The NBA is back. Okay, the season doesn’t tip off until October 30th, but in terms of popularity and relevance, expect the league to reach a level not seen since 1998. Fourteen years ago, Michael Jordan rode off into the sunset (for a little while, at least) by nailing a game winning shot in game six of that year’s finals. Not only did Jordan solidify himself as the greatest of all time by winning his sixth ring, but he also closed the book on a golden era in professional basketball.
Back in 1979, the NBA was suffering from an image problem. Stars were stereotyped as overpaid thugs and cocaine use was prevalent among players. That next season, two rookies, a point guard with a Hollywood personality and a white boy from French Lick, Indiana saved the league. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought their collegiate rivalry to the pros and their three finals matchups attracted fans from all walks of life. However, it’s foolish to hold a blind eye to other star players who impacted the game in the 1980s. Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and a young Michael Jordan were ambassadors of the sport and challenged Magic and Bird night in and night out. Pro basketball had a cast of characters in which it could market itself and promote the game. In 1991, Magic symbolically passed the torch to Michael after the Bull’s dominated the Lakers in the Finals. Jordan then brought his game, and the NBA, to unforeseen heights by winning five of the next seven NBA championships. (Had Jordan not retired from 93-95, its very likely the Bulls would have won at least one more title.) A strike shortened ’99 season represented the start of a new age in the sport, and a Lakers three peat at the turn of the millennium provided some much needed star power. Now what does this history lesson have to do with the state of today’s game? Well, from 2002-07 the NBA turned back the clock and many of the problems from the 70′s reappeared. Let’s take a look at how bad things were before we highlight the positives in today’s game.
During the dismal 02-07 period, the NBA was hurting in two crucial areas. First, there was a lack of superstars who carried themselves with class on and off the court. Guys like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis and Allen Iverson were franchise players and faces of the league. Yet, Carter and McGrady were team cancers who only played when they felt like exerting energy. It should be no surprise that their teams often succeeded when they were on the bench or out with an injury. Iverson and Francis clashed with coaches and were unafraid to express their displeasure to the media. The “Answer” (Iverson) also found himself in trouble with the law throughout his wild career. It’s worth noting that fans and the media were desperate to find the next Michael Jordan and didn’t know where to start. So they turned their to attention to high school prodigy LeBron James and labeled him “King James” and “The Chosen One.” I’m sure many of you are wondering why then three-time champ Kobe Bryant did not receive the same treatment as James. But let’s not forget Kobe was feuding with Shaq and Phil Jackson and battling a rape case in court. Bryant’s actions were truly a reflection of where the NBA was at that point in time. The league was a collection of millionaire superstars who failed to act as role models. Does this sound like the late 70s? As a result, the NBA was faced with the challenge of trying to market an 18-year-old kid as the next big thing (LeBron James). Sure it might sound appealing to young kids, but what about the older fans that experienced nineteen seasons of Magic, Larry, Michael and company? You can bet many became disinterested in the sport.
League popularity and fan interest reached all-time lows in the mid 2000s. The record for the lowest rated NBA Finals was set in 2003 and then broken again in 2007. Some people are quick to point out that both those series included the San Antonio Spurs who play in one of the league’s smallest markets. Admittedly, there’s some validity to this point, but the 2012 finals averaged at 10 rating with the Oklahoma City Thunder as the Western Conference representative. The 2007 edition did include the NBA’s promotional item LeBron James and his Cavaliers, but the American public did not even bother to watch as the series drew record low ratings. Both the 2011 and 2012 finals featured James and his Miami Heat and produced ratings nearly 50% higher than ‘ 07. Is this only because Miami is a bigger market than Cleveland? No, the NBA nowadays is much more appealing and talented than it was in the mid 2000s. For proof, take a look at the 2004 All-Star rosters. The mid-winter classic included the likes of Jamaal Magloire, Brad Miller, Ron Artest and Kenyon Martin. These four players all had solid careers and should be proud of what they accomplished. However, when I hear those names I think of contributing role players and not NBA All-Stars. When was the last time someone said, “I can’t wait to go to the arena tonight and watch Jamaal Magloire do his thing”? Throw in a 2007 FBI investigation into game fixing by former referee Tim Donaghy and the NBA’s integrity was hanging off a cliff.
