Friday, May 29, 2009

When Amazing Happens from 15 Feet

The NBA's playoff ad campaign is brilliant: a pianist plays stark thirds, an empty basketball court and arena slowly (thanks to a reverse-CGI) filled to life with Kobe to Shaq...Bird's steal...Magic's Junior Sky-hook.

There's one other "Amazing" highlight that brings the NBA's past to its future: Dr. J's swoop. For NBA fans of a certain age, it defined all that basketball could be -- power, mid-air acrobatics, and grace. That moment was seared -- thanks to countless replays -- on the mind of millions.

But who saw it live? Only the 18,000 or so in Philadelphia's Spectrum who were in attendance for Game Four of the 1980 Finals. For everyone else, the 1980 Finals were consigned to late night television -- speaking of amazing -- on 'tape delay.'

The NBA of the late 1970s was a much different league than the one declared "Fannnn-tastic" just a few years later. It was a league that had gone through the 1970s built on terrific teams (the post-Russell Celtics, Knicks, and Lakers in the first half of the decade, the immortal Blazers in 1977), but after the ABA merger, it was a with little defense, little charisma, and little fan support (the 1979-80 Lakers drew 582,882, good for 3rd in the League; the Lakers this season drew 778,877, a 33% increase in numbers, good for 8th in the League.)

But presented with two well-known (thanks to the 1979 NCAA Final) and marketable stars -- Magic and Bird -- the NBA turned to a star-based system. The teams became identified by single players, and thanks to the leadership of the two most prominent; renewed interest in college basketball created interest in the pro game, culminating with the 1984 draft (3 of the top 5 players were eventual Hall of Famers, highlighted by His Airness, and the other was Sam Perkins, who played in 1286 games(*)) and interest and attendance spiked, from 450,331 (10,983 per game) in 1979-80 to 641,616 (15,649 per game) ten years later.

(*-While NBA games played is not the only measure of a player to be sure, it's more games than every player drafted at #4 from 1985 to 1994 (Rasheed Wallace was the #4 in 1995, and he's still active. Inserting footnotes in the text -- Hat tip to Joe Pos.)

But as teams -- and marketing campaigns -- were built around stars, the league had to make some tricky choices. Fans came out to the stadium to see Michael, Dominique, and Isiah, and it wasn't doing anyone any good to see them on the bench with foul trouble.

More important -- and more ominous for the integrity of refereeing -- stars became subject to kid glove treatment. In 1979-80, the top five in free throws attempted were Moses Malone (#1), World B. Free, Dan Issel, John Drew, and Reggie Theus. Malone and Issel were legitimate stars (both are in the Hall of Fame), but the other three were good, but not great players who played in a total of 5 All-Star Games.

Contrast with 1989-90, where the top five in FTA is dominated by Hall of Famers (Karl Malone, David Robinson, the Chuckster, Jordan and Patrick Ewing.)(**) FTA per game were also up slightly during the period, from 56 per game in 1979-80 to 57 per game in 1989-90, although defenses were becoming more physical in the era of the Detroit Bad Boys.

(**- Analysis of one year's top 5 FTA may not make the argument airtight, but here's top 5/FTA in 1978-79: Free, Malone (HOF), George McGinnis, Cedric Maxwell, and Drew; here's 1988-89: Karl Malone, Barkley, Jordan, Moses Malone, and Hakeem, all HoFers)

Here's another set of data: in 1977, Dr. J led the NBA in playoff FTA with 7.05 per game (134 in 19 games; in 1978, Dennis Johnson led with 7.22 FTA per playoff game (159/22 games); in 1979, it was Elvin Hayes with 6.84 FTA per playoff game (130/19 games).

In 1987, Bird led the league with 8.39 FTA per playoff game (193 FTA in 23 games); in 1988, it was Adrian Dantley with 7.73 FTA per playoff game (178/23 games); in 1989, it was Jordan with 13.47 FTA per playoff game (229/17 games).

In 2007, LBJ led with 9.8 FTA per playoff game (196/20 games); in 2008, it was Kobe with 9.23 (194/21 games); and currently LBJ leads with 14.5 FTA (188/13 games).

Weighted averages among the leaders: 1977-79 = 7.05 FTA per playoff game; 1987-89 = 9.52 FTA per playoff game; and in 2007-09 = 10.70 FTA per playoff game.

But by focusing on stars, and protecting them around the basket, the NBA turned into a multiple-rule league: one set of rules for regular season; and one for the playoffs had long been established. But by allowing stars to roam free -- and rewarding them with trips to the line, the NBA went down the road of creating "stars" and rewarding them. The trend has continued to the present day with the ultimate peak (nadir?) being reached in the 2006 Finals, when Deee-wayne Wade put the refs in his Fave Five with 97 FTA in the 6 game Finals.

So while getting refs younger or more in shape or less subject to home crowds may help alleviate some of the criticism that the calls are getting throughout the Internets, its also true that the double-standard has yet to be addressed, and is argubly getting worse.

So it wasn't just that LBJ got bailed out at the end of regulation in Game Four in Orlando; it's that he knew he would.

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