Wednesday, June 20, 2007

America's Basketball Malaise

Based on this morning's column, it looks like Terry Pluto agrees with me about the mindless noisemaking at NBA games. I really think a lot of it has to do with a lack of confidence in the quality of the product that the league puts out. All the noise is a huge distraction from the game itself, and perhaps that's intentional. A lot of people think the quality of play in the league has declined over the last decade, and some of those people may even own basketball teams.

I think there are a lot of reasons for the decline in the NBA's quality, but a big part of it has to be the fact that the NBA's apprenticeship system has weakened significantly over the past couple of decades. Until fairly recently, virtually every player had four years of college ball under his belt before he played in his first pro game. The first inroads on that system were made back in the 197os by guys like Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone, but what started as a trickle eventually became a flood of guys who either bypassed college basketball or played at most a season or two.

Given the NCAA's plantation mentality, it's hard to blame the players for skipping out on some eligibility or avoiding college hoops altogether in order to play professionally. There are also those rare players who really are ready to play straight out of high school. Guys like LeBron James are true basketball prodigies, but they are also exceedingly rare. The flood of players entering the draft with little or no college experience has left the NBA with the problem of figuring out what to do with guys who have all the physical tools in the world, but poor fundamentals and a knowledge of the game that's pretty limited. That's not a problem that the NBA (or any major league sport for that matter) is set up to deal with, and it shows in the product they put on the court.

The NBA has taken small steps to try to stem the flood of increasingly raw players, like the D league and provisions in the collective bargaining agreement postponing draft eligibility for a year. But as Bobby Knight pointed out last season, all that the CBA's eligibility provisions are likely to accomplish is to make the term "student athlete" even more of a joke.

What bothers me most about the way that the NBA has eaten its seed corn in recent years is the effect that it's had on the United States performance in international competition. Now, I ordinarily couldn't care less about the Olympics, and I don't consider myself to be a raving nationalist when it comes to sports, but I HATE losing to other countries in basketball. I'm sure that watching the Russians and the referees steal the 1972 Olympic gold medal has a lot to do with it, but whatever the reason, I don't just want to beat foreign countries in basketball, I want to annihilate them.

That hasn't happened in several years, and the US team that was once so dominant been humiliated in both the 2004 Olympics and last year's World Championship. When we hear about the US losing to somebody like Greece, we quickly invent lame excuses usually centering on the superstars who weren't on the roster and could've made a big difference. Those excuses are starting to ring a little hollow.

The fundamental problem is that the US has allowed its basketball developmental infrastructure to deteriorate from the top down, and that foreign nations have caught up. As a quick look at any NBA roster (and especially the roster of the San Antonio Spurs) will show you, European and Latin American nations play some pretty darn good basketball. If the US wants to compete internationally, it simply has to a better job of making its most elite athletes fundamentally sound and court-smart basketball players.

The bottom line is that the NBA, and US basketball in general, have a problem that even 150 decibels of non-stop noise can't drown out. We invented basketball, but the system by which our most elite players become experts at the game is falling apart. If the NBA wants fans to make noise about something, they ought to make noise about that.

1 comment:

Ben said...

so you're saying an athletically superior player like LeBron might benefit from some jump shooting drills?

Snark aside, I agree whole heartedly. The way we prepare and train our basketball players is bass-ackwards.