The High School to College Jump Debate… Righting the Ship

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

The NBA may be peaking in terms of popularity right now, but make no mistakes – it is an organization in very serious trouble.

The league has been hijacked by players, it is hemorrhaging money, and now the limited population of truly talented athletes in the league have all decided to migrate east, creating what is sure to be an extremely top-heavy NBA.

The league is enjoying a spike in popularity, but how long can that popularity be sustained? There are only so many superstars that are worth the media attention lavished on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade during this past off-season. Now that Carmelo Anthony has signed on with the Knicks, the only thing left for the talking heads in the sports world to talk about is, “Where will Chris Paul sign?

Things just aren’t like they used to be.

Comparisons to the “good ol’ days” often point to the fact that the league’s biggest stars from back in the day would have never teamed up to play on the same team. The notion that Magic would have taken his talents to Boston to team up with Byrd, or that Jordan would ever put on a Knicks uniform to share the same court with Ewing is just absurd. These were hyper-competitive athletes who wanted to share none of the glory.

There has clearly been a change in mentality between the stars of yesterday, and those of today. It has completely altered the climate of professional basketball.

That change has been the talent level of the B and C class talent.

Superstar talent may be comparable to the golden days, but supporting casts in the NBA are a shell of what they once were.

NBA Lite

Thanks to the miracle of NBA expansion, the league has officially reached its saturation point. The league has outgrown the boundaries that would have allowed it to remain competitive, and the limited pool of real NBA-worthy talent is not enough to stock the ocean that is the current NBA.

Talent is watered down to such a point now that the current NBA draft format (which is only two rounds to begin with) is completely irrelevant. With the exception of a small handful of lottery players, most of the draft class from each new season spends the first two to three years of their professional careers either in the D-league, or playing foreign ball. It is not until after some REAL development has taken place that a player (no matter how promising they might be) will actually get an opportunity to test their mettle in the big leagues.

Where in previous years a team might have three or four role players with genuine talent, the teams of today are lucky if they have one guy who can truly hold his own in helping to hoist the elite up.

So who can blame the athletes with REAL talent from wanting to team up?

Guys like LeBron James are no longer expected just to be great players, they are expected to act as mentors and trainers who must take on the responsibility of developing those players around them. They cannot focus solely on their game, because they have to make everyone else better.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets are the perfect example of this fact. Before their superstar saviors came to town, they were the bottom-feeders of the league. While those superstar saviors were in town, they realized elevated levels of success, but nothing truly satisfying. Now that those superstar saviors are gone, they have sunk back into the depths of irrelevance.

They enjoyed a boost in winning percentages because they had a difference-maker on the court, but that boost was short-lived because those difference-makers didn’t want to have to do everything. While they want to be the best guy on the court, they don’t want to be the ONLY guy on the court. So they have sacrificed their shot at EXCLUSIVE glory so they can at least have a shot at glory.

Fixing the problem

The good news for NBA fans is that the upcoming CBA expiration provides the perfect opportunity to fix the league’s problems. Who would have thought that inspiration for that fix would come from the same organization blamed for the overhyped condition of sports in America today – ESPN?

Last weekend, analysts Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis, following one of their broadcasts, discussed a recommendation that was so well received that Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo, has decided to propose it to the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The recommendation was that the NBA should implement an ultimatum of sorts to prospective NBA draft entrants. For those who feel they are truly ready to make the immediate leap from high school into the pros, they deserve that opportunity. The one-year waiting period will be waived, and they can follow in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and several others who have gone on to superstardom.

For those who are not ready, though, they will have to commit to a THREE-year (as opposed to one) stint in college.

This is actually a brilliant proposal that would boost the level of play, not only for the NBA, but also for college basketball (although the benefits for the NCAA are irrelevant to the topic at hand today).

For starters, this would actually not be an unprecedented policy. In fact, it is exactly the same policy held by the MLB. Although the NFL does not offer an immediate entry into their ranks, they still require a three-year wait.

The greatest benefit that the NBA would realize is that it would no longer have to assume the responsibility of developing athletes who are SUPPOSED to be NBA-caliber talent. As evidenced by the current state of talent in the league, it is obvious that the league stinks at developing talent anyway. Why not let players grow-up in college, at someone else’s expense, so that when they DO join the professional ranks they do so as matured athletes who are ready to hit the ground running.

This elevation in entry-level talent coming into the league would help boost the level of competition across the board. Teams would be able to populate their rosters with a better class of athlete, and the support-starved stars of the game today will feel less pressure to take on the role of team savior.

