|Turns out people care more about stars than quality of play as league popularity soars. (Getty Images)|
By Matt Moore
Oh, the agony.
We've become accustomed to a certain level of play in the NBA. What's worse, NBA scribes, bloggers, and hardcore fans are constantly comparing everything to prior moments and finding fault. There were some last year who found the playoffs disappointing because there were no truly great teams. You know, despite it being arguably the most entertaining playoffs of all time. Some would prefer the era of Jordan's dominance, even when that meant that the playoffs were about as unpredictable as a Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode.
The point is, we're ready as fans of the game to find fault with it at every turn. This season? Not hard to locate. Ken Berger of CBSSports.com points out all the agonizing ways this season's play has been reduced to rubble. Shooting percentages are in the basement. Scoring totals are in the basement. It's sloppy. There are injuries. It's gotten so bad that the age-old debate of whether a great college team, in this case, Kentucky, can beat an NBA team missing its best player, in this case, the Raptors without Andrea Bargnani, has returned to haunt us. And we all know it's insane. Size and strength matters, and the kiddos would be beaten to a pulp. What's more, it doesn't take much time to notice the gap between baseline jumpers at the college and pro level.
But the bigger point is that the game has been irreparably harmed. David Stern and his League of Extra-Stingy Gentlemen have forced this 66-game schedule down the fan's throats and the result is that they have turned away fans forever.
Attendance is up, considerably. Ratings on TNT for games and NBA on TNT are up double-digit percentage points. NBA TV is through the roof, when for years most people haven't known the channel exists. Teams are raising ticket prices. Fans are paying. The reality is that the game is becoming more popular headed towards its annual zenith of the playoffs. But how can this be, with the play this bad? With turnovers and bad conditioning and injuries and clang after clang after clang?
The hardcore fans are going to watch anyway. And the casual fans, the golden goose for any sports league? They don't care about how the play is.
They care about storylines. LeBron failing in the clutch. Derrick Rose trying to will his way past Miami(and missing free throws in the clutch). Kobe Bryant's last stand. The Celtics trying to prove they're not dead yet. The Orlando drama. The Knicks disaster with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Linsanity. The Denver Nuggets flourishing (until the last six games) without Melo. Lob City. The Mavericks put themselves back on the map. The Chris Paul veto and its various effects. Kyrie Irving. Ricky Rubio.
The 76ers! ... OK, still no one cares about the 76ers, sadly.
The Thunder, destroying everything in their path as the new favorites. Blake Griffin over Perkins.
And again, as always, LeBron.
And what's more, the game is actually pulling in more viewers, even with terrible play. Know why?
No one can hold a lead.
The conditioning and schedule has created absolute chaos in the second half of games. Teams are racing out to 15-20-25 point leads and then blowing them, consistently, because they lack the energy and personnel to keep the foot to the pedal. The Magic blowing a 28-point lead, at home, to the team that has tortured them the past two seasons? Fascinating, like a train wreck. The Heat blowing leads to Golden State and the Clippers on back-to-back nights? Must-watch!
No lead is safe in this new, worse, NBA, and that makes it all the more watchable. It's part, oddly, of what makes college fun. Their players aren't good enough to close the door and so huge leads evaporate. Now the same thing is happening at the NBA level with teams burning themselves out in the first half and then trying desperately just to get back to the hotel and go to bed.
So yeah, the play is terrible. No one can shoot. Everyone's injured. The players are exhausted, already slightly miserable, and unable to give us the grace and precision that makes the NBA the best basketball product in the world.
And people haven't liked it this much in years.
Part of the issue is that there are always injuries. There are always terrible teams. For years we've heard the argument that there are so many bad teams. That's a product of there being great teams. Not everyone's going to go four-games-under-.500 or better. Yeah, the shooting's bad, but no one seems to focus on that when Blake Griffin is dunking the ball down Kendrick Perkins' throat and Monta Ellis is scoring 48 points.
Turns out you can lock out the fans, lock out the players, compact the schedule, shorten the season, torture the percentages, burn out the talent, and still have a product that sells.
Because drama? Drama transcends buckets.