Bad Basketball

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We hated Duke.  My dad and I, we absolutely hated them. 

I was only eleven at the time, but I remember wanting terrible things to happen to Christian Laettner.  Major injury.  Bus accident.  Sickness.  I hoped he wouldn’t get drafted.  I wanted him to be miserable.

The problem with Duke was, and I hate to admit this now, they just always won!  They’d get down and you’d think they’d lose, but they’d always come back.  They were the seemingly unbeatable team, and that’s why we always wanted them to lose so bad! 

I remember watching that game against Kentucky with my dad.  Kentucky went up with two seconds to go and we thought it had finally happened.  The dragon had finally been slayed!  Duke was done!  My dad and I were high-fiving and laughing.  And then Laettner hit that damn shot . . .

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

1992 was a good year for the sport of basketball.  It was actually a good year in a string of good years.  I probably wasn’t the best year ever, maybe not even in my lifetime, but it was good.  Pretty damn good.

The Dream Team won the gold medal, winning every game by an average of 44 points  Apparently their opponents were too busy asking for autographs to play defense.*

(*Fun fact: In the 14 games the Dream Team played, Coach Chuck Daily never called a single time out.  Historians debate whether or not he bothered to stay awake for any of the games.)

Jordan’s Bulls defeated Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals 4-2.  It was their second in a row on their way to six in eight years.  The last game of the series had a 15-point fourth quarter comeback by the Bulls.  I remember Jordan icing it by rattling in a free throw and pumping both fists in the air.  Great moment.  The series also had this moment.

And Duke crushed Michigan’s Fab Five in the NCAA finals.  They let them hang around until about six minutes left in the game, then the promptly put on their shit-kickers and proceeded to kick some shit.  The game featured six All-Americans and five future NBA all-stars.  And a little over a week prior to that game, this happened.

It’s twenty years later (excuse me while I weep slightly over that fact).  We don’t know yet if the American Olympic team will take the gold.  We don’t know yet who will win the NBA Championship.  But we did just witness the NCAA tournament.  And it sucked.

Don’t get me wrong, that Kentucky team was a great team.  I’ve heard they’ll have six first-round picks this year from that team.  I’m not sure they ever felt seriously threatened in a game.  They played unselfish, high-quality basketball and were pretty fun to watch.  At least they were fun during the 30-40 minutes I actually saw them play.

The tournament overall, though, was garbage.  It was just bad basketball.  Almost every game featured bad basketball.  You could see it from the opening tipoff.  So many teams relied on fast-breaks and swinging the ball around the perimeter for open threes to get points.  Never any inside-outside game.  Never any pick-and-roll to the basket for a layup.  Never any post-up play.  Just team after team making useless perimeter pass after useless perimeter pass until the dwindling shot clock made them panic and force up a bad shot.

And what was the result of this style of offense?  In the 67 tournament games, only twice did a team’s score top 90 points, and that was the same game (Kentucky beating Indiana in the Sweet 16, 102-90).  The average final score for a tournament game: 71-62.  The one and two-seeds, the supposed top teams in the tournament, won their opening round games by an average of only about 11 points (with two #2s losing).

Compare that with twenty years ago.  During the 63 games of the 1992 tournament, the 90-point barrier was topped 12 times, 100-point barrier topped seven times.   Average final score: 81-69.  the ones and twos won their opening round games by an average of about 28 points.

And what about the end-of-game possessions?  There were 13 games this year that were decided by three points or less or went to overtime.  Not one of those games contained a successful game-winning/tying shot in the last ten seconds of the game.  Anyone who saw the last 30 seconds NC State/Georgetown, Creighton/Alabama, or Syracuse/Wisconsin knows well that there is only one thing this year’s tournament teams were good at when the game was on the line.  Panic.  There was no this.   Nor was there any of this or this.  And there certainly wasn’t any of this.

So why are scoring, clutch-play, and overall quality of basketball down?  Better, more-athletic defense?  Lack of team discipline?  Poor coaching strategies?

How about just flat out lack of talent, both at the individual and team level.  That’s my theory.

Where’d all the ringers go?