The end result is that all of the teams in the league would get better. The depth of talent from the five starters to the pine-riders and the D-leaguers would make the game more competitive, and stars of the league might be more compelled to resume the competitive nature of their predecessors, staying put and striving for individual glory, rather than a shared piece of the ultimate prize.

This proposal, which is now being championed by one of the most respected coaches in basketball today, is one that will benefit the entire game of basketball. It will make the players better, and it will make the league better.

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The Best Coach Without A Title Debate… A Lifetime of Jazz, Concluded by the Blues

February 24, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

After 23 years, Jerry Sloan walked away from the Utah Jazz. Mid-season.

After 23 years, Sloan intimated that he just didn’t have the energy or the desire anymore, and that he knew “this was the time to move on.”

Translation – Jerry Sloan QUIT.

I don’t care that he coached the same team for 23 years, or that he won 1221 games. I also don’t care about his two Western Conference championships, or the Hall of Famers he’s coached, and I don’t care that he is one of only three coaches in the NBA with at least 15 consecutive winning seasons.

I don’t care about those things because none of them matter now. Why? Because Jerry Sloan is a quitter.

So tell me please, how can he be the greatest coach in sports without a title?

It is not like he left in the off-season, or even at the end of a contract because he was tired and ready for his golden years. There are no health issues that anyone is aware of, and no personal matters to attend to. He just decided at the end of a basketball game in the middle of the season that he was taking his things and going home.

He gave no warning, left his organization with no backup plan, and just walked away.

It may be harsh to call Sloan a quitter, but that’s exactly what I am doing, and I’ll say it again – Jerry Sloan cannot be the greatest head coach across sports without a title. Because he is a quitter.

Optimist Prime is going to portray Sloan as a legendary coach with a legendary tenure in the Jazz organization. But the only REAL accomplishment he ever showed was an ability to not get fired.

Owning the longest coaching tenure in sports with the same team does not make you great. In that “illustrious” tenure, which spanned 26 total seasons… the one that Optimist Prime will be raving about… how many times did he even SNIFF a shot at a championship? Twice, that’s it.

Think about the great AFC coaches of the NFL during the 1980s and 1990s. They were tasked with coaching in an inferior conference, loaded with inferior talent, against an NFC group that was better funded, and better skilled.

I’m talking about guys like Dan Reeves, and Marv Levy.

No matter how great of these coaches might have been, they simply did not have the weaponry to stack up against teams led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin.

But these were great coaches, and they had more comparative success in their shortened tenures than Sloan did over a much longer career.

Reeves coached for only 23 years, but won his conference four times. Levy managed to win four conference championships in only 17 seasons. Once again, Sloan boasts only two conference championships over a 26 year career.

While Sloan’s regular season W-L record is impressive, his playoff presence left much more to be desired. Over his career, he won only 98 playoff games, compared to 104 losses, for a playoff win percentage of .485 (that’s a losing record). Compare that to Reeves (.550), or Levy (.579).

If Sloan isn’t the greatest coach across sports without a title, is he at least the greatest coach in NBA history without a title? Once more, the answer is “no.”

That claim should belong to Don Nelson, who retired last season after 31 years in the NBA.

Nelson, a three-time NBA coach of the year, has won more games as an NBA coach than anyone else in league history. That puts him ahead of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, and every other “great” to have coached in the league as far as wins go. But for all those victories, Nelson does not have a championship to his credit.

In fact, Jerry Sloan was never even the greatest coach in the league for a single season during his tenure, having never been recognized as Coach of the Year. While guys like Nelson, or even Mike Fratello (also without a championship) have managed to at least garner honors as the top coach within a single season, Sloan falls short of the mark yet again.

Make no mistake, Jerry Sloan had an impressive coaching career. But his legacy, highlighted only by endurance, and marred greatly by the manner in which he left the game, falls far short of the standards set by so many other great coaches out there never fortunate enough to win a championship.

I’m sorry, Mr. Sloan, but this is one more title you have failed to clinch.

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The College Basketball Top 25 Purpose Debate… Watch Me Pull A Ranking Out of My Hat!

February 15, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

When I was eight years old I thought the greatest illusion ever performed happened on my television when I watched David Copperfield walk through the Great Wall of China.

Then I discovered college basketball.

The NCAA Division I basketball, each year, pulls off a feat that would make Blackstone ask, “How’d they do that?!” What is the illusion, you ask? It is the illusion that there is any value at all to the top 25 ranking.

In college football, the top 25 rankings serve a very important function. They help to determine which teams get to participate in the series of the biggest bowl games, and ultimately which two teams will compete for the National Championship.

