Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bill Simmons at his Unhinged Best

It will come as no surprise that the following idea offered up by Bill Simmons for improving the NBA in his latest column irked me:

1. Contract the league to 27 teams and dump Memphis, Charlotte and Atlanta, three cities that can't support NBA basketball and never could. Then we'll have a league-wide lottery to determine positioning for the dispersal draft of players from those three teams. (Note: We've already sedated Chad Ford just in case this happens.) And if a contender like Chicago happens to end up with Pau Gasol ... I think we'll manage.

Simmons obviously doesn't think that the NBA has much of a place in the South, but on what basis does he decide that Memphis, Charlotte, and Atlanta can't support NBA teams? All three cities have brand new arenas and would rightfully feel a little screwed if the NBA pulled the plug after such significant investment in professional basketball. Let's look at them individually.

Charlotte had a franchise that was well-supported in the Alozo Mourning-Larry Johnson era, but lost it because: (1) Charlotte had an arena with no luxury boxes; and (2) the Hornets destroyed their local goodwill because of an a-hole owner who simultaneously banged on the Bible and was accused of sexually harassing his employees. When Cleveland lost its NFL team because of an outdated stadium and an a-hole owner, they got a team back within a matter of years. When Charlotte lost its team for the same reason, Simmons decides that Charlotte cannot support an NBA team. (I am assuming that the Hornets' illogical move from Charlotte to New Orleans is the basis for Simmons's argument.) And gee, do you think that the fact that the Bobcats aren't good had something to do with low attendance this year?

Ditto for Memphis, a franchise that has never won a single playoff game, but which drew just fine when the team was competent. Shockingly, they have had attendance problems this year when they're the worst team in the NBA and their star demanded a trade. In truth, a better argument can be made for contracting Memphis because of the size of the market relative to Charlotte and Atlanta and the relative lack of corporate dollars there, but with a new arena and reasonable fan support when the team was hauling in #8 seeds, they aren't an obvious contraction target.

And as for Atlanta, Simmons is constitutionally incapable of saying anything nice about any of the sports teams in this city and makes the same old tired jokes about Atlanta sports fans. He wants the NBA to abandon Atlanta as a market, despite the fact that this is the ninth-largest market in the United States and has grown like kudzu to five million people. He wants the NBA to abandon Atlanta as a market despite the fact that the NBA gets better TV ratings here for the playoffs than just about any other market (other than the markets with teams still competing, which is never a problem for us). He wants the NBA to abandon a market nicknamed "Black Hollywood," which makes perfect sense since the NBA obviously would have no interest in developing a market replete with affluent African-Americans. (Bill assumes that it's better to follow the Boston model: white crowds cheering for black athletes.) He wants the NBA to abandon Atlanta despite the fact that there are a number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered here (maybe Bill has heard of Coca-Cola, Delta, or Home Depot) and thus, this is an ideal market for the NBA in terms of corporate dollars that will chase a good opportunity.

The biggest problem I have with Simmons's statement is that he wants to penalize markets for not supporting bad teams. Is it a coincidence that he wants to contract teams with the 24th, 26th, and 30th best records in the NBA? What rational fan base is going to turn out in droves to watch a bad team? That's not how a market is supposed to function. What consumer is supposed to keep buying a sub-par product? Doesn't that destroy the incentive for the producer of the product to provide a better widget? Should we contract the 76ers, who had lower attendance than the Hawks and Bobcats this year despite having a better record? And how the hell does Simmons know that Atlanta wouldn't support a good Hawks team? The Omni was regularly full when the team was good in the late 80s. Simmons no doubt would have made the same arguments about the Braves in the 80s, before they started winning and drawing three million fans several times, or the Falcons in the 90s, before Mike Vick arrived and the team has subsequently sold every ticket for the past four seasons.

And then there are other problems with Simmons's arguments:

On the flip side, when the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers and Pistons were battling for control of the 1980s, did anyone care that the Clips, Cavaliers, Warriors and Kings were dreadful? Was it a coincidence that the NBA peaked from 1987 to 1993, with a lopsided league of quality teams and crummy teams? Call it the 600/400 Rule: More teams finishing above .600 (50 wins or more) and under .400 (50 losses or more) makes for a more entertaining league. During the glorious '88 season, my choice for the greatest ever, there were eight plus-.600 teams and six sub-.400 teams in a 23-team league.

Of course, the NBA was much better when your team was good and it hasn't been any good since. I look forward to your next piece on how Major League Baseball has been crap since 2004. And where's the explanation for the fact that the NFL's popularity has exploded in a parity era, but the same would not be true for the NBA?

