The NBA is the highest-level and best-quality basketball you'll find anywhere in the world, and also far from perfect. Valentine's Day is over. Truth is, the NBA could use makeup and maybe a facelift.
At the risk of sounding like your grandfather, the NBA was more gripping back in the day, not by much, but all around. It had rivalries, real ones, complete with dislike and passion and unfortunately the occasional body slam. It had All-Stars and Hall of Famers crammed on elite teams: Bird, McHale, Parish and DJ on the Celtics. Magic, Worthy, Kareem and Coop on the Lakers. Doc, Moses and the Boston Strangler on the Sixers. Jordan and Pippen on the Bulls. Isiah and Dumars on the Pistons.
There were true villains: Laimbeer and Mahorn. And characters: Rodman and Chocolate Thunder.
It wasn't rare to see a final score of 140-129. The players today might be supremely skilled and certainly more athletic but not necessarily smarter or more motivated to improve every year.
Maybe this is pure perception and the eye of the beholder, and attendance is booming in the NBA today so something must be working, but everyone who was around 15 and 20 years ago can agree the league doesn't quite carry the same cachet. What's missing?
Well, after bringing you what we love about the NBA, we present the Hater's Guide to the NBA and touch upon everything keeping the league from gaining more glory and less grief.
Too Many Teams. This league is watered down like 50-cent beer, all because of ownership greed. When the league made a killing in the '80s, the owners lost their minds. They got expansion happy, collected millions in fees and diluted the game. More teams meant more roster spots, but even after tapping Europe and Asia for talent, the league hasn't found enough quality players to fill all the jobs. So teams carry filler, loaded with one-dimensional stiffs, or what's the correct term? Oh, yeah: "role players." Before the wave of expansion, teams had two and sometimes three players with All-Star talent or close. Nowadays they're lucky to have one. That's why there was hate when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade and "stacked" the Heat. In a perfect world that wouldn't be so unusual. The NBA would zap six teams and hold a draft. Instead, we get Bobcats vs. Suns. Thanks, David Stern!
Too Many Games. The NBA plays from late October until late April. That's a longer stretch than Rick Ross' T-shirt. Too many games involving too many teams makes for too many dead spots on the schedule. January basketball slogs along while we scream for mercy. There was one positive from the lockout season; while 66 games was an extreme, it's a lot closer to ideal than 82. The normal season is a grind. The right amount of games is 72, which would reduce the number of back-to-backs and convince Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to avoid benching his stars due to, ahem, injuries.
Kevin Garnett. When he broke into the NBA as an 18-year-old, his nickname was Da Kid, and it fit. Always smiling and jovial and pulling harmless pranks, KG was a bundle of innocence and the face of a new generation. Now? That face is a frown, and that's whenever Mr. Get Off My Lawn is in a swell mood. Da Kid is now Da Grump, hated by most, tolerated by others, loved only in Boston. He reportedly wished Tim Duncan a Happy Mother's Day after Duncan lost his mom. He called Charlie Villanueva, who suffers from a skin disease, a cancer patient. And this season we learned his favorite cereal. He behaves like a punk and backpedals whenever he's called on it, except around six-foot guards, which is like 90 percent of his targets.
Big and Soft. Garnett is still making a good living because he stays in shape, hits the 15-footer and most of all has little competition. Quality bigs are few to be found nowadays in a league that put Roy Hibbert in the All-Star Game last season. (To justify that honor, and a shiny new contract, Hibbert is now missing bunny shots and being outrebounded by players four inches shorter.) Size was always a premium in the league, but it just seems more pronounced now. Part of the problem is teams richly reward big men with raw skills (hello, Hibbert), effectively telling them we only need you to rebound and block shots. Therefore, why should they waste time working on, you know, passing and shooting and dribbling?
Golden Nuggets. Watching the Nuggets wear those bright sunflower jerseys make you wish for color blindness. Yellow jerseys? What are they trying to call themselves, cowards? Or trying to win the Tour de France? They're the most hideous uniforms in a league that's gone great lengths to become stylish lately. Thank goodness we don't have to stare at Barney on the Raptors' jerseys anymore, or the red Rocket with teeth in Houston, or the cartoonish Grizzly in Memphis or that hooded Houdini in Washington. The Nuggets were fine with the skyline on the front. Then they had to go wash those jerseys in banana extract.