What purpose does the top 25 poll serve in basketball?

Last year, do you know what the respective national rankings were for Duke and Butler as they entered March Madness? Duke was ranked fourth in the nation, while Butler was ranked number 12. Despite those rankings (which in College Football earned #12 Missouri an invitation to the Insight Bowl… Ooooohhhh!!!!), those were the two teams that faced off for the crown last April.

Unlike the Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA, every single one of the more than 300 teams in Division I basketball kick the season off with an opportunity to compete for the National Championship. They don’t have to impress any voters, or beat the “right” teams. They don’t even have to have a good regular season.

All they have to do is win the conference tournament.

Sure, the worse a team does in the regular season, the tougher their road to, and through, the national tournament is, but that doesn’t change the simple fact that a team needs only to win in the post-season, and it is through to the Tournament.

If the top 25 rankings are irrelevant and unnecessary when populating the 64 teams for the national championship tournament, they must SURELY impact the seeding in the tournament, don’t they? I mean it only makes sense to do it that way. Teams ranked one through four would be given one-seeds, then the teams ranked five through eight get two-seeds, and so on.

WRONG!

Last year, for example, the teams ranked one through four did each earn a top seed in the national tournament (Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, and Kentucky).

So what about the two-seeds?

After the top four in the rankings came Ohio State (fifth in the nation), Purdue (sixth), West Virginia (seventh), and New Mexico (eighth). But neither Purdue nor New Mexico were rewarded with the second spot in their respective brackets. Instead, it was Ohio State, West Virginia, Kansas State (ranked ninth in the country) and Villanova (ranked tenth).

New Mexico actually received a three-seed, and Purdue (the sixth best team in the country, according to the national rankings) was bumped all the way down to a four-seed, while Baylor (the 21st ranked team in the country) was seeded third, ahead of them in the same region.

What led to the disparity between the national rankings and the seedings for the national tournament? Once again, it was the selection committee.

Rather than overload a region with too many teams from the same conference, or with a prospective high-powered regular season rematch too early in the dance, they try to distribute the Major Conference representatives evenly across the bracket, regardless of their projected worth on the national stage.

Now, as this year draws towards another March full of basketball Madness, fans of the San Diego State Aztecs (currently ranked sixth in the nation by the AP) can expect the same head-scratching logic as an answer to the questions of why they were seeded third or fourth – behind some big-named program from a big-named conference like the 20-team Big East – that will simply ride the merits of their name and neighborhood into an easier road to Houston.

The top 25 rankings are completely worthless in college basketball. They provide water cooler conversation at the workplace, and give sportswriters something to do each week in the football off-season. But when it comes to what really matters (a chance at the national championship), they hold as much value as a Mel Kiper, Jr. mock draft.

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The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate Verdict

February 10, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

The San Antonio Spurs are off to one of the best starts in NBA history. And when you consider that their historical company has each gone on to win the championship in the respective seasons they started so strongly, it makes you wonder if the Spurs are destined for the same fate.

But we are not trying to gaze into a crystal ball, today.

This debate is not about whether the Spurs will win the NBA Finals, it is about whether they are the best team in the league. And based on what I have read from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer, it seems clear to me that the answer is – Yes, they are (congratulations to Loyal Homer)!

Babe Ruthless does raise some key questions about the Spurs performance to this point in the season. Specifically, he calls into doubt the Spurs record by pointing out that they have what many would consider an easy schedule. And while it is true that they have won the vast majority of those cupcake games, they have faltered when stepping onto the hardwood against steeper competition.

Although I can agree with that assessment, the exact same statement can be made about those other top tier teams that Babe Ruthless points to as challengers to the Spurs. The Boston Celtics have losses to the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets, and Chicago Bulls, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. Likewise, the Heat have lost to the Celtics twice, the Mavs twice, and have also lost to the Magic, as well as Memphis and Indiana.

The same can be illustrated by dissecting the records of the Maverics, Magic, and every other team in the league. Each organization has played more than 50 games, and none are undefeated. And so the fact that the Spurs lost a couple of their 52 games played thus far to other good teams is just not enough evidence to refute their claim as the best in the NBA.

On the flip side, though, Loyal Homer points to some statistics that CANNOT be matched by any other teams in the league.

Only once so far this season have the Spurs lost consecutive games, and that was simply a two-game skid on the road against the Knicks, then in Boston against the Celtics (a very understandable couple of losses). And while those consecutive losses have not been repeated by the Spurs, one feat they have duplicated is following their losses up with a LONG series of consecutive wins.

