Requiem for the NBA

Eli Richman '20

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The 2019 NBA playoffs and recent NBA has been nothing short of a joke.  The higher seeded team has almost always won the series, many of which have been unentertaining blowouts.  The occasional thriller means nothing because the higher seed is overwhelmingly likely to win the series. Ratings are significantly down as well, especially during the early playoffs, partly due to the absence of the face of the league, LeBron James. But why has the league gone so downhill?

To begin, the NBA experienced the height of its popularity throughout the 1980’s and 90s.  Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Erving “Magic” Johnson of the rival Los Angeles Lakers were engaged in a ten plus year rivalry that saw some of the greatest, most intense games of all time.  Bird was white, and Magic was black, further escalating the rivalry into an athletic race war between the two players, cities, and their fans that completely transcended the sport. The 90s brought one man, Michael Jordan.  The greatest basketball player ever, and perhaps the greatest athlete ever, as well as one of the most recognizable sports figures in history. Jordan, with his high flying athletic moves, one of a kind sneaker line, and greatness on the court expanded the league to new levels.  His retirement ushered in the Kobe Bryant era, who emulated his game from Jordan, and had tremendous success both individually and as a Laker. But when he passed the “torch” to LeBron James is when I believe the NBA went from the premier professional sports league, to noticeably worse than college basketball and the NFL, and slightly worse than the MLB, NHL, and others.     

The NBA has gone from an extremely competitive and physical league to one that barely plays any defense at all.  The average points per game in the 1998-1999 season was around 91, and in 2019 it is roughly 111. It is indisputable how eroded team and individual defense has become, and that stat is all viewers really need to know.  The legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant once said “defense wins championships.” While a football quote, it is just as applicable to basketball and all sports for that matter. Analysts and experts hardly talk about defense, which is ½ of the battle in any basketball, but has been completely devalued in today’s NBA.

In 1986, at the height of the hometown Boston Celtics’ dominance and rivalry with the L.A. Lakers, the average amount of 3-point attempts per game was 4, it is 32 today, eight times more attempts.  Not only are they shooting so many, but only 35% go in, meaning sixty five out of every 100 miss. Yes, the 3-pointer is a formidable weapon and important part of the game, especially in close games that come down to the last minute or two.  But, today’s NBA revolves around who can hit the three ball, and who can’t. It has completely destroyed the game inside (close to the basket) and any and all exciting physicality that comes with it.

Another one of the overarching reasons why the NBA has declined in recent years is the prevalence of dynasties.  A dynasty is when a team wins multiple championships, often in succession. While dynasties have always occurred throughout the NBA’s history, the Finals often went six or the full seven games of a series throughout the 80s and 90s and were much more competitive.  The 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 NBA Finals pitted the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For four straight years! Who wants to watch the same series four times in a row, with the Warriors winning ¾ and poised to win another one this year. As long as mega super teams exist in the league, such as the Warriors who have a potential starting five of Hall of Famers, the league will never reach the benchmark set by the NFL and NBA of old.

Do I wish the NBA was as boring, predictable, and unentertaining as it is?  No. Different people look at the game in different ways, some like the fact that threes are being shot at a higher rate, I’m more of a fan of physical play closer to the basket.  Either way, it is undeniable that the level of defense has declined, and the feel of the league, the nostalgia, just cannot match that of earlier decades.