A 2008 finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers signified the return of the National Basketball Association. For the first time in over 5 years, the NBA Finals featured a sexy matchup with plenty of star power. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant were attempting to elevate their places in history against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen who were determined to become the next generation of Celtic greats. Boston won the series in six games, but most importantly launched a new era in pro basketball. Had the Celtic’s “Big Three” never came together, its very likely that many of today’s best players would be wearing different uniforms.
Good friends LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were both eliminated by Boston in the 2010 playoffs, and were displeased with the talent they had around them. Realizing Boston’s triple threat + Rondo was here for the long run, James decided to join Wade in Miami alongside fellow All-Star Chris Bosh (all apart of the ’03 Draft Class and ’08 Olympic gold medal team). Undoubtedly, LeBron’s TV special and the “Heat Welcome Party” were out of line, but in basketball terms this was the best thing to happen to the NBA in over a decade. By opening night, everyone wanted to see what this Heat team was made of. League interest spiked dramatically and even the city of Cleveland was tuned into Heat playoff games in 2011. Later that season, the Heat’s influence stretched to New York as the Knicks brought in Carmelo Anthony to play with star forward Amare Stoudemire. The same could be said in Los Angeles when the Clippers acquired Chris Paul last winter to pair him with Blake Griffin. The Heat’s Big Three finally captured that elusive championship this past June, only prompting the Los Angeles Lakers to assemble a team that could potentially develop into a juggernaut. Who’s excited to watch Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash square off against Miami next season and possibly in the Finals? I know I am, and doesn’t this sound a lot better than Spurs-Nets in 2003?
When the Star-Spangled Banner played after Team USA’s gold medal victory over Spain this summer, I knew this was a signature moment for NBA. Twelve of our country’s best put their egos aside and risked injury to win a gold medal for the United States. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could have easily voiced displeasure with having to play LeBron James just weeks after the Heat toppled the Thunder in the Finals. Nobody would have had a problem with Kobe Bryant if he decided to take the summer off and give his knees a rest. Every player on that team embraced the Olympic experience, and guys like Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh would have been playing if it were not for injuries. This was not the case in 2004 when many of the NBA’s best decided to stay home for “personal reasons.” The 2012 Team, and the four who were unable to participate, are the main reason why the NBA has the most marketable athletes out of any sports league in the world.
For the first time since the 90s, the NBA has itself a model cast of characters. I cannot think of a time in league history when the talent pool was this deep. NBA vets and Hall of Fame locks, Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki, Nash and Kobe will add to their already impressive resumes this season. LeBron James became the second player ever (Michael Jordan ‘92) to win regular season MVP, Finals MVP and Olympic gold all in the same calendar year. Dwyane Wade is on pace to become the fourth greatest shooting guard ever behind Jordan, Kobe and Jerry West. Chris Paul has entered the prime of his career and should become one of the ten best point guards of all-time when he decides to hang it up. If you think the league will slow down in five years from now I have some real bad news for you. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin are all 24 or under and have a combined three scoring titles, twelve All-Star appearances, eight all NBA Teams, one MVP and three Olympic gold medals between them. Plus, let’s not forget about Kyrie Irving’s incredible rookie season and Anthony Davis’ upcoming one. Miami, the Lakers and Oklahoma City have dynasty potential. Boston and San Antonio are still elite. The Knicks, Clippers and Bulls want to join the party. Rivalries between teams and players will definitely emerge. Thirty years from now, we might look back at the 2012 Finals as the first dual between LeBron and Durant. Buckle up, because its going to be one hell of an NBA season and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon.