Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: In Slow-to-Change NBA, Top Draft Picks Offer Little Help

 

As I watched the San Antonio Spurs eliminate the upstart New Orleans Hornets this past week, I got to thinking … I really don’t like the NBA.

 

I don’t like the fact that you can advance the ball across half court just because you have a time out. I don’t like the fact that each team has more time outs than Campbell’s has soup. I don’t like the fact you can bear hug a guy and foul him every time he goes to the rim without getting an intentional foul. I don’t like the fact that the endings of games will almost always feature a “Hack-a-(insert poor-shooting forward/center’s name here)” tactic.

Yeah, I’m one of those guys who thinks college basketball is more entertaining. It’s not that college basketball players are more talented (they’re not), or they play with more passion on a consistent basis (they do). I just don’t find the league as exciting because the top of the standings never seem to change.

Look at the semifinals this year. The NBA title will be won by either the Lakers, the Spurs, the Celtics or the Pistons. Seem familiar? It should. Those four teams have accounted for 13 of the last 22 titles dating back to 1986. The other nine went to the Rockets (2), the anomalous Heat (1) and that kid on the Bulls with all those Gatorade commercials (6). Conceivably, the Rockets wouldn’t have won their titles if “Air Jordan” hadn’t briefly dabbled as “Swing and a Miss Mike” with a Chicago White Sox farm team. Still, just seven teams have won every title for the past 22 years. By comparison, the NFL and NHL have each had 12 different champions over that span, while Major League Baseball — where there is no salary cap and fewer teams make the playoffs — has had 13.

You can argue with me that all of those NBA teams have been up and down during the past 22 years. No doubt the city of Boston will dwell on how terrible the Celtics were before trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But seriously, please refrain, if only out of consideration for the fans of the Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors, Wizards, Raptors, Nuggets, Hornets, Hawks, Bucks and Kings, none of whom have even sniffed a title game during that span.

But there’s always the draft, right? David Stern and all the other league officials will parade out the faces of tomorrow, give them a straight-billed cap and tell you, the long-suffering fan, that this pick will give your team a shot to win it all just a few short years down the road.

They’re wrong.

What’s remarkable is that those nine teams just mentioned combined for nine No. 1 overall draft picks since 1988. And they’re still miserable. Aside from the Hornets, does anyone see any of those teams actually having a shot to win the NBA Finals next season? I don’t.

The fact of the matter is the No. 1 overall pick just does not mean that much. Since 1985, only one team has won the NBA title after picking first overall — the San Antonio Spurs, who picked first twice, landing David Robinson and Tim Duncan. In fact, since 1985 only three top picks picks have won titles — Robinson, Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal, who won after he left the Magic for the Lakers.

Of the 10 teams to own the No. 1 overall selection since 1998, six watched this year’s playoffs from their living rooms and two were eliminated in the first round. The Rockets made the playoffs despite losing their 2002 No. 1 overall pick to injury (Yao Ming) and the Wizards made it seven years after blowing their No. 1 choice in 2001 on Kwame Brown. The other two picks to make this year’s playoffs were LeBron James and Dwight Howard, who like Robinson, Duncan and O’Neill are potential Hall of Famers. Of course, they’re out of the playoffs too.

On some level, these facts illustrate how difficult it is to build a title contender in the NBA. There’s no guarantee that even the top amateurs will pan out in the pros. And if they do reach their potential, there’s no guarantee that even two hall of famers will win you a title. (See: Jazz, Utah.)

With the salary cap system, bad contracts given to undeserving players can doom a franchise for years. (Cough, Allan Houston, cough, cough, New York Knicks, cough, endless misery, cough cough.) And the draft? Well, we’ve just seen that it’s no quick fix. The rebuilding process is long. It takes far more than one season and even then involves a lot of hoping and praying.

I can appreciate the athleticism and the skill sets of today’s NBA players, and I enjoy the thrilling playoff finales that play out in the final seconds — between 26 time outs — of those games. But can I get passionate about a team that has no chance to win a title before the season even starts? Frankly, I have better things to do with my time.

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