Culture of Hoops

The State of the NBA, Part 1

Hardwood and Hollywood’s odd-couple, Dalton Baggett and Sonny Giuliano, discuss the state of the National Basketball Association. This is Part 1.

Dalton Baggett: I’d like to preface the coming discussion by explaining to everyone something that I do every time that I have a question or concern regarding the NBA. First, some random train of thought will bring me to an obscure question that I need an immediate answer to (It’s 2017, so I don’t like waiting for information). Maybe it’s something serious like “Who has averaged the most assists in playoff history?” Or maybe something not so serious like “Have the Orlando Magic had some sort of Voodoo curse put on them that forces them to disappoint their fan base on a yearly basis?” Either way, my next thought is always “Should I Google this, or just ask Sonny?” This is a legitimate thing that I do. If Sonny is available, he will generally get me an answer to any question faster than the most popular search engine on the planet. I’ll also probably get some interesting factoids about the subject that I didn’t ask for, but appreciate none the less.

What I’m saying here, is that Sonny knows a lot, maybe too much, about basketball. Luckily his vast and endlessly deep pool of knowledge allows us to have some interesting conversations about the league.  Now, not to beat a dead horse here… Actually, can we talk about that phrase for a second? Why are we always beating a dead horse? I understand its meaning, but why a horse? Also, are we sure that the phrase always applies? What if beating a dead animal was actually productive in some way. Look at Rocky Balboa, for instance. He beats up dead animals on a regular basis and has a couple championship belts to show for it. I just think sometimes we need to make a deeper examination of the phrases we use on a daily basis.

Man, that was quite a digression, and I apologize. Now, not to beat a dead dolphin, I’d like to discuss this whole resting players thing the media has been going on about. I know we are going to argue, but I really don’t think there is much more to it than players being rested is bullshit. Every person in the NBA is literally employed by the fans. The players are in an entertainment business and that is what they get paid to do. Sure, they probably play too many games, especially on back to backs, but that is a scheduling issue. I know there are ways to fix this problem, but as the rules are now, players should have to be on the court if they are able. I have more to say on this, but I’d like to hear what our resident Guru Sonny (Who will probably agree with LeBron’s opinions on the matter) has to say about all the fuss.

Sonny GiulianoFirst, thank you for your kind words. I can’t tell you how proud I am that my many years of watching/studying the game of basketball and accumulating as much knowledge as I possibly could on the NBA has led me to essentially being your own personal Basketball Siri. It’s a banner day in the Giuliano household.

Second, the answers to the rhetorical questions you asked above are Magic Johnson (12.35 assists per game in the Playoffs, and no, I didn’t have this one dialed up; I needed Google’s help) and no, there isn’t any sort of voodoo curse; it’s much more sinister than that. The hard truth is the Magic got back a less than stellar haul for Dwight Howard in 2012, and there have been more than a few horrible draft breaks/decisions since the Dwight trade that will probably haunt Orlando fans for years to come, unless they’ve just totally checked out on the Magic and are all-in on Orlando City Soccer.

For what it’s worth, the three worst draft stumbles have been:

A) Ending up with their highest lottery pick post-Dwight in one of the worst NBA Drafts in recent history (and grabbing Victor Oladipo with it, which seemed like a fine pick at the time, and looks like a fine pick when you look only at the Top 9 picks in the Draft, but then see that C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert all went later in the 1st Round)

B) Missing out on Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis by one pick in back to back drafts, and ending up with Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja instead.

C) Drafting Domantas Sabonis and then immediately flipping him and Oladipo to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka, who would be traded eight months later in large part because the Magic also signed Bismack Biyombo for $72 million over the Summer.

At least Orlando City is off to a nice start this year. Anyway, what were we talking about again?

DB: GO Lions!

