I often wish we could go back to 1988. And not because I would have fared much better on many first dates and would have bought lots of Apple stock if I knew over the years what I know now.
You see, 1988 was the last year in which the NBA had just 23 teams (before the league expanded to 27 over the next two seasons, 29 seven years later and 30 six years ago). It was also nearing the end of an era in which players played at the privilege of the franchises, fans and communities willing to pay them millions of dollars to throw a leather ball into a basket. Rather than position themselves to hand-pick their new team, (most) players were content to take their millions and then live wherever they wanted in the offseason. For example, Reggie Miller may have been an Indiana Pacer for life, but he spent his offseason near his childhood home in Los Angeles. Similarly, Larry Bird made Boston home during the season and French Lick, Indiana home in the offseason.
Coming out of what may be the worst week in NBA history - a week in which Carmelo Anthony hand-picked his next franchise and the Jazz traded Deron Williams for fear of Williams doing the same a year from now, it's important to remember 1988. In order for the NBA to save itself, it will need an overhaul of its revenue sharing system among its owners, an overhaul of its collective bargaining agreement with its players and a time machine.
As a season ticket holder in 1988, with very few exceptions, you were guaranteed to see a star player regardless of who came to town. Sure, the Lakers were stocked with three Hall of Famers (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy) and the Celtics had four (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson), but the other 21 teams usually had a player or two worth buying a ticket to watch.
The Rockets had Hakeem Olajuown. The Hawks had Dominique Wilkins and Doc Rivers. My Nuggets had Alex English and Fat Lever. The Mavericks had Mark Aguirre, Roy Tarpley and Rolando Blackman. The Sonics had Tom Chambers, Xavier McDaniels and Dale Ellis. The Pistons had Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman. The Bucks had Terry Cummings and Sidney Moncrief. The 76ers had Charles Barkley and Maurice Cheeks. The Knicks had Patrick Ewing. The Trail Blazers had Clyde Drexler, Kiki Vandeweghe and Jerome Kersey. The Pacers had Chuck Person and an emerging Reggie Miller. The Jazz had John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Bullets had two Malones that averaged over 20 - Jeff and Moses. The Cavaliers had Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Mark Price. The Spurs had Alvin Robertson.
Oh, and the Bulls had some guy named Michael Jordan playing at shooting guard. He was pretty good, too.
I'm not saying that the NBA had more talent back then. In fact, it may have had less. But the talent was dispersed somewhat evenly over the 23 teams and it showed in many ways. The team with the best record - the eventual champion Lakers - won 62 games. This season's Spurs team is on pace for 68. In 1988, all but one team averaged over 100 points per game, with the lone exception being the Clippers who averaged 98.8.
Today only 12 teams average at least 100 points per game, and the Clippers' 1988 scoring average would be in the middle of the pack right now. In the 1988 playoffs, half of the first-round series went the five-game distance, no second round series ended in a sweep (two went the seven-game distance), one of the two conference finals series ended in seven games and so did the NBA Finals.
In the 1988 All-Star Game, the Eastern Conference was represented by eight of its 11 franchises. At last weekend's All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference was represented by just six of its 15 franchises: the Celtics, Heat, Bulls, Hawks, Knicks and Magic, the conference's biggest and/or most appealing places to play.
The NBA has long has parity problems, with only eight franchises claiming a championship in the last 31 years. But at the very least, prior to expansion for the 1988-89 season, about 70 percent of the league's teams were worth seeing. Today? It's fair to say that at least a third - if not more - of the teams aren't worth the price of admission, especially at today's absurdly expensive ticket prices.
NBA commissioner David Stern will point to TV ratings being up across the board, which makes sense considering that many of the league's biggest markets have formed super teams. And I'll be the first to admit that it's thrilling theater to watch the Lakers "Big Three" of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom go up against the Celtics' "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce; or the Heat's "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; or the Bulls' "Big Three" of Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah; or the Knicks' "Big Three" of Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups; or the Spurs' (hardly a big market, of course) "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
But most unfortunately, no one else has a "Big Three," and many don't even have a "Big Two" thanks to the teams and players mentioned above - sans the Spurs - colluding to form super teams. And thus, while we may have a handful of great matchups, we have to balance that with too many bad NBA games on the schedule each night. Now you know why stadiums from Sacramento to Minneapolis to Indianapolis to Philadelphia to Memphis to New Jersey are half empty.
I doubt Stern wants to return to the mid-1960s when the league had less than 10 teams in reasonably large-sized markets. But today, Stern oversees a league with about six or seven "haves" and about 23 or 24 "have-not's." Virtually every small-market NBA team - i.e. the "have-not's" - are rumored to be hemorrhaging money at a clip of tens of millions of dollars annually. Which makes sense, if you consider that their main sources of revenue are their local TV contract, local sponsorship/luxury suite sales and ticket sales. If you're located in a small market you a) have a paltry local TV contract, b) probably don't have enough big businesses to sponsor the team and/or buy up those luxury suites and c) don't have a big enough population to pool from for tickets, especially when a third of your incoming opponents aren't worth watching in the first place.
And yet, these teams, like my Nuggets (who ranked fifth in overall payroll prior to the trade deadline), Jazz (currently fifth in overall payroll), Grizzlies (ninth in overall payroll) and Bucks (10th in overall payroll) are asked to spend north of $65 million in payroll just to remain competitive, nevermind attempting to win a championship. One bad guaranteed contract - in the Nuggets' case, Kenyon Martin; in the Bucks' case, Michael Redd; in the Jazz's case, Andrei Kirilenko - and these small market teams can kiss whatever championship aspirations they have good bye. With Martin's poisonous contract in Denver or AK47's awful contract in Utah, perhaps the Nuggets and Jazz could have surrounded Melo and Boozer/Williams with better talent to compete for a title. Instead, New York and Chicago start looking awfully appealing when the wins and losses will essentially be the same.
Throughout this season, many so-called NBA "experts" have pointed to San Antonio as proof that, like the NFL, simply having good management and good draft acumen can make any franchise successful. That argument doesn't hold water for several reasons. First, in 1997 the Spurs were lucky to land the ping pong ball that turned into Tim Duncan. Secondly, Duncan just happens to be a very quiet, reserved and loyal guy who's not enamored by the bright lights of big cities. Third, the Spurs were able to win championships early enough in Duncan's career for him to have no desire to leave. Had the Cavaliers managed to get a ring within LeBron James's first six seasons, I suspect he'd still be a Cavalier right now.
Having already written extensively about the NBA owners' need to get their own financial house in order before hammering the players with a new collective bargaining agreement, I'm in full agreement with those who want a lockout if that's what it takes to bring some sanity among the players back to my favorite sport. If we need the threat of a franchise tag to limit the Carmelo Anthonys of the NBA world from jumping ship to a bigger market, than so be it. If we need limited guaranteed contracts so small-market franchises don't get crippled by longterm, pricey contracts, than so be it. Hell, I'd even be on board for contraction if it weren't for 29 of the NBA's 30 owners refusing to have their franchises contracted (good luck telling Michael Jordan that we don't need the Bobcats anymore or gabillionaire Glen Taylor that the Timberwolves need to go. They'll be thrilled).
At some point, having 10 full arenas and showing the same 10 teams repeatedly on national television isn't a sustainable model for a 30-team league. We've been blessed with a plethora of great stars in the modern era, evident by the league's leading rebounder, starting point guard on the best regular season team and the seventh-and ninth-leading scorers unable to make the 2011 All-Star team when first voted on by the coaches. But as we go through this lockout, owners and league officials need to make sure those stars are spread around for everyone to enjoy them.
Just like we saw in 1988.