The NBA thrives when greatness emerges

NBA.com Global on Jul 10, 2018 08:49 AM
The NBA thrives when greatness emerges
FILE - Members of the Golden State Warriors gather before the start of the team's NBA basketball championship parade, Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

In 1988, Mike Tyson fought Michael Spinks for the heavyweight championship of the world.

At that time, Tyson was 34-0, at the peak of his destructive, malevolent powers. He’d just annihilated his previous two opponents, former champ Larry Holmes (fourth-round knockout, and the only time Holmes was KOed in his celebrated career) and Tony Tubbs (TKO, second round). At that point in his career, Tyson had knocked out or TKOed 30 of his 34 opponents. He was brutal, unsentimental and foreboding when it came to his business. The fear in the eyes of his opponents as they climbed into the ring with him was palpable.

Tyson’s violent past -- his time spent robbing and assaulting people in Brooklyn until he fell under the tutelage of the late trainer Cus D’Amato -- seemed to be well-suited for his profession.

“My mission,” Tyson said in his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant after dispatching Tubbs, “is to go and destroy, and not to let anything get involved. You get punched, you get hurt. I refuse to be hurt, knocked down or knocked out. I can’t lose. I refuse to lose.”

Spinks had plenty of thunder in his gloves, too -- he’d just knocked out Gerry Cooney in the fifth round of his last fight before fighting Tyson. And he was undefeated as well at 31-0. But Spinks had been a light heavyweight before moving up to the heavyweight division; he’d famously put on weight before his fight with Larry Holmes by training with Mackie Shilstone two years prior, eating fruits and wheat, lifting weights and doing sprints instead of the traditional miles-long runs boxers undertook to make weight.

And while Spinks was no choir boy himself growing up in St. Louis -- “I embarrassed my mom a lot,” he told The New York Times in 1982, early in his pro career -- he’d straightened himself out, teaming with his more famous brother, Leon, to win a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics.

"I grabbed myself before it was too late," he told The Times. "I asked for the only reality that could help me, and that was a supreme being, the Good Lord. The Good Lord was the only thing that I had to depend on to give me the confidence in myself to accomplish this feat I was challenging. And this challenge was me. I was trying to beat me. In the Bible, it says that the worst enemy you have in the world is yourself."

These two forces climbed into the ring against one another on June 27, 1988. I was at the Capital Centre in suburban Maryland, which was one of the venues showing the fight on what was then known as “closed circuit” TV. Basically, if you wanted to see the fight live, you had to go to an arena and pay to see it. (There were a handful of cable companies around the country that were showing the fight on what is now the traditional pay-per-view model. One of them was co-owned by the late, great Lakers owner, Jerry Buss. Would you believe much of the country didn’t yet have cable?)

Anyway, I was covering the fight for The Washington Post. Of course, I wasn’t at the fight, which was in Atlantic City; I was there to document the reaction of fans to the fight, however it went.

It went quickly.

Tyson inhaled Spinks in about a minute and a half, sending him to the canvas for a first-round knockdown off a vicious left hand cross followed by a right to the body. Spinks, who’d looked like he’d rather have been anywhere else before the fight began -- “he has a look of concern,” said announcer Bob Sheridan as Spinks walked toward the ring -- popped up at the count of three, got the standard “are you okay?” inquiry from the referee, then waded back into battle, looking, quite reasonably, to duck. Unfortunately, as he lowered his head, Tyson brought an uppercut somewhere from the Catskills, which hit Spinks square in the noggin. Fans -- I am not kidding -- started racing for the exits at Cap Centre before Spinks’ butt hit the canvas.

And not a one of them, as best I can recall, said he or she was disappointed, or angry, at the lack of competition. No one said that it was so unfair that Tyson was so good, and his opponents so intimidated and queasy in the ring with him. No one said they didn’t get their money’s worth in 91 seconds’ worth of action.

No one said Tyson’s obvious dominance over the heavyweight division was bad for boxing.

* * *

Thirty years have passed since that night. But while boxing has since lost much of its luster and significance amongst much of the sporting public -- the occasional Floyd Mayweather event notwithstanding -- the NBA hasn’t. In fact, by almost every metric, the NBA is as popular a sport as it’s ever been, despite the Golden State Warriors clearly being the best team in the league, having won three of the last four NBA titles.