It should also be noted that their schedule may on the surface appear to be one of the weaker in the league, but the actual average winning percentage of their opponents (.506) has statistically posed a tougher strength of schedule than what the Heat (.477), Celtics (.485), Magic (.493), Lakers (.479), and the Bulls (.482) have each faced.

In all reality, there are still plenty of games left in the season, and the fact that the Spurs have the best record in the NBA right now is no guarantee that they will win the Finals. But teams like the 2007 New England Patriots will tell you that the best team doesn’t always win the championship.

No one can look into a crystal ball and predict which team will win the championship, but you can look at the records and see who has been most dominant – the San Antonio Spurs.

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The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate

February 9, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

Well, another NFL season is officially in the books. For those of you now shifting your focus to basketball, let me get you up to speed on how the season has gone thus far…

The Denver Nuggets decided to trade, then not trade, then trade, then not trade Carmelo Anthony.

Cleveland Cavaliers fans were shocked when Zydrunas Ilgauskas and some other guys decided to play ball in Miami with the Heat.

Speaking of the Cavs, that team is plunging the depths of failure to find out just how deep rock-bottom really is. The Cavs are well on the way to becoming the worst team not only in NBA history, but in the entire history of American professional sports with a historic 25-game losing streak.

Finally, with the All-Star break looming on the horizon, the team leading the standings with the best record in the league is… (pause for dramatic effect)… the San Antonio Spurs.

Through the first half of the season, the Spurs have rocketed to an impressive record of 42-8, a full 4.5 games ahead of any other teams in the league. But with the experienced and team-oriented Boston Celtics, the superstar-laden Miami Heat, or the two-time reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers out there – Are the San Antonio Spurs REALLY the best team in basketball at the season midpoint?

According to Loyal Homer, the Spurs record is an indication of the fact that they are the best team in the league while Babe Ruthless feels the Spurs are not the best team, despite their current spot in the standings.

How do you measure the worth of a team? Let the arguments begin!

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The Which Lockout Hurts More Debate… NBA Enjoys Fans Thanks to Fair Weather

January 19, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

I am just going to come right out on the record – 2011 could be a really lousy year for sports, ESPECIALLY if we have lockouts in both the NBA and the NFL.

There is little doubt that fans would miss the NFL more than they would the NBA. That is not intended as a slight against the NBA, but when you consider the relative popularity of each sport, the NFL is far and away the king. The loss of the NFL, a league where popularity supersedes the NBA, would correspondingly supersede the loss of the NBA.

But we are not arguing about the sport that would be MISSED the most if they both close up shop for part or all of the next season. We are arguing about which sport itself which has more to lose. In answer to that, there is also little doubt – this time it’s the NBA.

Think about it. The NFL is the undisputed champion when it comes to fan support. While the loss of the NFL will greatly impact fans, the clamor for its return will be equally as great. The moment a deal gets signed, and REAL NFL players once again take to the gridiron, fans will flood back in droves. The NFL would not skip a beat in fan support.

The NBA will not be so lucky.

The NBA’s popularity right now is not sustainable. The league has prospered thanks to media obsession and the celebrity of LeBron James. The circus of “The Decision,” as well as the media frenzy in trying to predict where LeBron will sign, has single-handedly fueled the NBA’s national relevance for the past three seasons.

I am not exaggerating. Since 2008, the biggest stories out of the NBA were all about whether LeBron’s latest comments or actions could be an indication of his intentions for the summer of 2010.

Then, once “The Decision” was announced, fans have continued to follow the NBA, because they wanted to A) see how LeBron and company performed in Miami, and B) boo him whenever he comes to town.

Whether good guy or villain, the NBA owes its relevance to LeBron James.

As soon as LeBron goes away, the media will stop caring, the fans will forget, and the league loses all relevance.

Why the difference? Because unlike the NFL, where parity guarantees that every team can contend for the post-season every year, the NBA is completely dominated by a very small handful of franchises, a reality that is demonstrated in several different ways.

Fan Attendance
Even “bad” teams in the NFL repeatedly sell out each of game. In fact, during the 2010 season, nine different franchises AVERAGED sellouts for the entire season, and 30 out of 32 teams averaged to sell AT LEAST 80 percent of their total tickets. Compare that with the NBA, where only seven teams are averaging sellouts for each home game, with nine of the teams in the league failing to even reach that 80 percent total.