In the first round of the 1992 NBA Draft, 23 out of the 27 first-round picks (85%) were seniors.  The other four were juniors.  The lowest non-senior was drafted at #18, because back then you stayed in college unless you thought you had a good chance at a lottery pick.  Not one sophomore, freshman, high school player, or foreigner.  That draft featured Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Robert Horry, Latrell Sprewell, and Doug Christie.  Of those players, all but Shaq (thee #1 pick in the draft) was a senior.  Here’s the big stat: of the 108 possible total years of college eligibility by the first-round picks, 104 (96%) were used

This draft was not an aberration by any means.  Consider the following two drafts’ first rounds.

1993:  Nineteen of the 27 (70%) picks were seniors, to go with six juniors, one sophomore (the #1 pick), one freshman (the #2) pick, and zero high school and foreign players.  Only two non-seniors were drafted outside of the lottery, the lowest going at #21.  Total eligibility years: 97 our of 108 (90%).

1994: Eighteen of the 27 (67%) picks were seniors, to go with seven juniors, two sophomores, zero freshman, high schoolers, and foreigners.  Only two non-seniors outside the lottery, the lowest going at #15.  Total eligibility years: 97 out of 109 again (90%).

And then something happened in 1995.  Kevin Garnett decided to skip college when he realized that he couldn’t spell S.A.T. and became the first player in 20 years to enter the draft right out of high school.  It was a risky move, but Kevin McHale (Timberwolves GM that year) lost the game of prisoner’s dilemma (or won?) and picked Garnett at #5.  The rationale according to McHale: Garnett would be a lottery pick in two years anyway, so might as well get him now.  (It’s similar to the philosophy R. Kelly has when it comes to choosing women: she’ll be a hottie of legal age in two years, so . . .).

Flood gates, open!

Flash forward sixteen years to last year’s (2011) draft.  Of the 30 first-round picks, only seven (23%) were seniors (the highest of which was drafted at #10), to go with eight juniors, four sophomores, six freshman, and five foreigners.  Total eligibility years (discounting foreign players):  66 out of 100 (66% . . . duh).  Lottery picks eligibility years: 24 out of 44 (55%).

The lowest non-senior drafted was taken with the last pick of the second-round (#60).  In fact, ten second-round picks still had college eligibility left.  So much for holding out for the lottery.

All of that talent that would have stuck around and made for some incredible tournament action twenty years ago is now bolting to the NBA if there’s the slightest chance of getting drafted at all.   A dynamic freshman in the early 90s would likely have stayed for three if not all four years in college, turning into a superstar upperclassman and leading his team against other superstars in the tournament.  Now, he might stick around for another year, but may very well declare for the draft right away and go in the second-round (where no contracts are guaranteed).  A second-rounder has a very good chance of ending up in the NBDL (where he’ll play in front of hundreds of sleepy fans in Boise) or in a foreign league.  I’m sure those possibilities are what those players were dreaming about as kids.

What the hell are they thinking?

And they’re leaving for what?  I’ve heard time and time again that many of these players are from poor backgrounds and they need the money.  I’m sorry, but was poverty invented sometime in the last twenty years?

And if money is the only motivator, then you would have expected many more underclassmen in the draft twenty years ago, because rookies actually got much bigger contracts twenty years ago than they do now!  Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie contract was for $40 million (over $60 million in today’s money when adjusted for inflation).  Kyrie Irving, 2011’s #1 pick, signed for $21.9 million (or about $21.9 million in today’s money).

So aside from getting (comparative) chump change contracts, what is on these players’ minds when they forego the remainder of their eligibility?  Isn’t tournament glory and god-like status on campus worth putting off these unmoving contracts for another year or two?

It’s easy for me to say, because all of my basketball idols growing up had their college glory before tearing it up in the NBA.  If I weren’t destined to be a 5’9 slow white dude who could barely touch the rim in my prime (that would be when I was 16) and could actually ball growing up, I would have wanted to follow in the footsteps of my heroes and made some magical moments in college before turning pro.  Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson all won NCAA championships before turning pro.   Nobody, and I mean nobody, that I admired in the pros spent less than two years in college first.  Most of the time it was three or all four years.