Michael Jordan, CEO. The same basketball gods that blessed him with otherworldly basketball skills have cursed him with lousy luck and basketball judgment. How else to explain the head-scratching track record of Jordan the owner? First the Wizards, now the Bobcats, a pair of train wrecks threatening to treat Jordan like he treated the Knicks. You gotta hate how this is turning out for the game's greatest player. OK, he did draft Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison. He did make Tyrus Thomas rich and watch his Bobcats win seven games in a lockout-shortened season. In seven years as part owner or primary owner, Jordan has made the playoffs once in Charlotte. All true. But it's not all on Jordan. He drew the No. 2 pick in the Dwight Howard draft. He can't get A-list free agents, who want the big city or beach. Sometimes it's about timing and good fortune, too. If the gods treated Jordan the player like they do Jordan the CEO, he would've been whistled for pushing off on Bryon Russell.
MaGoofs. Sacramento's about to lose its basketball team because the Maloof brothers lost their fortune. These frat boys had the world in their hands 10 years ago until they fumbled the ball worse than their mistake-prone team ever did. They mismanaged their casino in Las Vegas and lately bungled the Kings, and now a loyal basketball town must suffer for their sins. Making matters worse, the Maloofs were never serious about finding a buyer to keep the Kings in town. They were out for a buck, picking a fine time to suddenly be astute businessmen. They make Donald Sterling look like Red Auerbach.
The Donald. You know the saddest part about the Clippers suddenly being winners? Somehow, it reflects well on Donald Sterling. Who knew that was possible? At various points during his four decades of loopy ownership of the league's former punch line, Sterling has been accused of being cheap, sexist, racist, out of touch and downright weird. Lucky for us and the Clippers, he has begun to cede control and manages to stay underground here in the Chris Paul era. We knew the All-Star point guard was good enough to make a contender appear out of nowhere, and now, Paul should get MVP for making an owner disappear.
Best of Seven First Round. We endure a six-month regular season just to get to the good part. And then, the playoffs drag on because owners decided to squeeze as much as they can. That's why the league switched from a best-of-five first round in 2003. They went for a money grab. Sometimes, though, less is better. The first round needs to be breezy and quick because, for the most part, the matchups are lopsided.
The 2002 Western Conference Finals. Yes, that series, and how it ended, still burns, and I had no rooting interest. It was league officiating at its worst, especially in Game 6 when the entire city of Sacramento mysteriously fouled out against Shaq and the Lakers. No other incident in NBA history, not even the "frozen envelope" in the Patrick Ewing draft, caused so many to howl about a fix. I won't go that far to accuse them of that without solid evidence, but NBA honchos should've publicly spanked Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt and Bob Delaney, just to be level with folks. Wait, I think I just heard them call another foul on Chris Webber.
Moving Violations. NBA players travel first class, both in the air and on the court. Only in the NBA can you take one-and-a-half steps, then long jump into the lane, then shoot or pass without fear of hearing a whistle. That's a longer non-stop trip than LA to Boston. And whenever a player executes a hesitation dribble, it's really a carry. There's no humanly way to pause a dribble for a half-second without lifting the ball. It gives players far too much leverage on the defender, who either freezes or needs an X-ray on his ankle. The same goes for most crossover dribbles. A good many elite players get away with this: Dwyane Wade, Jamal Crawford, Tony Parker, etc. Traveling and carrying might be entertaining. It's also illegal, but the NBA stopped going by the rulebook long ago.
Joe Blow. Nobody loves them some Joe Crawford more than Joe Crawford. He's easily the most egotistical non-player in the game, a look-at-me referee who thinks people pay money to see him call a foul. He can't blow his whistle without following up with an over-the-top gesture that begs for attention. And his skin is thinner than LeBron's hairline. He crossed the line years ago by challenging Tim Duncan to a fight. You had to love Duncan and Tony Parker's prank last Halloween when they posed for a picture threatening to "stab" a fake Joe Crawford.