Value
When Forbes published their list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world last year, all 32 NFL franchises were on the list BEFORE a single NBA franchise was named, including the Buffalo Bills (33rd), Jacksonville Jaguars (37th), and Detroit Lions (38th). In fact, even the Formula One’s Ferrari Team (16th) is valued greater than any franchise the NBA has to offer. (In case you are wondering, the NBA barely even cracked the top 50, as its two most valuable franchises – the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks – checked in at 49 and 50, respectively).

What do these numbers mean? They mean that fans love the NFL more than the NBA. Even the perennial “losers” like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo continue to generate greater revenue, and sell more tickets, than the very best of the NBA.

If NBA fans can’t even support their winners in the same manner as the NFL, what on earth is there to entice fans in Minneapolis or in Memphis to come back to the league once they’ve had a few months to forget that their teams stink?

Yes, the NFL would lose a TON of money while the players sit out, but the recovery would be exponentially faster than that of the NBA. It is not the immediacy of the lockout that these leagues need to fear, it is the long term ramifications. Between the NFL and the NBA, the road to recovery will be MUCH rockier for the hoopsters.

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The TSD Best of 2010 Debate… A Win For the Fans

December 29, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Sports Geek.

The single most defining sports moment of 2010 happened off the field of play.

There is little doubt that 2010 was the year of LeBron James. He rolled into the year as the favorite son of the NBA, with the stage set for him to take the next step in cementing his legacy among the greatest that ever played the game. He was the game’s brightest young star, and as his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers was set to expire in the summer, the entire league was forced into a holding pattern until he revealed the team whose uniform he would next don.

Tensions were already high across the NBA as the build-up to 2010 free agency played out, but when James and his partners in LRMR Marketing announced their plans for the decision to be announced in an hour-long television program, events moved to a frenzied pace.

But it was not James’ decision that led to the best debate of the year, it was the fallout.

Immediately following “The Decision” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired off a letter to the fans of the Cavaliers that became a controversy all its own. The emotionally charged letter first ripped James for the manner of his exit from the city of Cleveland, and then offered several lofty promises to the fans of the Cavaliers.

It was a situation where the business of sports was overshadowed by emotion, and I LOVED it!

The culture of sports today is one where the participants are perceived as businessmen and celebrities first, and athletes second. Decisions are made based on dollars and cents, and athletes today have little or no regard for the crowds in front of whom they play. They use the fans to their advantage, getting rich off of their hard-earned money. Sure, when things are going good they get along very nicely with the fans, but as soon as convenience dictates, they sell any sense of loyalty down the river, leaving fans high and dry.

That’s why the debate around Gilbert’s letter to Cavaliers fans was so fascinating to me. In a league like the NBA, which has been completely hijacked by superstar athletes like LeBron James, most people expected Gilbert and the Cavaliers to quietly lick their wounds and move forward. While that road to recovery from the loss of James (both financially, and in terms of on-court success) will be a long and painful one, the anticipated response from the front offices in Cleveland was one of political correctness. Gilbert would address the team and his fans the following morning, offer all the clichéd comments – “We are a team, not one man”, “The team existed for years BEFORE LeBron James, and will exist just as well without him”, etc. – but he would surely NOT burn any bridges by attacking the league’s star attraction.

We were all wrong.

Gilbert did not wait until morning. He didn’t even hold his breath and count to ten. Instead, he let the ‘fan’ in him come through. He felt as though James had slapped him, and so he struck back, which is exactly what the rest of the fans in Cleveland wanted to do. He didn’t care about playing nice with the most powerful athlete in the sport, and he didn’t care about fines that could (and eventually would) be levied against him. All he wanted to do was communicate his own frustration to his brothers and sisters in Cleveland.

Even if only for one night, Gilbert wasn’t the owner, he was the fan.

Outside the city of Cleveland, Gilbert’s actions were called into question. Should he have lashed out so reactively? And more importantly, should he be punished?

I can understand the league’s desire to prevent owners from launching personal vendettas against the players, but as the resident Bleacher Fan here at The Sports Debates, I absolutely respect Gilbert’s reaction. In fact, it endeared him to me in a way that no coach or player has in a very long time. I had no problems at all in defending his actions then, and I would still defend them today.

I want to thank Gilbert, personally, for taking a stand on behalf of the fans. We have been the long-suffering third party in sports transactions, and it was nice to see that someone of power in sports, even if only for the briefest of moments, cared more about the fans than he did coddling a prima donna superstar athlete, or by playing nice politically in the “business of basketball.”

Dan Gilbert wins Bleacher Fan’s Award as the Best of 2010, because he put the fan first.

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