pistons and Bulls were like UFC matches. We’ve heard Kobe state before how much he loved the physical play of the 80s, and that play carried on through the 90s. Guys went at each other’s heads, regardless of if they were friend or foe off the court. In Magic’s recent book he mentions that while him and Isiah were the best of friends away from the hardwood, they were taking shots at each other when it was game time. Cheap shots. LeBron vs. Kobe, it’s just not happening, and thus, neither are those gut wrenching, kill or be killed rivalries.
• The media has tried create rivalries themselves and force feed them to the public. Sometimes it seems like National Enquirer material. Straight gossip. Kobe vs. Shaq. Kobe vs. LeBron. Perez Hilton could write that stuff. Rivalries may be sustained by the media, but they aren’t created by them. Teams have to go out and compete against each, willing to win by any means necessary. They have to hate each other. They must be authentic and genuine. What the media has tried to do, spoon-feeding us Lakers/Heat or Lakers/Cavs every Christmas is as fake as see-through Jordans.
• From 2002-2007, the most successful teams in the NBA, save Detroit, were San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix. A complete shift from what went on in the previous decade, in which none of those teams were the NBA’s toughest, nastiest, or best. Those teams, the Bulls and Knicks were in the cellar. Instead of dirty boxouts, it was plodding play from Detroit and San Antonio or Dallas and Phoenix putting up video game scores. When they ran into each other, they’re playing styles may have clashed, but they’re attitudes didn’t. Guys were passionate, but not to the point where biting your opponents head off actually crossed their mind. Pacers/Pistons was the lone rivalry during this period, and that tapered as the time went on.
• Maybe there was just something the magical about the NBA on NBC. As a shorty, I remember hearing that the NBA would no longer be on NBC, and I actually thought the League was over. I couldn’t even fathom the idea. The guys at NBC look like geniuses now, broadcasting the NBA from Bulls first championship until the end of the Lakers repeat. Talk about perfect timing. Things just weren’t the same on ABC, and that surely played a role in how we perceived teams. The teams and quality were down, but so was the presentation.
Whatever the reason, rivalries have been dead since ’02-03, and have yet to make their way back into the game. Today, rivalry means anybody in your division or conference. No longer about who you hate, but who you happen to play the most. I’m not complaining one bit because I love where the NBA is going, especially in relation to earlier in the decade. I just wanna see guys get laid out when they come to the hole when they that team. Not maliciously, but because there’s no way a guy from that team is scoring on us that easy. Rivalries are when, no matter what the records of the two teams are, it’s always a good game (UNC/Duke, for instance).
As the NBA continues its resurgence, maybe those life and death battles will, too. But for now, rivalries, you’re the only this missing. No where to be found.
All we can do is reminisce over you, my god.