Putting the AAU in NBA: While We're Waiting...

Kevin Durant went and signed with buddies to beat up on people in the NBA's biggest tournament. Why are we surprised? And, how can the NBA recover?

Mornin' y'all. Hope this Wednesday finds you in the highest of spirits with the wind forever at your back. Odds are you are feeling a bit of a headwind if you happen to be a fan of the NBA but not of the Golden State Warriors. So while I am still satisfied with my decision to only follow the NBA and Cleveland Cavaliers casually, I do commisserate with those who still have passion for the sport.

I'm curious Mr. Adam Silver. Why would anyone not in the Bay area, Cleveland, San Antonio, or I guess Los Angeles (Clippers) watch the NBA next season? Or, is the NBA's goal to make everyone a casual fan? If so, then why schedule any games that do not include those teams?

Ring Culture

We have developed a culture where only winning a championship matters. In fact, the entire regular season lead into the NBA postseason can be an insufferable display of negativity if the fans believe at any one point in time that their team is not the odds-on favorite to win a championship. This axis holds even when that particular team is working its way through the regular season towards a No. 1 overall seed in their conference (i.e. the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers). Any negativity that is built upon a player or team dissipates, however, the moment the Larry O'Brien is placed within their trophy case (i.e. LeBron James and the Miami Heat).

Elder statesman of the NBA have always been afforded the public acceptance to chase a ring during the twilight of their careers. Whether Charles Barkely, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, or Richard Jefferson, the possibility of obtaining a ring through someone else's team late in their career was considered an opportunity earned through years of striving to do it on their own. However, it should not be a shock that having such an emphasis on the championship or bust mantra has shifted the focus for players to attempt to do so earlier in their careers.

From AAU to NBA

This Ring Culture then manifests itself into the present day NBA when it combines with the AAU basketball culture where the players see themselves just as much as friends as they do rivals. In the world of AAU basketball, the best players often team up together to simply dominate the competition through ridiculous imbalance of talent. perhaps it was only a matter of time that these players decided to team up in the NBA as they did in AAU. Why work and develop and build a culture from scratch? That takes an incredible amount of hard work and there is no guarantee of obtaining the only thing that now matters: A ring. In fact, teaming up a bunch of superstars together might now be the ONLY way of obtaining that top goal as no amount of grit and hard work can overcome top-end talent in a the grueling sets of seven-game series that is the NBA postseason (i.e. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics or Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks).

Once LeBron and the Heatles set the standard in 2010, the fallout since The Decision is merely an escalation. To beat a super team, you have to be a super team. Of course, even that decision was an escalation to the Boston Celtics' and Los Angeles Lakers' unbalanced trades before it. Then, the icing on top is the current influx in cap room across the NBA made even easier because the monetary difference in contracts between Durant and Harrison Barnes is nowhere near as close to the difference in level of play on the court.

Compartmentalizing in the social media world

Haters gonna hate, hate, hate is a refrain embedded into all professional athletes upon their entry into the entertainment world. With social media trolling among the most prevalent forms of fandom, the only way for an athlete to wade into the murky waters of public interaction is to do so with blinders on towards anyone being overtly negative towards them. Add in MSM shows such as First Take and Pardon the Interruption that bring screaming talk radio to the television sets, and is it really a surprise that athletes just ignore what others say?

Separating the rational from the irrational takes is too complex and nuanced a task in an environment that has praise and discouragement rise and fall more than the tides of the sea. So, most athletes have figured out how to compartmentalize their feelings on social media and focus on themselves in their decisions. There is nothing morally wrong with this process of decision-making, but there is something that certainly hurts the league as a whole.

Hope as a commodity

There are a few teams that dominate not unlike the really old school Lakers and Celtics. OK. But, there are 26 other teams in the league. And really, Chris Paul has won fewer playoff series than Kyrie Irving, and Blake Griffin injuried himself assaulting a Clippers employee, so I am not sure that Doc Rivers' team can truly be placed among the actual contenders. The NBA needs to sell hope as a commodity to the fans of those franchises because fans without hope do not buy season ticket packages, NBA League Pass subscriptions, and team merchandise. The NBA is getting itself into a tough corner of the sports landscape where they come off as a snake oil salesman if they attempt to state any team has a chance at glory in their league.

A fanbase with a team on the rise that has their own superstar must now cheer to root out a star player from a rival before another team steals away their star. Teams such as the Portland Trailblazers. There is a ticking timebomb on the process now, so instead of draft picks or young players being developed, a huge trade or a free agency lottery ticket must be had instead. And, if elite players are not drawn to your star or team, then you are out of luck. Just ask the...oh wait, the Blazers as LaMarcus Aldridge left them to join the San Antonio Spurs. fanbase with a terrible team must hope to utilize the team-controlled years of top NBA draft picks to develop quickly enough to be used to lure other top players to their market. However, even the best draft picks often take years to figure out how to properly play at a championship level especially when surrounded with a moribund team that was capable of selecting high enough in the draft to take them in the first place. Remember that ticking time bomb? Well, it ticks louder and faster when you do have a superstar. And, if you are stuck with an Anthony Bennett draft, then the silence of the ticking is only equalled by the silence in your arena during games.

Finally, the worst case is reserved for those in a fanbase of a team who is good, but not good enough. A collection of good talent, but without a superstar for the guillotine is coming for them. Either their star player will leave to join one of the super teams across the NBA landscape (i.e. Al Horford, Hawks) or they will pay one of their good players as if he were a superstar, which will handcuff them from adding elite talent (i.e. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies). In past times, making the playoffs each season and winning more games than they lost would be considered acceptable and somewhat fun for their fans to enjoy. However, there will be no championshp for those teams and they know it, which mitigates their source of hope in a ring cultured world.

Upcoming CBA negotiations

So, remember when Dan Gilbert stomped his feet and yelled loudly to fight for the smaller markets? Well, Gilbert will likely sit on the other side of the owner's table in the upcoming talks, but there will be plenty of teams who see the current landscape and realize they must do something in order to maintain their relevance in the NBA. Whether or not these owners can find a leader and a voice during this round will likely determine how brutal the talks go. Can the players and all different sects of owners find a solution to divide the huge pile of money without a lockout, but also re-delivering hope to the each franchise?

Last Word

For Cleveland, there will come a day when LeBron James retires or leaves and the reserved place at the Have Not table is utilized. Those are years away and the championship won means more today than it did last week with the moves by Golden State. Sure, anything can happen in the NBA Playoffs (or so you might be told), but most have a pretty good idea that the regular season is just about going through the motions to allow the few teams with any real aspiration at winning a title some practice time to work out the kinks. And, even if the Warriors have closed the window on future championships, Cleveland still got one and they cannot take it away.

Blues song

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