By Steven Keehner
As we conclude our third consecutive Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers Finals match up, I wonder: why should I care? While the NBA is at an all-time high when looking at pure talent, I believe that the league is at a low when looking at the competitiveness and entertainment value. While I could attribute this to being a Knicks fan, I also believe we could look at a few specific points to understand why this is the case.
First, we could look at the rapid increase of scoring. While watching teams score 120 points in a game could be seen as good basketball, it takes away from the fundamentals of the game. The art of defense in the NBA is quickly becoming a lost one. In my opinion, this is the fault of the NBA; they have made the game “softer.” A team like the “Bad Boy” Pistons of the late 80s/early 90s would’ve never been able to exist in today’s NBA due to the amount of fouls that are called in games.
Watching an NBA game is becoming more and more like an AND1 game; while it can be entertaining, it is supposed to be the best basketball players in the world competing at the highest level. Watching players like James Harden and Carmelo Anthony, who couldn’t care less about what is happening on defense is a huge turn off for many basketball fans, myself included. Look at the average Points per Game by teams each season; in 2003, Dallas led the league with 104.9 PPG, in the 2016-17 that would leave them tied for 16th. Golden State in 2016-17 is leading with 116.1 points per game this season; an almost 1000-point difference is insane! The NBA has shown no concerns about this issue. Russell Westbrook averaged a Triple-Double this season. While this an incredible accomplishment, to me it’s tainted due to the NBA’s move toward less and less defense.
I also think the NBA’s shift to the three ball is hurting the league as well. I understand why the teams would want to go for three pointers, it’s in the name! In 2000, NBA teams attempted 13.7 3-pointers per game, but this previous season, teams averaged 27 a game! Steph Curry alone attempted 10 3PG this season, which shows that teams are living and dying by the 3 more than ever before. This has made games very much a case of teams going back and forth, chucking it up, hoping to get that extra point. This can make for a great basketball strategy, but it also creates boring games. For every Steph Curry, there is a J.R. Smith, which can be hurtful for the game.
I can understand if you disagree with me on the first couple of points, but I don’t believe the NBA’s top-heaviness issue is one for debate. If you’ve kept up with the NBA at any point in the last 20 years, it’s clear that the NBA always has at least 4 or 5 good teams fighting for the title every season. Whether it’s the Spurs, Lakers, Celtics, Heat, or Bulls, the NBA should provide at least some sense of curiosity in terms of guessing who will make it to the Finals. But for the past three seasons, it has been a two horse race between Cleveland and Golden State; without the lack of competition, it has given me no reason to want to tune in.
Even before this season, Golden State still had to get by tough teams: Spurs, Clippers, and Oklahoma City. But with Kevin Durant joining Golden State to earn his first ring, the unexpected decline of the Clippers, and the Spurs’ injury issues, Golden State has had no challenge this season. This can be best seen through the NBA Playoffs; as I’m writing this, Golden State has yet to lose a game. Cleveland hasn’t had any serious competition from within the Eastern Conference since LeBron James rejoined the Cavs three seasons ago. It’s gotten so predictable throughout this season that ESPN has spent large portions of their programming discussing this issue.
Another large factor that has contributed to this issue of top heaviness is the mentality of “Go Big or Go Home.” We’re at the point where if teams aren’t going to be competing for an NBA title, then they sell their rosters and rebuild. Philadelphia has even marketed this by using the phrase, “Trust the process.” This has resulted in the top few teams having stacked rosters while the majority of the league is stuck in a phase of mediocrity. The “Big 3” mentality has also hurt the league; when LeBron left Cleveland to join Miami back in the Summer of 2010, he created a mentality that it’s okay to join up with other star players to win.
While players may go where they want, having “Big 3s” makes the league more and more predictable. This is bad for the sake of entertainment. Charles Barkley said it best, “We’re [going to] have guys on bad teams making $25 million a year. And we’re going to have three or four competitive teams. That’s the negative of LeBron going to Miami, KD going to Golden State.”
These issues have hurt the NBA as a product. This isn’t the Premier League, where teams face the threat of relegation into a lower division for consistent mediocrity. Teams are being encouraged to be bad to secure better draft picks. While I agree with this from a sports management standpoint, it makes for many useless games as a fan of the NBA. Until some of these issues begin to change, the NBA product will stagnate, but at least for now I can watch Golden State vs Cleveland and hope that this will rekindle my long lost love for basketball.
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