Ok, I started to get into this whole resting players debacle, but I’d like to tell a personal story. A few years ago I decided that I’d like to see the Clippers play in Orlando. The tickets were fairly cheap (The only benefit to living near/rooting for a trash organization) and I am a huge Blake Griffin fan, so it seemed like a win-win. HOWEVER, Blake and CP3 were “nursing injuries” and the Clippers decided the Magic were not worthy and rested both of them. Both. Of. Them. I was a poor college student and decided I could sacrifice eating for a week as long as I got to watch Blake ruin somebody’s life in person. Alas, it was not meant to be. I’m not always the most pessimistic person in any given room, though, and saw a silver lining to my plight. Being a Magic fan I was all in on JJ Reddick, so at least I’d get to see JJ light it up, right? Wrong. He got hurt in pregame warmups and didn’t play. Let’s take a quick look at the starting lineups and who I got to watch play basketball that night:


Andrew Nicholson

Maurice Harkless

Nikola Vucevic

Jameer Nelson

E’Twaun Moore


Lamar Odom (LOL)

Caron Butler

DeAndre Jordan

Eric Bledsoe

Willie Green

I don’t like when teams rest players. But please, tell me why I’m wrong. Also, please tell everyone about the Clippers team you watched TWO NIGHTS LATER.

SG: To answer your question, the Clippers team I watched two nights later DID feature Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and they only combined to play 43 minutes of uninspired basketball. But listen, I feel your pain. I’ve been there. A year later I went to a Bulls/Heat game in Miami and LeBron sat out. Three nights earlier he scored 33 points in a win at Oklahoma City. Four nights later he scored 31 points in a home win against the Knicks. One of the five games LeBron missed during the 2013-14 season I attended. Was I upset that this was the case? Sure. Am I more upset in retrospect because Erik Spoelstra was playing LeBron 38 minutes per game after the Heat had been to three straight NBA Finals, and instead decided play Dwyane Wade only 54 games during the regular season so he could be rested, only to wear down LeBron in the process? Damn right I am.

All of the fans out there who want to criticize players and organizations need to remember what the job of nearly team employee (GM’s, coaches, training staff, players, etc.) really is … it’s not to entertain the fans. I don’t mean to come right out and blatantly disagree with something you said above, but that’s just not the truth. Their job is to put their employer in the best spot possible to win championships. Even though it does come as a product of what they do, it’s not the responsibility of a player to play 82 games and keep people happy, just like it isn’t the job of the Head Coach or GM to decide to put minor short term gains (like appeasing 18,000 on one given night) ahead of long term gains (ensuring that you’re team is fully healthy and in the best position possible to win in May and June).

In the last seven years, LeBron James has played nearly 6,000 minutes in the Playoffs alone; that’s the equivalent of roughly two extra regular seasons worth of games. And on top of that, he’s played over 19,000 minutes in the regular season these last seven years. Do you realize LeBron is already in year 14 and by the end of this postseason, he’ll likely have over 50,000 regular season and Playoff minutes on his odometer, plus all of the minutes he played for Team USA, plus god knows how many hours of practice and conditioning and weight training over a decade and a half of Summer’s, and there is nothing left he can do in the regular season that would change his legacy? The only thing LeBron can do to continue to move up in the minds of many people who don’t already have him at the very tippy top of the NBA pantheon is to win more titles. That’s it. If that means Ty Lue has to sit him out fifteen regular season games each year to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a better chance at that, then that’s what needs to be done.

Look at it this way … do you think any Boston Celtics fan from the 1980’s would be mad today if Larry Bird had rested ten games each year as means of prolonging his career/prime? Bird had nine extraordinary peak years, played only six games in the 1988-89 season and was never the same after that. He was gone after the 1991-92 season. If the Celtics had done a better job of managing his minutes, easing his burden, resting him on nights when the schedule was quirky (road back to backs, the final game in 4 in 5’s, etc.), maybe Bird’s prime is extended a year or two longer. And is that a bad thing? Isn’t that a better alternative than Bird flaming out after just nine years?

