The Rebirth of the American Basketball Player

The Rebirth of the American Basketball Player
Jul 02, 2005, 10:02 pm
The recent success that European basketball has enjoyed over the last few years has brought a tremendous amount of attention onto the American game in an attempt to pinpoint what is leading to our decline in success. This inquiry reached an apex this season as American men’s basketball has suffered the dual humiliation of Olympic defeat and victory by the Spurs in the NBA Finals, a team which embodies the European basketball ideal.

While there has been some negative backlash in the press recently about the influx of Europeans into the NBA, there is no need to fear. “Putting them in their place” is the natural frustration of players who feel as if the sport is losing its American roots. Truly, if players were talking about limiting the number of Europeans in the league there would be cause for worry in that it would indicate psychological defeat on our part. But, if we are willing to fight to regain our dominance, which I believe we are, then the spirit of competition will right the ship and improve the overall NBA product. In many ways this is already underway.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of American success in professional basketball. Over the last decade the NBA has shifted in emphasis from a team game toward one that focuses ever more on the individual athlete. This shift can be attributed to “The Jordan Effect”, as I see the Michael Jordan phenomenon as the single greatest influence on the game from ’92 to ’02. His impact on the construct of the game was two-fold as it affected management’s approach to team building as well as the practice habits of young players. Thus was born the “Celebration of the Spectacular.”

At the same time the prominence of the game in the international market was increased exponentially by the Dream Team. The global marketing presence of Jordan and the unparalleled collection of All-Stars from the ’92 Olympic team captivated the international audience and created a global hunger to compete with the NBA ideal that the team represented. At the same time there was a domestic fascination with “corporate Jordan”, the first player who transcended the boundaries of his sport and became a business entity. This fascination further strengthened the emphasis on the individual above the team and sent the American game in the opposite direction of an increasingly competitive European product, which emphasizes team play.

This emphasis led to a decline in the collegiate developmental process as more teams went searching for athletes to fill the role of their “next Jordan”. As players began to get drafted based off their physical attributes and less on actual skill teams were forced to hold roster spots open for non-contributing prospects in the hopes that they’d pay dividends down the road. With less game-ready players contributing to a stagnant, defense oriented style of play to mask fundamental weaknesses, the ability of the American basketball player fell below that of their European understudies.
The following multi-part article will explore the digression of the American Basketball player through the Jordan Paradigm. This study will show how the implementation of a 19 year-old age limit coupled with an NBDL farm system will re-establish fundamental basketball and help the league expand internationally in the future.

The Jordan Effect

The Chicago Bulls championship victory over Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers represented an NBA first. No team in the history of the league had won with an off-guard dominated offense. While there had been teams in the past whose best player had been a guard, no team had been so reliant on one player to generate its offense and never for championship success.

Jordan represented a conceptual anomaly. His singular dominance affected the game on two fronts. From a team building perspective the success of Jordan’s Bulls led to teams copying this model in order to compete. It’s common for teams to emulate the success of the incumbent champion and for years the league built teams that emphasized perimeter over interior play and isolation basketball over fundamental ball and player movement. The “Celebration of the Spectacular” had taken root.

On the other side of the coin fall the players themselves. Jordan’s success and the subsequent marketing that followed led to a generation of future players whose games were born in the hopes that they could “be like Mike”. In lower levels of development such as high school and AAU basket ball, where one physically advanced player can impact team success greatly, players were being encouraged to dominate at the expense of their teammates. No longer were young athletes being asked to learn the game; these players became the game as eager scouts searching for the next big thing encouraged coaches to focus on their star players. This pursuit also limited the power of coaches to subjugate the growing egos of their elite players because these players were only a stone’s throw away from NBA dollars and no longer needed to utilize the collegiate pipeline to realize their dreams.

In ’95 the floodgates opened as Kevin Garnett became the first player in the Jordan era to make the jump from high school to the pros. Garnett’s immediate success legitimized the practice of bypassing college altogether. With the league’s infatuation with superior athletes and the emphasis on the individual as the basis for building a championship team, a mad dash to acquire younger prospects with “potential” ensued. No one wanted to be the one to pass on the next dominant player for the sake of the safe play. The image of Sam Bowie was entrenched in the minds of NBA management, but now the stakes were much higher as potential began to replace accomplishment.

The Dream Team vs. “Corporate Jordan”

In 1992 the world was introduced to the “Dream Team”. Although basketball had realized a modest level of international popularity, it was nothing compared to the appeal it would have after this memorable summer. The ’92 Olympic basketball team represented a collection of the finest caliber players the world had ever seen. Led by Jordan, Bird, and Johnson, the Olympic team was the quintessential representation of the marriage of style and substance. This team was not reliant on pure physical ability as its roster was entirely comprised of Hall of Fame athletes who were able to dominate through a mastery of the fundamental elements of the game. While Jordan captivated the imagination with his aerial assaults on the basket, he wasn’t the lone star to shine. Every member of the squad had their moments as the team game was played on the highest level imaginable.

