Can Anyone Beat the NBA's One-Percenters?

This basketball season looks like it'll be yet again a skirmish between the same handful of elite squads as always, while the rest of the league looks on. Are there just too many teams?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) discuss what to expect going into the NBA season.


A few years ago, Kansas City built a new arena in the heart of a resurgent downtown. Despite a few flirtations, though, the Sprint Center remains without a NBA team as an anchor tenant. Fans from other parts of the country often ask if I'm bothered that KC has no pro basketball team—and hasn't since the Kings left.

Lord, no.

First, KC fans do have a pro basketball team to root for. They are called the Kansas Jayhawks, and play about 30 miles up the road in the museum/cathedral that is Allen Field House.

Secondly, despite what an article in a certain upscale eastern publication once claimed, Sprint Center has been a big success, even without the anchor tenant of a major sports team. Besides, the sweetheart deal it would take to get some billionaire to move his NBA club here boggles the mind. The "Kansas City Bucks" or "KC Timberwolves" would likely stink on ice, and fans in this once-proud sports town are not about to buy tickets to see another losing team half-heart it up and down the hardwood.

Especially not with Sporting KC in town. Mock the MLS all you want, fellas. You can bet that NBA executives aren't laughing when they look at SKC's attendance—not with David Stern's retirement announcement and about a third of all NBA teams financially up a creek, sans paddle. Sporting KC set a regular season record in 2012, drawing an average of 19,404 a game to the electric setting of Livestrong Park. That's higher than all but seven teams in your precious NBA. Even the mighty Lakers averaged 18,997 at Staples Center.

Speaking of, Hollywood's team should provide plenty of drama, as ever. For a return to postseason glory, LA will need to overcome the Mavericks, who smacked back the Lakers on opening night. The Mavs, meanwhile, must face the uncomfortable truth that Kevin Durant is still getting better. We all, unfortunately, will have to deal with Jeremy Lin puns. The champion Heat have added Ray Allen, late of the Celtics, who is trying to reinvent himself as well as win more jewelry.

But beyond simply rooting for any player who went to KU, my NBA fan's heart is a vagabond. This year, it belongs to Brooklyn, yo. The Nets' move from New Jersey to the weird-but-cool new Barclays Center is the best story of the new season.

With apologies to the good folks of the Garden State, New Jersey is a punchline. Brooklyn, however, has held a mythic place in the American imagination for everyone from Whitman to Hasidic Jews and hip-hop moguls. The return of pro sports to the borough feels as good as a sports team moving can. Joe Johnson couldn't bug me more as a player. But put that all-black, Dodgers-like "B" logo on his new uniform, and he suddenly becomes a symbol of a historical wrong made a little more right.

Jake, time for tip-off. We know that you live and die by the Knicks, so give us your Madison Square-centric take on the new season—but maybe start with a few words about those new rivals across the East River.

–Hampton

Gladly, Hampton. Like most of the city, I'm still reeling from Hurricane Sandy (as of this writing, my Greenwich Village apartment is without power and may have been looted by marauding hipsters). The Nets are no exception—the NBA postponed Brooklyn's blockbuster home opener against my beloved Knicks that had been set for Thursday.

Honestly, I'm glad they did. The return of pro sports to Brooklyn (sorry, Brooklyn Cyclones, you don't count) should be a gala celebration, not a tepid affair attended by the few thousands souls hardy enough to brave the subway-less, semi-flooded city. The Nets are not going to challenge the Heat anytime soon—after Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, their roster is filled with busts (Brook Lopez) and tabloid fodder (Kris Humphries, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known as Mr. Kim Kardashian). But they can challenge the old and decrepit Knicks for Big Apple supremacy, and they can develop a rabid fan base full of beards and skinny jeans.

The rest of the league appears set to be overrun by the Heat now that the Thunder have traded away James Harden, an astoundingly short-sighted move that ensures Oklahoma City will be watching other teams hoist the championship trophy for years to come. The Lakers are trying the same star-heavy recipe that failed in 2004, and it will fail this season too. The Clippers have potential but must prove themselves in the postseason. My pick out of the Western Conference is a throwback: the San Antonio Spurs, who were two wins from the Finals last year and should be just as good this year.

But no one will stop the Heat. They have LeBron at the peak of his powers, a healthy D-Wade, a top-five big man in Chris Bosh, and the best outside shooter in the game in Ray Allen. Come crunch time, they'll throw out an impossibly athletic lineup of Mario Chalmers, Allen, Wade, LeBron and Bosh (with LeBron playing the power forward position). Good luck trying to stop that, and good luck trying to score on that lineup if you don't have an elite big man.

The Heat could win 73 games this year if they stay motivated throughout the season. They'll fall short of that goal, but a second straight title will be a great consolation prize.

What say you, Patrick? Any musings on your Washington Wizards?

–Jake

Jake,

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.

–Patrick

Presented by

Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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