Can Anyone Beat the NBA's One-Percenters?


I'm glad you bring up Washington. And the Wizards. Because at the same time growing socioeconomic inequality has become a major issue in national politics, ongoing competitive imbalance continues to be a drag in the NBA. Well, at least in D.C. Plus Milwaukee. Phoenix. Orlando. Atlanta. Detroit. Charlotte. Cleveland. The Bay Area. I could go on, but you get the point: There are 32 teams in the league, and barring, say, an ultra-contagious torn-knee-ligament virus and/or a series of cataclysmic meteor showers sweeping through Miami, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and (maybe) Boston, 28 of those teams have no chance of winning the championship. None. James Harden is a fine player. Houston is lucky to have him. But he won't be planting a $100 postseason kiss on David Stern's cheek anytime soon. The NBA is a one-percent/99-percent affair, and like a lot of fans, I live and root in the latter group.

Frankly, it kind of sucks.

I love basketball. It's my favorite sport. I watch it for its own sake. I don't need a rooting interest to be entertained. Still: it would be nice. It would be nice, once in a while, to know that the forever-downtrodden Wizards had a shot. That they were in contention. That this year might be different. That they could seemingly come out of nowhere, the way teams in the NFL, NHL and even MLB do all the time. Thing is, that never, ever happens in the NBA. In pro basketball, the perpetually pathetic Arizona Cardinals would never make the Super Bowl. The No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings would never win the Stanley Cup. Fact: Only 17 NBA franchises have ever won a title—and not coincidentally, that's as many as the Celtics have won all by themselves. (The Lakers, not surprisingly, are one behind at 16). For all of pro basketball's on-court dynamism, its beautiful athletic jazz, it has scant parity and few surprises. Year after year, a handful of franchises are serious championship threats; another half-dozen are capable of putting up a credible fight; and everyone else qualifies as schedule filler. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser. Worse still, the NBA's have-nots generally play bad, unsightly basketball, something that for Washington residents has become an unwitting and hardly-willing area of expertise.

(To wit: last season, the Wizards traded spring-loaded hoops doofus JaVale McGee to Denver for the oft-injured but exceedingly competent Nene; watching the latter for six games was like biting into an upscale hamburger and mistaking it for filet mignon, mostly because you've spent the last five years being force-fed Spam).

Look, I'd love to blame the NBA's class divide on money, on the same big market/small market economic divide that characterizes other leagues. Only that's not really the issue. The issue is actually simple. Supply and demand. Too many teams. Not enough talent. The NBA game revolves around superstars, even more than the NFL revolves around quarterbacks, and at any given time there seems to be—at most—a dozen players good enough to build a championship contender around. If a franchise can't luck into a cornerstone player (like San Antonio with Tim Duncan), attract one via free agency (like the Lakers with, well, everyone), or hold onto one long enough to build a capable supporting cast (unlike the Cavs with LeBron James), then said club is doomed to irrelevancy. To not just being bad, but hopelessly bad. And hopelessness is a tough way to sell season tickets.

Don't get me wrong: I'm excited about the season. I want to see the Heat. How good can they be? I want to see the Lakers. If they implode, will it be visible from orbit? I want to see the Celtics and the Thunder—a franchise smart enough to watch Portland take Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant—and some other clubs that won't win, but will put on an first-rate show. (Think Denver, and probably Minnesota when Ricky Rubio returns). I'm interested in seeing how Rookie of the Year candidates Damien Lillard and Anthony Davis develop. And yes, I'll watch the Wizards, too. After all, they still play games against the teams that matter.


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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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