The NBA game had spring-boarded to unparalleled international success from the ’92 Olympics, but its effects domestically varied drastically from that of Europe. Because of this the game began to develop on two divergent paths. While the European game used the Dream Team as a model to aspire to, the American game took a turn further toward glorifying the individual star.

European players were practicing under the guidance of many American coaches, who brought with them the old-school discipline and emphasis on team play. The practice schedules were significantly longer than that of their American counterparts and there was far more time put into drilling on the fundamental principles of execution versus straight game play.

Meanwhile, the American game realized a huge financial windfall due to the success of the Olympic squad and its impact on the marketability of the NBA product. Endorsement dollars were reaching levels never before seen and at the heart of it all lay “corporate Jordan”. Jordan’s immense global popularity enabled him to be the first player to transcend his sport. While other athletes enjoyed endorsement deals, Jordan was able to garner enough clout to actually own and operate his own product lines. He ceased being merely an athlete and became a business icon, capable of entering virtually any market and having financial success.

This phenomena, coupled with the Bull’s championship dominance and Jordan’s charismatic majesty, altered the dreams and aspirations of the American basketball youth completely. It was no longer enough to just be a great player; the bar had been raised. Every starry-eyed teenager with dreams of NBA glory now wanted to really “be like Mike,” they wanted the power to be more than just a basketball player, to earn the type of recognition and popularity that would allow them to build market empires.

Suddenly, shoe contracts and clothing lines were equals on the bargaining table to a player’s contract. No longer was it good enough to simply be the star of your franchise; if the team’s media market wasn’t strong your earnings potential could be damaged and compensation had to be made. The purpose of the game was getting lost as “winning” began to take a back seat to “winning on my terms”.

The blame for this phenomenon doesn’t lie solely with the players. The league was fostering this trend by signing players to deals that were undeserved. Dollar signs danced in the heads of league executives that dreamed of the adulation that the “next Jordan” would bring them. Because of this players stopped earning their positions as team leaders and instead were given roles without merit. Highly touted young players who were drafted by struggling franchises were demanding to be their team’s centerpiece. The financial commitments that were being given to these players allowed for too much control over the franchise and because of this the authority of the coaching staff was greatly diminished.

The second part of this piece will attempt to explain the two primary fallacies of belief that have further perpetuated the decline in American basketball. We will look at how the stigma placed on Hip Hop and an over reliance on drafting raw athletes has contributed to the problems already discussed.

Part Two

Sound Fundamentals: The Fallacy of the “Hip-Hop” Influence

As players gained more bargaining power against ownership there was a natural search for an explanation by many disgruntled executives. Born out of this frustration came the idea that a mentality rooted in the “Hip-Hop culture” was the cause of the league’s problems; this is not so.

Cultural and generational trends are a fact of life. Music is one of the greatest defining elements of a generation. While musical preference and the stylistic changes in fashion, language and culture may be difficult for some to understand they have and will never represent a loss in ethics or morality. This debate is constantly perpetuated through the years as one generation points to a trend, be it jazz, rock-and-roll, or rap, to explain the problems of the current youth.

The real cause for the problems in the game today stem from a lack of an adequate coaching structure. Ten years ago the average NBA player was coming out of three years of college, where there is far more practice time and young players are exposed to the necessary regiment of drills and game-play needed to really learn the game. These players would then get drafted and would be able to do things on the court to help their teammates and improve the quality of their team’s play.

Today, the top basketball talent is heading almost directly into the league. While I believe it should be a player’s choice to become a professional when they are an adult, it is undeniable that bypassing college is contributing to the decline in play. The high school coaching system is not adequately built for preparing young players for team basketball. A star athlete at the high school level is often so far advanced in skill that the level of competition isn’t strong enough to teach the player anything. When these players go to AAU and other summer basketball tournaments they are often given very little fundamental guidance and are often just put into groups and allowed to do what they want.

As a result, the best players are only really well schooled in what they do best. The systems that they’ve learned in have catered to their skill sets and all facets of the game have revolved around them. These players have never been faced with situations where their best efforts wouldn’t be enough to succeed and now they’re being asked to come into the NBA and contribute to the success of a team as a complimentary piece.

While many of these young players will eventually become centerpieces for their respective franchises the fact remains that very few are ready for this immediately and virtually none have any idea how to make others around them better because their own on-court dominance has always been enough for them to win.

This problem is extended in two ways by the NBA league structure. First off, there is inadequate practice time to really bring the underdeveloped player up to speed. The NBA season is long and rigorous and there are few opportunities to slow things down in order to drill on basic fundamental points. Young players are forced to learn by watching and through trial and error during actual games. Of course, since most teams are trying to win it then becomes difficult for a young player to get into a game for meaningful minutes because his mistakes cost the team wins.