DB: Wait, has LeBron played a lot of basketball? You didn’t make that clear (Just kidding). So you make some good points. The Larry Bird thing is what really got me, that poor man’s back. I still hold to my idea that this whole league is a product. Sure, basketball is fun, but it’s not a career unless the fans make it a career. The main goal should be to make them happy. LeBron is a smart guy, he’d surely be on some entrepreneurial shit if the NBA could only make him $20,000 a year. To piggy back this idea, I’d like to bring up Durant mentioning the fact that this whole debate is centered around 5 guys essentially. Now, that sounds like an interesting and smart point at first glance. But let’s say we extend that to the top 15 guys in terms of popularity and skill. If they were to all disappear in a Twilight Zone type event, would the NBA get a $24 billion TV deal? Nope. I’d even go as far as guessing it’d be less valuable than the NHL. This could all be blasphemous, but I wanted to make a point.

Feel free to refute any of the fantastic points I’ve made, but I’d like us to discuss something a little different.

Regardless of whether or not you believe the game is “soft” now (I don’t) it sure seems that the officials could give us a slightly better product if they didn’t blow the whistle 70% of the time a guy goes to the basket. Why is it like this, and can it be fixed? I’ll let you go first.

SG: Before I get to those pesky refs and the incorrect notion that players today are soft, I would like to quickly shoot some holes in your above argument. First, imagining that the fifteen best players in the league could just “disappear” is a whole lot different than imagining that the fifteen best players in the league all sit out fifteen games each year to get rest. But I understand that you were trying to be dramatic, so I’ll let it slide for a moment. Second, don’t say shit to me like we’re gonna make the fifteen best players in the league disappear. You know how much I love the NBA. Thanks to you it’s almost a certainty I’m going to have nightmares tonight. Third, the NBA signed that $24 billion TV deal during the 2014-15 season. If we removed the fifteen best players of that season (let’s just take away the guys who made 1st, 2nd and 3rd Team All-NBA that year) that means we’re losing:

Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, DeAndre Jordan

If that’s the case, there are still the following players competing in the league:

Kevin Durant (admittedly, he was injured most of 2014-15 season), Paul George (ditto), Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, John Wall, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Isaiah Thomas, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Nikola Jokic, Mike Conley, Devin Booker, Kevin Love, Kemba Walker

Those are 25 players off the top of my head that would still exist in the NBA. Would the league have gotten $2.6 billion per year from ESPN and Turner if they lost LeBron, Steph, Harden, Westbrook and co. Maybe not. But would they have been bumped down to $200 million per year like the NHL is getting? Nah fam.

Anyway, let’s talk about those refs, and more importantly, the way fans view the way the game is played today. Refs are a problem, but this has never not been an issue. Certain rule changes have changed the way the game is played, as have analytics (as I documented here). But overall, the idea that players today aren’t playing as hard as guys in the past is just bullshit. Here’s what I’m challenging everyone to do (if y’all have the time). Watch the two clips that are embedded right below this text. And please, explain to me exactly how the players were playing so much harder in 1987 than they were in 2016.

DB: Arguing with you is zero percent fun. You use all of these facts and evidence and I’m truly just not a fan of that kind of thing. I like being right, without having to work for it, you know?

I just adhere to the belief that the NBA would be even more fun to watch if it was officiated differently. Sometimes I get really frustrated by players like LeBron and James Harden driving to the basket because they know they will get the call. It’s almost as annoying as people who bring children under the age of 8 to a movie theatre (I had a bad Beauty and the Beast experience that I’m still salty about).

That being said, I’m not daft enough to think that players like LeBron and Harden don’t know what they’re doing. They only whine like children when they don’t get the call because they are always expecting to get it. If the game was officiated differently we’d have freak athletes like LeBron making much more incredible plays a higher percentage of the time. They’d be more worried about getting the ball in the hoop than drawing a crap call they know they can get. Flagrant fouls are understandable, but unless something impacts a player’s shot attempt directly, or could cause injury, I don’t think it should ever be called.