This was not the context in which many around the NBA greeted the news last week that the Warriors were going to sign DeMarcus Cousins, the All-Star free agent center. Cousins cold-called Golden State after not finding any offers to his liking on the first day of the free agent negotiating period. The Warriors were stunned -- “it came out of nowhere,” one member of the organization said -- but they quickly agreed to a one-year deal with Cousins for a little more than $5 million, the taxpayer exception.

Players on other teams took the unusual step of publicly decrying the perceived increase in the Warriors’ advantages on the floor by adding Cousins, he of the career 21.5 points and 11 rebounds per game -- no matter that almost no one other than him expects he’ll be back on the floor any time soon to the start of next season.

And some fans, of course, took to social media in a 24/7 howl of angst at how unfair it all was, and didn’t Adam Silver have to do something about this, and that the Warriors had “ruined” basketball, and how no one would watch the NBA next season ... just like they said nobody would watch the NBA this past season.

Television ratings for Finals games were higher during the Jordan years, to be sure, and they were higher the last two years before this year’s 4-0 Golden State sweep. But there was no mass exodus of viewers during what became a fourth straight Warriors-Cavaliers Finals -- this one with almost no drama or memorable moments after the bang-bang block on LeBron James and J.R. Smith’s mental implosion in Game 1. (The sweep also muted, for at least one June, the annual convention of the Tinfoil Society, which sees every Finals as an opportunity to test out their latest ref conspiracy/league-fixing theories. What happened this year, folks? Did the NBA not need to ensure The Finals went seven games by making sure the ball was filled with boron whenever Kevin Durant had the rock?)

But what of “competitive balance,” which the league went to great pains during the last lockout to signal was in peril if the former economic system was not radically fixed? The creation of the “supermax” deal for home grown players, ratcheting up the repeater tax, hard-capping teams that went above the luxury tax apron, limiting sign and trade deals -- all of these tools were supposed to make it impossible for elite teams to hoard great players, and spread difference-making talent around the league.

How’s that working out so far?

We have used significant bandwidth over the years knocking the myth of competitive balance in the NBA out of the sky, but it appears a refresher is in order.

Once again: the NBA, with one brief exception, has never had competitive balance at any point in its 72-year history. Never. The league’s first great player, George Mikan, anchored the league’s first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers, which won five of the league’s first eight championships. The NBA has been, and always will be, a league in which the very best players tend to win championships, and continue to do so through the meat of their careers.

Once again: eight franchises -- the Boston Celtics (17 championships), the Lakers (16, in Minnesota and L.A.), the Chicago Bulls (6), the Warriors (6, in Philadelphia and Golden State), the San Antonio Spurs (5), the 76ers (4, in Syracuse and Philadelphia), the Detroit Pistons (3) and Miami Heat (3) -- have won 60 of the 72 titles in the history of the league. I wasn’t a math major in college, but my calculator reports that 60 out of 72 is, roughly, 83.3 percent.

So, to repeat: eight teams have won 83.3 percent of all the championships in the history of the NBA. There are currently 30 teams in the NBA. That leaves 12 more titles for the other 22 franchises over 72 years (I am not including the 17 franchises that folded in the early days of the league, all of which were defunct by 1954).

Once again: there was only one period in the history of the league that was, relatively, democratic, in the sense that there was no obvious dynasty dominating the game. From 1970-80, eight teams split up the titles: the Milwaukee Bucks (1971), the Lakers ('72 and '80), the New York Knicks ('70 and '73), the Celtics ('74 and '76), the Warriors ('75), the Portland Trail Blazers ('77), the Washington Bullets ('78) and the Seattle SuperSonics ('79).

And that decade was so successful, so beloved by fans, so consumed by viewers that never knew who was going to win a title in a given season ... that the NBA had to put its playoffs and Finals on tape delay to run at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time.

When the NBA had no dynasties ... You. Didn’t. Watch.

(And, before you start making excuses, there were plenty of future Hall of Famers in the game then: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Gervin, Bill Walton, Rick Barry, Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Pete Maravich, David Thompson, Wes Unseld, Calvin Murphy, Bob Lanier and more.)

Fans say they want parity. What they really want is to be able to watch great teams like the Warriors with familiar household names: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Just as they watched Magic Johnson’s Lakers against Larry Bird’s Celtics, and watched Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson, over and over and over.