Timed Out. I watched a Hawks game the other day, and there were three timeouts called in the final 42 seconds. All the energy and the flow of an exciting game was sapped by constant interruption. Then I watched the Mavericks, after using their timeouts, run up the floor and find Dirk Nowitzki for a big three-pointer. And the spontaneity was wonderful. At the highest level of basketball, players should be forced to think for themselves in high-pressure situations. They've seen every possible scenario anyway, and besides, don't they work on last-minute possessions in practice? There should be a one-timeout limit, per team, in the final two minutes. Take coaching out of the game. Put players in.
Spike's Gotta Have It. Look, Spike Lee is a terrific fan. Once he hit the jackpot as a director, his first big-ticket buy was courtside seats at the Garden. Plus, he stuck with the Knicks through the Isiah Thomas years. That's loyalty. That must be admired. But does any fan draw more attention than Lee, who loves to stand up and jump out of his seat even though there's no one in front of him? Perhaps that's the perk of fame: The camera always finds you, especially when you're a grown man wearing a Starks jersey.
Rasheed Rhymes With T'd. Basketball was so much more enjoyable when Rasheed Wallace took the last few years off. For 17 years we've been subjected to the pouty, adolescent ramblings and actions of a supposed adult. According to Wallace, he never committed a foul in his life, or traveled or knocked the ball out of bounds. Those who know him rave about how great a teammate he is, which makes no sense, because he costs his team a few dozen points every season for being childish. Also, those who've witnessed him in public say Wallace can treat people with the same politeness he has for referees.
Russell Westbrook's `tude. His shoulders aren't big enough to balance the two-by-four he carries. For someone who seemingly has it all -- supreme talent, a winning team, Kevin Durant as a teammate, an adoring city and a fat contract -- Westbrook is always on edge. Scott Brooks should be voted coach of the year annually for putting up with Westbrook. He takes shots away from Durant, hisses at the other team, occasionally undermines Brooks and a few weeks ago refused to join the timeout huddle before storming off the floor. Everyone loves his fire, which makes him an All-Star, but not his self-control, which makes him go unhinged.
Deron Williams. He caused one coach to quit and, based on his poor play if nothing else, got another fired. He once admitted: "I can be stubborn. I'm not the easiest person." And that's understandable. He's a perfectionist who demands much from those around him. But his approach and people skills are poor. Moody, suspicious and often snarky, Williams tends to drag down the vibe in the room. That won't win him many admirers or sympathizers in the big city, especially now, when he's struggling and in danger of falling from the elite.
One And Done Rule. NBA owners put a stop to high school players making the jump because their general managers weren't equipped to make major decisions on teenagers with short resumes. Agreed, but forcing players to spend a year on campus (or overseas if they wish) is unfair to them. Careers are short, and if a player is in demand straight out of high school, he should have the right to give teams the chance to draft him or pass him by. The one-and-done is a face-saving measure by teams who need protection from their mistakes. Meanwhile, the Nerlens Noels must run the risk of injury for a college that only wants to profit from them.
Heat "Hotbed." Oh, suddenly Miami is a basketball town? When did the city develop a taste and strong desire for hoops, July of 2011? Miami is the last city that deserves LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley. There's no rich history for basketball, the passion seems suspiciously artificial and the seats are half-empty at tipoff. The crowd is mostly see-and-be-seen, with models sashaying down the aisles while the annoying PA announcer begs fans to "stand up, and make some noise for your … Miami … Heeeeeat!" The scene is that cheesy. No lie: There's a Dan Marino and a Michael Jordan retired jersey hanging from the rafters. In the past, the orange and red (yes) seats were draped in white cloth just in case of no-shows. You could come up with a dozen cities with lesser teams that should have a Big Three before Miami, but none of those places have South Beach. Or a mascot dressed in a banana costume. As a supposedly staunch supporter of the Heat, Miami shows its true colors when the Knicks show up.