Given a few years many of these underdeveloped players make the transition, after all they have the physical ability to do it and if they dedicate themselves to their sport they will succeed. But, there are many young players that just don’t have the learning curve to make a meaningful impression and often times these players lose the confidence that’s necessary to become an NBA star.

Confidence is critical to the success of an NBA player. Many players that have had the talent to be great have failed because of situations that robbed them of this critical ingredient. Sitting on the bench for two or three years or being traded a couple of times without getting a shot to prove oneself can turn a once promising talent into nothing more than a bench player, or worse.

Talent vs. Skill: The Fallacy of Athleticism

There is nothing wrong with being extremely athletic. If a player is both physically gifted and knows how to play then you have the makings of a truly rare player. However, you don’t need to be explosive or run the fastest to be an NBA player or even a star player. While great athleticism can help a player recover from a mistake faster, knowing where to be on the floor and reading the play before it develops are more than enough to make up for not having a 40 inch vertical leap.

Now, I’m not saying that athleticism is not important. But, there is only a certain amount of athleticism necessary to become a great player. Once you have the needed athletic ability to be in the league it becomes a matter of maximizing your understanding of the game. Balance and coordination are probably the two most important athletic attributes an NBA player can have. Speed and explosiveness are worthless if a player doesn’t have complete body control.

However, NBA executives continue to draft athletes and attempt to turn them into basketball players. Because of this many college stars that stay in school are punished because they didn’t have the necessary explosiveness needed to be drafted earlier. Many of these players end up being much better than the unproven raw athlete that was drafted ahead of them, but teams must waste millions of dollars and multiple years in frustration as they attempt to teach these unproven athletes how to play the game.

Meanwhile, the non-contributing, non-game ready athlete is taking up the roster spot of a player that can contribute to his team’s success. Depending on the situation, these raw athletes are not getting the coaching or the playing time they need to really accelerate their learning curves and step onto the court with purpose. We are left with dozens of teams whose personnel are not talented or developed enough to play the type of high energy, up-tempo, team basketball that fans want to see.

Age Limit and the NBDL: The 3-year Window

So, we come to it at last, the solution to a ten year problem.

With the announced agreement on a new CBA, the league has put the finishing touches on a reclamation project four years in the making. Over the course of the last few seasons the league has implemented a series of rules that have been in the interest of promoting better ball movement and increased scoring. The effects have worked so far, as shooting efficiency, shot-volume, and scoring has gone up over the last few years.

The proposed 19 year old age limit is the first step in re-creating the player development cycle and the first part of my “3-year window” theory. By establishing a one year gap between high school graduation and the league the NBA has essentially put in an incentive for teenage players to attend college. Graduating high school players still have the option of going pro, but without the guarantee of big money it is less likely that these players will test their luck against seasoned minor league players fighting tooth and nail for an NBA roster spot.

Many of the players that choose to attend college will undoubtedly stay longer then the mandatory one year. Some of the players will find that they’re not as good as they thought they were while others may simply enjoy being the center of attention in an environment where they are surrounded by their peers. Either way the probability of players continuing their collegiate careers is bound to increase.

For those players that choose to go pro after the one year wait there is still room for further development thanks to the NBDL. NBA teams will now have the ability to send players down to a minor league affiliate during the first two years of their rookie contracts. These minor league rosters are comprised of talent that is far superior to college competition and will provide the needed playing time and instruction that these players need to prepare themselves for the NBA.

Essentially the NBDL is a basketball “graduate school” as practice time and competition will (hopefully) be geared solely for the purpose of development. The competition will consist of top collegiate and foreign talent that will push young prospects to the limit of their abilities. One of the most important aspects of this proving ground will be the absence of the NBA lifestyle. Through long bus rides, cramped hotel rooms, and team meals these players will be subjected to team rules that are ideal for building the character and humility necessary to be a championship caliber player. Young players will most likely not want to go to the NBDL, but if their teams let them know that it’s either that or being cut and sent off to Europe, there will be no choice in the matter.

The age limit coupled with the NBDL make up the 3-year window of development that will not only replace the need for the collegiate system, but improve upon it. The influx of high school players over the last few years has drastically improved the mental and physical maturity of the teenage athlete, look no further than Lebron James and Amare Stoudamire for proof. This advance in preparation and the implementation of the 3-year developmental cycle will both improve the readiness of NBA prospects and increase the number of NBA caliber players.

With rosters filled with contributing players, coaches will be able to go back to drilling on execution of game plans and preparing their teams for game situations. The league will realize a far more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball because all its players will once again be able to play basketball. The games’ popularity will rise and more money will be made by all interested parties as ratings go up and stadiums sell out. The league can then look into expanding overseas and the NBA can finally become the first true global sport from the US, rivaling soccer for international appeal.

…and the American basketball player will finally have the tools he needs to get back the fundamentals that make us the best basketball players in the world.

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