I could keep going, but I don’t want to get started on Dwayne Wade (the father of jumping into defenders to get a foul call) because then we’ll just be here all day.

SG: No, you’re right. There’s certainly a reasonable gripe to be had with Officials and the way the game is officiated. Though, I must admit, after watching sixty-something College Basketball games over the last three weeks, I do find it very difficult to criticize NBA refs when their College counterparts are just a whole different level of shitty at their job. But NBA players have found a metaphorical glitch in the system and they’re doing whatever it takes to exploit it. If that means they have to fall to the ground after minimal contact, jump up and down waving your arms, scream “Ayyyyyy!” as loud as they could, shoot a ref a death stare or use a number of other deceitful tricks that get on the last nerve of any opposing fan, as long as the ref blows their whistle then it doesn’t matter how or why that happened. The player did their job.

And let’s be clear about something, the way the game is officiated now is an overreaction to the way the game was being played before. Even though it’s nice to reminisce about the past, the blatantly physical nature of the game was not well-received at the time. Let’s just break this down time period by time period up until the point in time when basketball changed (in my opinion) for the better.

Early to Mid 80’s: Virtually no defense was being played in the first 42 minutes of a game (and if anyone tries to debate me on this, I have plenty of links to full games on YouTube I could send your way). Teams dialed it up for the final six minutes of a close game, but defenders didn’t have to worry about navigating through a maze of pick and rolls every possession, and they definitely didn’t have to worry about sprinting out to 40 percent shooters who were ready to launch a three from 28 feet away. No, they packed the paint, took away lay-ups and let offensive players take long two’s, the least efficient shot on a basketball court, but teams took a ton of them because only a handful of guys back then could reliably hit threes.

Late 80’s: I was watching the Bad Boys 30 for 30 last night, and this isn’t one of those instances like where a stand-up comedian says “I was on a date with a girl last night,” but in reality he was doing this same exact set at a comedy club 90 minutes away the night prior … anyway, I really did watch the Bad Boys 30 for 30 last night, and the consensus around the league in the late 80’s was that the Bad Boy Pistons were ruining basketball. And unless you were a Pistons fan back then, I don’t want to hear that you didn’t feel this way, because Michael Jordan was leading that charge, and most of y’all think Michael Jordan is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

The 90’s: The success the Pistons had rubs off on a number of other teams in the NBA. League scoring drops from 110 points per game in 1984 to 101 points per game in 1994. One of the more successful teams of the era, the Pat Riley led New York Knicks, take this physical style of play the furthest, and in Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, Simmons writes that Riley and the Knicks were responsible for “nearly ruining basketball.”

Early to Mid 00’s: No stylistic or philosophical changes have been made yet, and unfortunately the league is in a talent drought. League wide scoring is down to 93 points per game. This is undoubtedly a tough stretch for the NBA as a whole.

Mid 00’s to Present Day: Thanks to Mike D’Antoni‘s Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, advanced analytics, a few defensive rule changes and overall better talent that has come into the league from 2003 (the LeBron, Wade, Carmelo Draft) through the upcoming and much-hyped Draft Class of 2017, the league is in the best place it has been since the time we were born. And I’d almost be willing to fight anyone who disagrees.

So Dalton, as a casual, yet informed NBA fan, a description that is slightly different than the one I would bestow upon myself (“maniacally obsessed” would be the best way to put it), I’m curious to know what you’ve thought of this season as a whole. Who are you enjoying watching? Who has stood out this season? In general, what matters to you?

Ya know what, since we’re a few thousand words in (and because I’m off on a four night cruise to the Caribbean tomorrow), let’s shelf this for now and reconvene a week from today, which just so happens to be the final day of the NBA season. Deal? Ok, good talk. Deal!

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