Will the Miami Heat approach the Chicago Bulls’ hallowed mark of 72 wins?
If they do, will it deserve an asterisk?
Welcome to the 2013-14 NBA season, where the most intriguing subplot features a player in the Big 12 conference.
The concept of tanking is not exactly a new one – many argued, myself included, that the Cleveland Browns were in pure freefall mode after trading Trent Richardson for a draft pick. Losing should not be rewarded in sports. But it is each and every year.
The concept of a player draft, of parity, of revenue sharing, of giving every team an equal opportunity reeks of the socialism concepts that Republicans rail against every day in their unending quest to destroy President Obama. It registers on Capitol Hill. It doesn’t register on ESPN.
But while tanking has largely been an issue that popped up toward the end of the season – teams eliminated from the playoffs had no reason to keep trying and would go into full shut down mode – this year has sprung a new phenomenon upon us: the full-season tank.
This came to a boil when ESPN printed a column from an anonymous NBA GM who not only admitted to, but explained why, he was tossing away the 2013-14 season. Boy, would I love to be a paying customer for that team.
The response? Not one of an outrage. But that the anonymous GM is far from alone – another NBA executive admitted at least 6 teams have already given up on the season.
There are 30 teams in the NBA. A full 20% of them aren’t trying this year.
The most frustrating aspect of this is two-fold. For one, the fans of the tanking teams really have nothing to complain about. In fact, many are probably encouraging it. When the 76ers announced they were shutting down Nerlens Noel for the entire season, no one batted an eyelash. The benefits that Noel would gain from any NBA experience, even if it were only 20 games, were far outweighed by the benefits of a terrible 76ers team lucking into the aforementioned prize – Andrew Wiggins, currently at Kansas, soon-to-be a #1 draft pick.
If Wiggins comes anywhere near his LeBron-like potential – or frankly, merely if he is half as good as LeBron – it will be worth it for the 76ers, and their fans, to sit through a year of misery.
The second frustrating aspect is how the NBA was so far ahead of the curve on the concept of tanking, and now so far behind it. The NBA created the Lottery to prevent tanking. If you didn’t make the playoffs, you had the exact same chance at getting the #1 pick.
Now, there is a dumb weighted system that gives the worst teams far better odds of receiving the #1 pick. Every loss is another ping pong ball. Every loss is a better opportunity for a better player. Essentially, the worst teams in the league are punished for winning.
Let’s repeat for emphasis – bad NBA teams are punished for having the audacity to win a game.
It’s an easy fix, of course. Go back to the original draft lottery. Every non-playoff team gets one ping-pong ball and it’s all about chance. The 76ers have the same odds of winning the “Riggin’ for Wiggins” sweepstakes if it goes 2-80 or 30-52. Doesn’t the NBA owe it paying customer a team that is attempting to win?
The real reason this fiasco upsets me so much – and why I’m furiously typing on this keyboard like a maniac – is because of LeBron James.
LeBron James is best basketball player since Michael Jordan. I remember as a teenager, being thrilled every time Jordan was on television. I made it a point to watch every game of his I could. Especially in that record-setting 72-win 1996 season, after he had come back from baseball, I literally felt honored that I had a chance to watch an athlete that good try that hard every single night. I thought many times over, “There will never be a guy this good again.”
Yet here we are, a remarkably short time later, and there is another once-in-a-lifetime basketball player in our lives. The debate about whether he will eventually end up as good or even possibly better than Jordan is stupid and short-sighted. The fact there is a debate already answers the question about LeBron’s greatness.
This year’s Miami Heat team has the potential for special. They have LeBron. They have two All-Star sidekicks in Wade and Bosh that appear to be ready to do anything for LeBron. They have a remarkable roster of veterans like Shane Battier and Ray Allen that understand the magnitude of what is happening. They have a coach who, despite receiving less than enough credit, is probably the best in the game.
Last year, the Heat started slowly – the hangover from the first NBA title blatantly obvious.
This year, well, this year feels different already. It may be too much to read into one game, considering it was Derrick Rose’s first in 18 months, but the Heat eviscerated the Bulls on Tuesday night. They backed up all their talk from the preseason. They were sending a message – to the Bulls, to Rose, to the league and to themselves.
The 2013-14 NBA season will bring one of the most interesting, and ultimately depressing, dichotomies of any sports season in recent memory. The Miami Heat, in the midst of chasing greatness, will play roughly 20% of its games – 16 of them, maybe more, maybe less – against teams that will be chasing nothing.
The best at their best vs. the worst at their worst.
Sadly, few will care and nothing will change. It is fitting that David Stern is riding out his final months as commissioner, because he learned one key mantra about the NBA and executed it to perfection for three decades.
Stars fix everything. LeBron fixes everything. And he does it just as well as Jordan did.
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