State of the Association: NBA coverage, parity, markets, and value as an entertainment product in 2017
On the eve of the start of the 2017 NBA playoffs, I’ve decided to continue to look back on the season. Finally getting my MVP tabulations and selection out of the way has really given me some new life. NBA fans will need the stamina this first weekend of the playoffs to get through 8 games in two days. Don’t get me wrong, though. I indulged in plenty of playoff preview pieces and podcasts first. Cramming in takes on all those key match ups and sizing up my own predictions is what really brought me to this point.
I’m treating this like a State of the Union, NBA style. This time is more appropriate than any to assess the NBA product as a whole, how it’s fared over the last few years, and where it can be expected to go.
First, I want to revisit what first came to mind when we took stock of the season before it had begun. Kevin Durant chose to part ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder and link up with the Golden State Warriors. Never mind the fact that the Warriors already had two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Durant and the Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals, up 3 games to 1.
The stage had already been set in July. There were plenty of narratives to run with: KD to the Warriors, investigation of Russell Westbrook’s every move, LeBron James still having a firm grip on ‘best player alive’ status, the devastation for the Warriors to have lost a 3-1 Finals lead, Draymond Green’s suspension in those Finals and any potential aftershock, a Cleveland title defense, LeBron eyeing a 7th straight trip to the Finals, Golden State’s budding dynasty, Cavs-Warriors III, and whether or not Cleveland or Golden State would be challenged at all in their respective conferences.
Those narratives alone can carry you through a season. They all have strong legs to walk on. And those only directly involve 3 of 30 teams!
The thing is, we were beat over the head with these same stories more times than not. The media and the largest outlets got sucked into their own self-fulfilling prophecy. “KD to the Warriors! Russ is gonna be reeeeeally mad! Wow, Cleveland and Golden State won’t have any competition!”
I can’t get over the fact that we just moved on from the 2016 Finals so quickly. We witnessed a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit by a Cleveland sports franchise against an opponent that had just broken the regular season record for wins! The news cycle moves fast, but its focus is also very singular.
There is this perception that more and more NBA fans are interested in the league at large and want to engage in content beyond their favorite teams with depth. I had believed this same thing. Now? I think members of that subset and the people getting paid to provide for them believe it wholeheartedly. The decision makers with the deep pockets believe deep down that that idea is overblown.
Long story short: Did we really need this many people covering the Warriors on a DAILY basis? Look, I get it. Draymond Green is a very expressive dude. We all get it. You could see it coming from a mile away; that market was over-saturated. All those people were bound to get competitive. But the NBA season is just too long and not that many people actually watch full games on the regular. People were going to begin calling their shots early on their demise. It didn’t take long for the ESPN “Draymond Green Problem” story to hit us. It was only the beginning.
The Cavs went through the same thing. Their pressures could even be seen as more taxing, given LeBron’s age and the enormity of their rival adding a former MVP in his prime with such relative ease.
Same can be said for Westbrook. Every single night, the lead was something to the effect of, “Westbrook did WHAT? He had HOW MANY?” And that was it. We went to bed and moved on to the next day. Nevermind that Harden's stats were right up there and that LeBron wasn't too far off. Whether you wanted round the clock Warriors/Cavs/Russ didn’t matter. Avoiding it was more difficult than giving in and consuming it all. Full disclosure: I’m on an extreme end of this spectrum. I like to sit with a nice piece on Spencer Dinwiddie or Jerami Grant more than most. I get that.
But fans want to be fans. The NBA is an escape. Not all people have the time and/or desire to seek out the kind of coverage they are truly seeking. People that don’t have the privilege of be immersed in this stuff 24/7 may just flip to what is most readily available.
I also don’t like that we moved on so quickly from what Mark Cuban did with a couple of ESPN writers. I don’t know that many ever engaged in much of an open and reasonable conversation around it in the first place. Covering the Suns or Nets is no easy job. But even the middle of the league is painfully underappreciated. I don’t say that because I think I can read minds. I say that because coverage just doesn’t say otherwise.
I asked if we really need this many people covering the Warriors. As a fan, I was bothered by the fact that I couldn’t ever just flip on a mainstream station and hear from somebody talking Pistons: about Andre Drummond’s development, Reggie Jackson’s return, up and down play of Marcus Morris, and so on. Even most segments around the Pelicans would always seem like they were mailed in. “Anthony Davis had another big night. How soon can we get him out of New Orleans? Is Alvin Gentry a legit NBA head coach?”
At large, the talk of the league was going to be about the top (many of those reasons mentioned) and the bottom (especially with mega market Lakers and Knicks in rebuilding phases). I understand why it happens, but there is more good to be done for the league by striking more of a balance.