Personally, I don't see the NBA's problem as being a lack of great teams, as there are three outstanding teams in the league this year: Dallas, Phoenix, and San Antonio. Moreover, two of the teams play highly attractive basketball. The problems are two-fold:

1. None of the teams are in major markets and, gasp, they're all in the Sunbelt. As a result, the mainstream media isn't interested in them.

2. None of the teams have marketable stars (Dirk and Nash are foreigners and Duncan is quiet) for the mainstream media to completely overhype.

But I blame the lottery for foisting modified parity on us. Ever since Orlando went back-to-back, top picks have gone to lousy teams every spring, creating a vicious circle in which the lottery replenishes weak teams with blue-chippers who aren't ready to carry weak teams.

I must have missed the Bulls drafting fourth last year after coming off of a playoff run. Or Dallas drafting fifth in 2004. Or Detroit drafting second in 2003.

More generally, Simmons ignores the fact that a number of franchises have pulled themselves out of the losing cycle by using their top picks smartly and pairing their young stars with good supporting casts. I'm thinking of Utah and Toronto here, both of which are going to win division titles because the lottery gave them Chris Bosh and Deron Williams and their GMs made smart decisions in accumulating talent.

And that's why the lottery sucks: Not only does it render the occasional Duncan/ Robinson pairing nearly impossible, not only does it reward poorly run clubs like the Hawks (103 games under .500 since the 1998-99 season), it encourages also-rans to bottom out once they suffer some bad luck because they know it's their best chance to eventually contend.

This makes no sense at all. How does the lottery benefit the Hawks if the Hawks waste their picks on Marvin and Shelden Williams? That just leaves Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Brandon Roy for other teams. If a team is mismanaged (and I'm not conceding that Billy Knight mismanages the Hawks, although I'm not pleased with where our last two lottery picks are right now), then it will screw up its picks regardless of where in the Draft it makes them.

As for Simmons' solution that the lottery should be unweighted, doesn't that create an even more perverse incentive for teams to tank? If you're the Clippers, wouldn't it make more sense to get a one in seven chance at Durant or Oden as opposed to gunning for the 8th seed in the West so you can be wiped off the map by Dallas? Is it better to have decent teams tanking as opposed to bad teams? And let's note the obvious self-interest apparent in Simmons's argument. He's a Clippers season-ticket holder and an unweighted lottery would benefit the Clips more than any other team, since they have the best record of any of the current teams on the outside of the playoff race looking in.

In an effort to say something nice about a writer whom I criticize all the time, but I read everything he writes (save for his book), I'll say that this idea is excellent and would create an NCAA Tournament-type element to the NBA post-season:

Shorten the regular season by four games, guarantee the top six seeds in each conference, then have a double-elimination tourney for the seventh and eighth seeds between the remaining 15 teams.

It's too bad that the 9th-largest metro area in the country has no business participating.


Joel said...

I'd like to add more, but you covered my thoughts almost word-for-word as I've read the article. Reminds me of similar articles on the NHL saying "contract the Thrashers-Predators-Hurricanes-other southern teams."

I'd like to think most intelligent sports fans know Atlanta is a major market and the largest market in the fastest growing region of the country, and therefore will support any pro team that places a good product on the field of play. Unfortunately, Simmons is not one of these people.

Please send your article to him, not to get in a mailbag or something, but just so he can see the stupidity of his comments re: Atlanta.

Grandy said...

I'd shorten it by more than 4 games. 8 maybe. But I like that alternate playoff format.

LD said...

There are so many problems with this piece, and you've hit on a lot of them.

The first assumption Simmons makes is that parity is necessarily bad for basketball, and therefore we need to work around the whole "bad teams get the first pick". Here's the thing - why stop there? If parity is necessarily bad for the NBA and there needs to be an elite and an underclass, why not simply give the NBA Champion the first pick in the draft every year, and the worst team gets the last pick. Tanking would never be a problem! Of course, it'd kill 10-12 teams within a couple of years, but think about how great the top 3 or 4 would be! They'd play great basketball!

And you also get at the Utah and Toronto thing - about how teams with high picks used well actually do improve and, over time, start playing pretty good basketball. But there are a few more examples. The Nuggets have turned the franchise around pretty well (and I'd argue they would've been damn good if not for the brawl suspensions this year). Houston's pick of Yao Ming is another example. The Clippers have finally started using high picks well and (until injuries have gotten in the way this year) they're a better franchise for it.

