Today, SBNBA is celebrating (or burying) David Stern in his last go-round as commissioner. I have very few actual feelings for or against the man, but we all know someone who does -- longtime Liberty Ballers crotchety commenter, Dweebowitz. So I reached out to Dweeb the other night and within an hour, seriously, he had this missive aimed and fired. Take it away, Dweeb:
If you think Stern was a great businessman who really knew how to build his product and make it huge and global (he was, and he did), or an arrogant imperialist putz who ruled over his kingdom with an iron fist, nudging his favorite teams to the front for The Good Of The League (he was, and I'm pretty confident he did), the one thing you can't do is ignore his impact on the NBA for lo, these many years.
Let's, for discussion's sake, say that I come down on the "arrogant imperialist putz" side. Nonetheless, one can't fault his efforts to build a truly global brand. Under his watch, the league has become an international marketing monster. Kids from Beijing to Bordeaux are wearing LeBron jerseys and Kobe sneakers, He recognized that the biggest money was to be made expanding the league's reach outside of the traditional local/regional fan bases and pushing it out to the rest of the world.
So. What's wrong with all that? Professional basketball, like anything else, is a business, built to make money. Der Stern made plenty o' it for the owners, and even the players have gotten in on the gold rush, despite his best efforts to drive salaries down (we'll get back to this). Making money, when one is in business, is generally considered to be a Good Thing, and so it is, so it is.
Then why on Earth do I loathe Stern to the bottom fiber of my being?
As most of the regulars know, I'm a veteran corporate finance attorney. I'm about as pro-money as it gets, generally speaking, and I'm paid handsomely to represent the haves of the world as they exploit the have-nots out of their assets, and have very little trouble sleeping at night. OK, I have a crap ton of trouble sleeping at night, but that's to do with my Severe Anxiety Disorder (Missin' you, Royce White...#BeWell), and not my exploitative job (which I kinda get off on, sometimes...I'm not always a Nice Guy).
What makes this different to me is that the very people who are expected to support their local teams and buy their merch and come to games are the forgotten people in Sternal Math. But, you might say, your team is still right here where you left it. You are, in fact, writing this on a Sixers blog, so there must be a Sixers to blog about. True, but it cans my corn that we're never (despite Sam Hinkie's best efforts) going to be one of the glamor teams in the league. That ship sailed with Charles Barkley, (Hornacek, Perry, and Lang for Barkley? Seriously?) pretty much, with a brief bump during Iverson's prime. If one is not a glamor team, one isn't going to get the perks of having a glamor team. I'll put aside the frozen ping pong ball thing as unproven (you know you did it, you bastard), but it's hard to deny that the glamor teams tend to remain successful, mostly because they get the most money funneled to them, and can attract the best free agents, and players want to play there, and they get all the TV money, etc. It's not (necessarily) about outright manipulation, otherwise San Antonio would never be what they are. But their sunset is coming, and the league is probably breathing a collective sigh of relief (who the hell wants to watch a Finals featuring the Most Boring Great Team of All Time?), right along with their sponsors and advertising partners.
2014 NBA Draft
The simple fact is, the league NEEDS the iconic teams, like Boston and LA, to be contenders every year, because that's who the casual fan will watch, and that's who the international fans will watch. You think that guy in Beijing with the LeBron jersey has ever even heard of the Philadelphia 76ers? No, I don't either. The way free agency works, the way the salary cap works (there really isn't one, if you're willing to spend the money), the way the spoils are divvied up, they are all to the benefit of the elite teams. You don't even need to freeze the ping pong balls anymore.
And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of my loathing of Der Stern. He's ruined the product for the serious fan. He created a business structure where the product was dependent on a few transcendent parts (the LeBrons of the world), and set up a feeder system where the only way a non-elite team could break into the upper echelon was to tank for a better draft pick, and then HE HAS THE BALLS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT IT!!
Like everything in Stern World, it's all about math. You can't succeed without a superstar. To get a superstar, you either need humungous piles of disposable cash, enormous cache (who doesn't want to be a Laker?), or get lucky in the draft and get Wiggins or whoever. The teams who have the cache are the teams who, coincidentally, have the cash.
So that leaves the Rest of Us with getting lucky in the draft. The worst team getting the best pick, straight up, wasn't Sternian enough, because that encouraged tanking, and also gave the crappy teams a real, quantifiable chance to grab the brass ring. So that begat the lottery, introducing an element of chance into your pick, and giving a better (read: more marketable) team having a down-ish year a chance to get well fast and start shoveling money into the league coffers at their usual rate. Now, that's not enough, so he wants to create a system ("The Wheel") where you already know 30 years (!) in advance where you're going to pick, so you might as well put together that mediocre team that gets slaughtered by the Lakers or Celtics in the first round of the playoffs (Doug Collins is smiling, somewhere, everywhere). It is to laugh, if you look at it. Mediocracy indeed.
I'm about as far from a labor-unionist as it's possible to be, and I don't have a ton of sympathy for super-rich players, but I do believe in economics, and they generate a quantifiable level of value for their teams, and they should be entitled to as much of that as they can get. And not because I'm worried that Kobe can't buy his wife another $3,000,000 diamond this week, but because, again, it waters down the product. And this watering is the worst watering of all. The lockout. There have been several during Der Stern's reign. And they suck, especially for the fans who ultimately pay for everything, since there aren't millions in the end for them. All they get is the pleasure of seeing their team play basketball, and it really freaking sucks when they don't get that because the bazillionaires want a bigger piece of the chungamungous pie, and the King wants them to get it, because that's who he really works for.
I'm getting tired now, so I'm going to spare you my "the league's talent pool is so watered down at this point that most teams can't help but suck, and they should contract down to between 16-24 teams, just so they have enough decent players to go around and I never, ever have to watch Brandon Davies muff another wide-open dunk in my entire life" rant. You've all heard it before.
So. After all this ranting incoherence, what's my point? Is there one? Yes.
David Stern: Fantastic for owners of elite teams.
David Stern: Pretty good for owners of other teams (who do get a slice of the overall pie).
David Stern: Crappy for serious fans of the game (unless they're really into the Celtics or Lakers, who I predict right now will both "luck" into top three picks this year).
As I don't own a basketball team, but am a serious fan of a team seemingly banished to eternal Mediocracy...
Eat a dick, David Stern. Don't let the door hit you in your fat ass on the way out. I'm not going to miss you for a nanosecond.
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