Many people decided that this season would be the time they championed the DNP-rest issue. How noble. But think about it. How can you preach on the importance of each individual game when the coverage doesn’t reflect its importance? Nobody talks about the Wednesday night Hawks-Nuggets game unless Nikola Jokic is a healthy scratch. And I trust that I can find a whole bunch of people on Twitter or Reddit watching more of the Magic or Knicks or Sixers than many people that get paid to follow the league.
People have no trouble serving primarily as aggregators. Tom Haberstroh has a piece marketed as "The Tinderization of the NBA" and immediately there are thousands of clickbait vultures essentially stealing parts of the piece for their own sites or biting it in a YouTube video for views. We all can find the standard AP wrap ups in 90 different places by now. Google is incredible, but sometimes we're sifting through 18 pages of results parroting the same thing. The fan has the responsibility of digging for those personal or team-dedicated blogs for more. It sounds easy once you’ve done it and created your 56 different Twitter lists. The barrier of entry is a real issue, though, because it is largely a mental one.
We’re used to having something to feed us with more options than we can parse through. Over time, we subscribe to outlets and personalities to help us navigate those waters. The former still doesn’t truly exist yet. The NBA content space is very rich and competitive. Do not mistake me on that. The deep dives on Trey Lyles and Delon Wright are out there. They just aren’t everywhere, or just where you might first prefer to look.
I promised an NBA State of the Union. It’s looking more like an NBA State of the Media Landscape. I don’t think the two can be separated. There is a large contingent of major League Pass heads and live tweeters. There is also the constant old media paranoia/fear in the employee that doesn’t want to hear from the fans that they perceive to come across as if they know more than the analyst or reporter.
I hate to burst that bubble for anybody still living in it, but this is a game! Hard-working individuals can still have a family, make a living outside of basketball, and consume several hours of it on a daily basis. Who am I to say that a bank teller or a teacher or a plumber can’t know more about the NBA than me?
At the end of the day, all NBA fans want to be able to explore their curiosities. There isn’t much left to explore with the way coverage is allotted currently. People that want to stop the DNP-rests need to realize that all 82 games don’t matter to enough people yet. People with audiences and big platforms need to cover all 82 as if they all matter.
The tone surrounding the league can turn really quickly away from the notion that Cleveland and Golden State are all that matter, which most people claim to hate so much. These super teams are fetishized uncontrollably with all the diluted coverage and tanking is glorified more than it is bashed. A large percentage of the coverage of the middle of the league always seems to come back to the idea of blowing it all up.
Stepping away from my soap box, I think the league as a product is in a really good place. The league is filled with exciting guys that have the look of stars that will be around for a decade - Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota, Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Kristaps Porzingis in New York, Rudy Gobert in Utah and Devin Booker in Phoenix.
I’m also encouraged that most of those budding stars are in small(ish) markets. Those teams have some hope to cling to. This league isn’t just about scratching the backs of the big dogs. The Lakers and Knicks still have some choppy waters ahead that they’ll need to navigate wisely without much margin for error. Yes, even those teams can’t be saved from themselves.
The league needs more of a middleman to serve the middle of the league. As more advanced stats and metrics are developed, we need to be finding more people to normalize them. The only common thread more unbearable than all those people that can’t leave the Warriors alone for 30 seconds is the ignorant bashing of analytics.
But the people on the receiving end aren’t perfect. You can’t continue to introduce new things without making adjustments yourself to reach a broader audience. The root of this matter is obvious: Too many people think that aficionados of analytics rely wholly on the numbers. Stop barking back at them for relying too much on the eye test. Work with those people to help them find a stat or two to support to add depth to something they’ve been noticing in order for them to see that the two things can work together, and not just for us to toot out own horn. None of us have perfect records as evaluators.
Good basketball is being played all across the league. I thoroughly enjoyed the Brooklyn games that I chose to watch end to end this season. They have new decision makers in place that seem to be aligned and their players made the best of their situation. Detroit may have disappointed, but they are only a year removed from a 1-8 series in which they were at least frisky with the Cavs for entire games. They have plenty of guys with movable contracts to shake things up in a big way if they choose to do so. The possibilities for their summer are exciting!
I could go on and on. Phoenix has a bunch of really, really young guys and actually gave them serious minutes this season. Devin Booker is going to be good, and the others will improve. Minnesota didn’t leap to the playoffs like some had expected, but their top two dudes grew offensively and they have cap space and a lottery pick coming to continue to build. Denver just missed out on the playoffs and New Orleans figures to at least finish a little closer after they get a full training camp with DeMarcus Cousins. Orlando fired its GM, but they probably won’t go so far as to remove all whiteboards from their facility. Will more plans be hilariously leaked next year?
The NBA has been tremendously entertaining for fans in any market. We wrapped up a season in which most of the league’s stars were pretty dang healthy all the way through! The playoffs are going to be a blast. And even with the teams on the outside looking in, there is stuff there that hasn’t been unearthed yet. This league has even more to offer and considering all the curiosity that is out there, I’ll gladly bet on people to find it for us to enjoy the spoils.