Simmons' premise that bad teams + high picks = still bad teams just doesn't add up. There are the examples above, but there's also one huge example that he strangely just doesn't mention in the column. LeBron James. The Cavs were atrocious, James comes around, and within a couple of years, they're a basket away from the Conference finals (and that's with pretty bad management not putting good pieces together).

"In the past 14 years, only one No. 1 pick made his team instantly competitive: Tim Duncan, who joined a contender that had slipped only because of injuries."

This is ridiculous. James has made his team competitive. OK, maybe the East is bad, but is there any question that James changed the fortunes of the franchise?

The same thing could happen in this year's draft. I can't read Simmons' mind (because there's bad writing here), but what I think he's suggesting is that Durant and Oden will be wasted on getting drafted by Memphis, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Milwaukee. But is there any doubt that either of those guys would totally transform any of those teams?

The point is that if any of the worst 5 or 6 teams in the league (save one, below) added one of the top 2 players in this draft, there's no doubt that they'd become pretty good teams, pretty quickly. Oden and Durant are both the kinds of players, and the bad teams this year, are precisely the scenarios that would shoot holes in Simmons' premise.

Here's the problem: I'm not sure he thinks Oden or Durant would immediately change the fortunes of Boston.

If you add Oden to Atlanta, they're a 5 or 6 seed next year. The Hawks are two pieces away (C and PG).

If you add Durant to Charlotte, they're a 7 or 8 seed next year. The Bobcats are probably one piece away, assuming Felton and May develop and Okafor stays healthy (they need a scoring 3/4).

If you add Oden to Memphis (and Gasol stays, and stays healthy), they're a 7 or 8 seed next year. Simmons would probably go back and argue that Oden added to Memphis is akin to the Spurs adding Duncan - Memphis was in the playoffs in each of the last two years and Gasol's injury played a big role in their downfall.

If you add Durant to Milwaukee (and Redd, Bogut, Villanueva stay and stay healthy), they're a 4 or 5 seed next year.

But... if you add Oden to the Celtics, they probably still don't make the playoffs. If you add Durant to the Celtics, they probably still don't make the playoffs. See, the Celtics are the only "really bad" team this year with more than 1 or 2 big holes in the roster. They have, like, 4 (C, PF, SG, PG). The only teams with similar holes (or holes about to appear) are not-quite-horrible-enough-to-get-a-top-pick teams like Philly, Seattle, Golden State, Indiana, New Jersey.

This column is all about Boston. Because Boston wouldn't turn their entire fortunes around with just one player, it's not worth it to have any other bad team get him. In Simmons' mind (which doesn't even consider the fortunes of Charlotte, Memphis, Atlanta, or Milwaukee), it's better giving one of those players to a middling, decent team (like the Clippers). The only way this column makes sense is if you read it from the perspective of a Boston fan, and assume Boston gets a top 2 pick. For any other team close to getting the #1 or #2 overall, the premise just doesn't work.

carc said...

You just can't contract Atlanta. Aside from the fact that it's a booming area, it's a franchise with 40-some years of history in the area and was very well-supported during the Dominique era, IIRC.

Charlotte too makes little sense. North Carolina is a basketball hotbed and is growing rapidly. The Hornets had phenominal attendance for a long time, and while the novelty of having a franchise wore off, there's no reason to believe the city won't resume supporting the Bobcats strongly if/when it becomes a playoff team.

Memphis is one I can sort of understand. I never grasped the logic of relocating a franchise from a booming city in a totally new market (Vancouver) to a smallish, fairly poor city (Memphis). But at any rate, I'm not sure I buy the argument that contraction is a good business model. The population is growing as is the worldwide talent pool of basketball players. If the talent pool does not currently support 30 teams, it probably will in a few years.

Fox said...

I love Simmons and all, but this column was just plain stupid. If nothing else, he fails to explain why it's OK to give the worst teams in other sports the top picks but not to use the lottery system, which gives teams less of an incentive to tank than the NFL's system does. And I think you're right that they shouldn't contract the Hawks (although they should force an ouster of its management). Sadly though, I think he's right regarding the Grizzlies and Bobcats. The Grizzlies drew OK when the team first got there, but it's just not a big enough or rich enough market to consistently support an NBA team, and there's not enough big business to pick up the slack. As to Charlotte, I think Shinn poisoned the well there and it's unfixable. Even when the Bobcats first started, they didn't draw any fans, which is a terrible sign. Usually it takes a few years for fans to stop going because the team sucks (trust me, I know from enduring the Nationals).

Chad said...

Contract Boston.

I began to post a comment here, but it became rather long. Rather than dominate your comments, I decided to continue it elsewhere.


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