Compare that with the players the youngins are worshipping now.  Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard skipped college altogether.  Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Carmello Anthony stuck around for only one year (although Carmello did get a championship in that one year).  There’s no more glory in playing in college.  The glory is all in getting to the pros, regardless of what path you take to get there.

Fleshing this out a little more, here are the lists of NBA players selected to the respective All-Star games of 1992 (my boys) and 2012 (their boys):

1992

2012

Isaiah Thomas – 2 years (Indiana)Michael Jordan – 3 years (North Carolina)

Larry Bird – 3 years (Indiana State)

Charles Barkley – 3 years (Auburn)

Patrick Ewing – 4 years (Georgetown)

Brad Daugherty – 4 years (North Carolina)

Joe Dumars – 4 years (McNeese State)

Reggie Lewis – 4 years (Northeastern)

Scottie Pippen – 4 years (Central Arkansas)

Mark Price – 4 years (Georgia Tech)

Dennis Rodman – 3 years (SE Oklahoma St.)

Dominique Wilkins – 3 years (Georgia)

Magic Johnson – 2 years (Michigan State)

Clyde Drexler – 3 years (Houston)

Chris Mullin – 4 years (St. John’s)

Karl Malone – 3 years (Louisiana Tech)

David Robinson – 4 years (Navy)

Tim Hardaway – 4 years (UTEP)

Jeff Hornacek – 4 years (Iowa State)

Dan Majerle – 4 years (Central Michigan)

Dikembe Mutombo – 3 years (Georgetown)

Hakeem Olajuwan – 3 years (Houston)

John Stockton – 4 years (Gonzaga)

Otis Thorpe – 4 years (Providence)

James Worthy – 3 years (North Carolina)

Carmello Anthony – 1 year (Syracuse)Lebron James – Skipped college

Derrick Rose – 1 year (Memphis)

Dwyane Wade – 3 years (Marquette)

Dwight Howard – Skipped college

Chris Bosh – 1 year (Georgia Tech)

Luol Deng – 1 year (Duke)

Roy Hibbert – 4 years (Georgetown)

Andre Iguodala- 2 years (Arizona)

Joe Johnson – 2 years (Arkansas)

Paul Pierce – 3 years (Kansas)

Rajon Rondo – 2 years (Kentucky)

Deron Williams – 3 years (Illinois)

Kevin Durant – 1 year (Texas)

Blake Griffin – 2 years (Oklahoma)

Kobe Bryant – Skipped college

Chris Paul – 2 years (Wake Forest)

Andrew Bynum – Skipped college

LaMarcus Aldridge – 2 years (Texas)

Marc Gasol – Dirty foreigner

Kevin Love – 1 year (UCLA)

Steve Nash – 4 years (Santa Clara)

Dirk Nowinski – Dirty foreigner

Tony Parker – Dirty foreigner

Russell Westbrook – 2 years (UCLA)

Average College: 3.58

1 year or no college: 0/24

Average College: 1.54

1 year or no college: 13/24

Of the 24 All-Stars in 1992, all but two played at least three years in college.  Thirteen played all four years in college before turning pro.  And every one of them could have gone pro after one year or even without going to college at all.  But that would have been unheard of!  These were the players I grew up worshipping.

But of the 24 All-Stars in 2012, thirteen played one year of college ball or didn’t play American college ball at all.  A whopping two out of the 24 played four years in college.  These are the players modern basketball fans worship.  These are the players they will model their careers after.

So this is how it’s going to be from now until the foreseeable future.  The really great players, the ones that made past NCAA basketball seasons so fun to watch, will impress for a year before bolting to the NBA.  All of their potential will be realized in the pros, with only a glimpse of it available to fans of college ball.  Thus, college ball will continue to be unimpressive and dull.

Is there a fix for this?  I’ve heard of a couple ideas, but the only thing that would really work is if the NBA actually stops wanting these unproven players and instead only want those that have developed for multiple years in college before considering entering the draft.

How can we do that?  Simple, somebody finally invent a time machine and go back and assassinate Kevin McHale sometime before the 1995 NBA draft.  Other than that, I’m stumped.

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