Last week, I heard a sports reporter mention, “The Timberwolves are about to begin their pre-season.” He then immediately went on to talk about the Twins, Vikings and other Minnesota sports, with nothing else about our local NBA franchise. I haven’t thought about the T-wolves in years, and regardless of how much I am told about how great the upcoming NBA season will be, I still have no interest in our local team.
This basketball apathy is not exclusive to Minnesota, as many other teams’ fans are tepid about the upcoming season. Why? As the NBA hypes the excitement for the four or five super teams that look to dominate, the rest of the league is wondering if there is any need to follow their local NBA teams at all.
The seeds of the NBA’s declining interest were planted many years ago, beginning with the creation of the NBA draft lottery. Many have wondered if the lottery was a scheme by the NBA to guide players to specific teams, but one thing it has created are NBA dead zones, where the worst teams in the league consistently find themselves out of the running for the best draft picks year after year. Knowing your last-place team has no chance at getting the players who can immediately impact your team’s performance only drives fans away.
Then there was referee Tim Donaghy. Donaghy plead guilty to fixing games he had bet on, but, gambling aside, anyone who’s followed the NBA for the last 20 years shouldn’t be surprised by referee interference determining games. The referees adopted a “save the superstar” mentality, where the league’s best players generally don’t have their infractions viewed with the same scrutiny as the rest of the league. This favoritism has been comical at times – leaving fans frustrated, as defeat always has the potential of being dragged from the jaws of victory by referees swallowing their whistles.
The evolution of today’s template
The league had gold with Michael Jordan, the greatest NBA player ever. When Jordan left the Bulls, it took two superstars, Kobe and Shaq, leading the Lakers together to bring the superstar glitz back. This evolved into the modern template for the NBA: The more of the top players a team has, the easier it is to win the championship. The Boston Celtics went a step further by bringing together three great players, and today it’s reached epic proportions.
The Miami Heat will be a monster this next season. Instead of just bringing in some great players to complement a superstar, they brought together three superstars and have created a team likely to be the champions. The NBA and its broadcast sponsor, ESPN, have dubbed the upcoming season the “greatest ever.”
It sure will be, if you’re a fan of the Heat or the three or four other teams with a legitimate chance this year. For the rest of the league, outside of when one of those superstar teams comes to town, who’s going to care? The country will stop and watch when the Heat and the Lakers face off, but will anyone notice when the Timberwolves and the Kings match up? How do you get excited about a team when you already know the best you can hope for is to be swept in the second round of the playoffs?
Smaller teams lose talent
The stockpiling of talent has poisoned the image of the non-superstar teams. The Timberwolves drafted the Spaniard Ricky Rubio in 2009, and he has decided to stay in Spain rather than come play in Minnesota; Chris Paul from the Hornets was demanding to be let out of his contract so he could go to a team able to compete with the higher-echelon teams; and Carmelo Anthony is opting to leave a talented Nuggets team, instead choosing to move onto a larger market. The majority of the NBA’s teams are slowly being transformed into a developmental league for the handful of superstar teams.
I like basketball, and I can’t wait for the college season to begin. This is not about the sport, but rather about the NBA potentially sacrificing a majority of the league for a select few, something even the Timberwolves acknowledge with their ad campaign promising Heat game tickets if you buy a specific ticket package (“Come see a whole bunch of games that just don’t matter, and we’ll give you the tickets to the only game you really want to see!”).
If the NBA continues down this path, it will eventually turn into a regional sport where the fan base, outside of the hotbeds, is fickle at best. The NBA’s decisions could lead to the folding of franchises and empty arenas for many other teams, and if that does happen, instead of calling this the “greatest season ever,” maybe the better name for the upcoming season would be “the last one most of the country cared about.”
Matthew McNeil is the 6 p.m. weeknight host on AM 950, KTNF.