Some have blamed the Warriors’ hegemony on the players’ union, for not accepting the league’s “smoothing’ proposal in 2016, that would have rolled in the increase in revenues -- mainly driven by the then-new $24 billion national television deal -- gradually, rather than all at once. When the union rejected the smoothing concept, the cap spiked from $70 million in 2015 to $94.1 million in 2016, creating cap room for almost every team in the league, including the Warriors -- who otherwise would never have had the financial wherewithal to sign Durant.

I was not aware Michele Roberts held a machete to Laker management’s neck at or near July 1, 2016, when the Lakers agreed to pay Timofey Mozgov $64 million and Luol Deng $72 million.

The Lakers had the room to sign Durant, like everyone else. But they signed Mozgov and Deng. The Hornets had the room to sign Durant. But they re-signed Nicolas Batum. The Wizards had the room to sign Durant. But they signed Ian Mahinmi and Andrew Nicholson. The Magic had the room to sign Durant. But they signed Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin. (The Magic traded Biyombo to the Hornets yesterday as part of a three-team deal that moved Mozgov to Orlando.)

The Celtics, too, had the room to sign Durant. They signed Al Horford.

Cue "Sesame Street."

The Celtics weren’t yet a budding powerhouse when they signed Horford. They were a good team on the rise, but nothing that scared people. One could make the case that the Wizards were a more compelling team in the East at the time. But Boston got Horford, and Washington didn’t. It was close as Horford almost signed with the Wizards. But no one cares about close.

This wasn’t, and isn’t about smoothing. It’s about decisions. It’s always about decisions.

NBA owners have proven, consistently over decades, that there is no economic system that can be devised that will check their competitive nature -- or for their okaying really, really bad basketball decisions. And today’s NBA owners, especially the new breed of venture capitalists/hedge fund guys, are even more competitive, willing to be Processed only for so long before they again start spending like there’s no tomorrow.

Consider: six years ago, Oklahoma City was excoriated when it traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets, in large part because Thunder ownership was not willing to go into the luxury tax to keep its team together. Five years later, OKC is the first team in league history that crossed the $300 million mark in salary and projected tax payments for 2019. The tax payment portion will be cut by almost $100 million when the Thunder stretches Carmelo Anthony’s contract, but OKC’s still staring down $60 million in tax payments after getting Paul George to join Russell Westbrook in a long-term commitment.

Under the current system, everyone has to spend. But you still have to spend on the right people.

The Rockets have given James Harden two contracts since 2016 that will total $228 million, and just gave Chris Paul a new $160 million max deal. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns have each made perfectly reasonable decisions to give extensions to their young stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo ($100 million in 2016) and Devin Booker ($158 million, this past weekend). The Wizards have paid premium costs to maintain backcourt continuity with their two All-Stars, John Wall ($204 million extension) and Bradley Beal ($128 million). The Indiana Pacers' ownership is famous for avoiding the tax at all costs, but the Pacers took on Victor Oladipo’s $84 million extension when they traded for him and Domantas Sabonis in the Paul George deal last summer.

Whatever you think of Dan Gilbert, he came out of pocket again and again the last four years to keep James surrounded by good players -- much better ones than in his first go-round in Cleveland. Warriors owner Joe Lacob may drive everyone around the league batty with his “light years ahead” bravado, but he’s backing it up with his treasure -- privately funding the $1 billion Chase Center in downtown San Francisco while going deep into the tax to keep his championship roster intact.

And we haven’t really seen what the league’s richest owner, the LA Clippers’ Steve Ballmer, is willing to do in Los Angeles. He presided over the teardown of "Lob City" in order for his team to be a significant player in the 2019 market, but has already spent millions upgrading offices and team facilities -- and paid top dollar to get Jerry West to leave the Warriors and join him as a consultant.

Conversely, the Kings decided not to give DeMarcus Cousins a $200 million extension in 2017, trading him instead to the Pelicans. Which is where we came in.

Cousins said no one offered him anything when free agency started, so he cold called the Dubs, looking for a gig. If so ... what are we arguing about? A guy was unemployed. No one was hiring him. He thought he could still do the work. He called a shop with a spot that he thought could use him. They agreed to hire him. No one else did. The End.

Nobody made Michael Spinks get in that ring with Mike Tyson. He made a decision, one whose central essence has been amplified over the years by one Richard Morgan Fleihr, from Memphis Tennessee. Mr. Fleihr is somewhat famous for his animated take on life.

If you want to be the man, Mr. Fleihr says, you got to beat the man.

Whining about how unfair it was that the man had all the talent on his side was nowhere mentioned.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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