There’s a storm coming in basketball that has been brewing for quite some time. It originates from something far older than myself (or likely anyone else who will read this), but will take on a completely different level of significance in the coming years.
Simply put, there are three types of players in the NBA: the athletically gifted, the basketball savants, and the players that are both. For all intents and purposes, the players that are both (like Lebron, Kobe, and Chris Paul, among others) are not at issue here, but these individuals are few and far between in the league at large. As such, there are essentially two types of players at issue. Now don’t get me wrong, these are not classifications that are clearly separated; there are plenty of shades of gray here, but the aggregate differences are substantial enough to discuss the topic more generally.
One of the biggest issues with sports in my generation is the “ESPNization” of team sports. Simply put, we are living in a world where sports are entertainment (and there’s no argument from me that this is right), but the difference is that the individuals rewarded in terms of endorsements and many of the individual accolades are players whose play values individual success and highlights more than team success. People who care about this issue all have their own favorite example, with mine being Gerald Green, who can make SportsCenter more frequently than he can make a competent team play, which is part of the reason why he’ll keep bouncing from team to team.
That said, coming from an economics background, there is a more important factor that largely gets ignored, which is the economic incentive of this behavior. Certain people complain incessantly about how the game has changed for the worse, but the reason why is far more important because it is impossible to fix the systemic problems without identifying the cause. Simply put, kids growing up at the same time as me saw that they could make significantly more money by focusing on dunks and no-look passes.
And who could blame them? The Michael Jordan that was immortalized was the one who won dunk contests and stuck out the tongue instead of the top-tier defensive player who passed on Finals-clinching shots to give John Paxson and Steve Kerr easier shots to win those games. This isn’t to say that the athletic kids in this world can’t be savvy basketball players; the problem is that they don’t see the benefit from it at a young age, so they work on what will get them on TV. It’s clear that a portion of this blame goes on the sports outlets that glorify elements of the game that lead to the appalling McDonald’s All-American games that we see now, but the responsibility goes in a few other directions as well. We consistently see team owners rewards the players who focus on these elements of the game with disproportionately large contracts (see: Martin, Kenyon) and GM’s overdrafting these kids.