Gladwell-Simmons II: Part 3
We begin Part 3 with Bill addressing Malcolm's question about how to fix the NBA draft.
Now you're just lobbing me softballs. I am a fervent "Every lottery team should have the same odds" believer for two reasons: Not only would it eliminate any incentive to tank down the stretch for a "better" draft pick (really, better odds at a better draft pick), but the current setup penalizes potential franchise players by giving them too much responsibility for carrying inferior teams. A borderline lottery team defied the odds three times: In 1993 with Orlando (the Magic reach the NBA Finals two years later); in 1997 with San Antonio (the Spurs bottom out only because of Robinson's injury, land Tim Duncan, then win the title two years later) and in 2008 with Chicago (the Bulls land Rose, turn into a fringe contender, then give us the best first-round series ever). Was it a bad thing that we turned a half-decent young team into a contender? Did anyone not like how this turned out?
The bigger issue (you already hinted at it): Of all the professional sports, parity hurts the NBA the most. Ideally, you want a league with a distinct upper class and a distinct lower class. The most competitive and fan-friendly stretch in NBA history (1984-93) featured an unapologetic separation between the "haves" and the "have-nots." The strong fed on the weak. For instance, the Showtime Lakers (1979-91) featured THREE foundation guys picked No. 1 overall (Kareem, Worthy and Magic), as well as a former MVP and three-time scoring champ (Bob McAdoo), a No. 4 overall pick (Byron Scott), another No. 1 overall (Mychal Thompson), and other heavy hitters acquired through guile and the stupidity of other teams. Well, the majority of teams aren't as stupid anymore. (Apologies to Chris Wallace.) You can't reload as easily by just stealing someone's best player for nothing. (Again, apologies to Chris Wallace.) So once a contender starts fading, how do they stop the slide?
Look at poor Phoenix, which won 46 games in 2008-09 and barely missed the playoffs. If the Suns had the same odds as everyone else to land Blake Griffin in June, and they did, wouldn't this be good for the league? They'd be an instant contender again! On the flip side, say Griffin goes to the team with the best odds to land him: an awful Sacramento team. Now he's playing with one quality guy (Kevin Martin), two young guys with potential (Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson), a bunch of overpaid stiffs and a new coach who might or might not be good. What does he learn for the next three seasons? How to lose. That's it. Why is that a good thing? And as you mentioned, why should we keep rewarding franchises that are COMPLETELY INCOMPETENT AND DON'T GIVE A CRAP ABOUT THEIR FANS -- namely, the Clippers, Grizzlies, T-Wolves, Warriors and Bucks, among others -- by giving them the best shot at franchise-changing players? Similarly limited teams, such as Indiana or New Jersey, did a better job putting a decent team together and entertaining their fans and they get penalized with inferior lottery odds? That's what I don't get. I would rather see the dregs remain the dregs.
I am currently paying for season tickets to the hopeless Clippers, who deliberately antagonize their fan base with decisions like, "We're going to bring Mike Dunleavy back for a seventh season even though he has the first-ever 0 percent NBA approval rate from our fans." They wouldn't have season-ticket holders if not for the slim hope that one of their annual high lottery picks might land them the next LeBron or Durant. Remove that potential and fans would flee which means the Clippers would either croak as a viable franchise or remain appallingly incompetent forever. Again, are either of those scenarios bad? To have a season with seven or eight loaded playoff teams, don't we need a few horrific teams? (Note: I spelled out the numbers in this 2007 column about the dangers of tanking.) These were my two favorite NBA postseasons from a competitive/entertainment standpoint since my freshman year in college: 1993 and 1988. Notice all the crummy teams? It's not a coincidence. It shouldn't take someone as talented and important as Jordan or LeBron six solid years to finally play with a decent supporting cast. That's why we can't keep rewarding lower classes at the expense of the elite franchises. And if this makes me an NBA Republican, so be it.
Or how about eliminating the draft altogether? I'm at least half-serious here. Think about it. Suppose we let every college player apply for and receive job offers in the same way that, oh, every other human being on the planet does. That doesn't mean that everyone goes to L.A. and New York, because you still have the constraints of the cap. It does mean, though, that both players and teams would have to make an affirmative case for each other's services. So you trade for Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, because they make you instantly attractive to every mobile big man coming out of college. Instead of asking the boring question -- which team is going to be lucky enough to draft Derrick Rose? -- we ask the far more interesting question: Which team, out of every team in the league, should Derrick Rose play for? Or suppose you're the T-Wolves, and you've been a doormat for years. You could say, "From now on we're a clean-living, Christian organization. We have prayer meetings before every game. We are home by 11. We never do drugs." Then you'd have the inside track on every clean-living college basketball player in the country. Are there enough quality religious players out there to win a championship? There must be! (By the way, why has no one ever put together the all-time clean-living starting five? And how great a name for a franchise is the "Minnesota Christians?")
The bigger point here is that what consistently drives me crazy about big-time sports is the assumption that sports occupy their own special universe, in which the normal rules of the marketplace and human psychology don't apply. That's how you get the idea of a reverse-order draft, which violates every known rule of human behavior.
Here's another example: We now have pretty good epidemiological evidence that the long-term health consequences of playing in the National Football League are considerable. The life expectancy for former NFL players is 20 years lower than it is for the general public. Part of that is due to the type of person that plays football. But a big part of that is also due to the consequences of playing football: concussions, and the raft of health issues that come with being obese, which -- let's face it -- the NFL basically requires most players to be. This is the kind of issue that, say, the companies who ran coal mines dealt with 50 years ago. And yet somehow the NFL -- which has a thousand times more resources than coal companies ever did -- gets to pretend this problem doesn't exist. Huh?
Now you're triggering parts of my brain that I didn't know even existed. On the NBA draft: The league needs it because it generates nearly as much interest as anything that happens in the actual season. Remember the awful 2006-07 campaign that featured Tankapalooza '07, the Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspensions, Tim Donaghy's Last Stand, the lamest MVP race ever, the best three guys (Kobe, Wade and LeBron) trapped on bad teams, the least competitive Finals ever; and San Antonio playing hard for four months and somehow cruising to a title? The Durant-Oden debate was significantly more interesting than anything else that happened other than the Warriors-Mavs series, LeBron's 48 Special and the revelation that a crooked referee was working playoff games (only the state of NBA officiating is so horrific that he didn't stand out). Also, if you eliminated the draft, then my annual draft diary would die, and Chad Ford's archives wouldn't be nearly as fun to read. I would miss the draft. Desperately. The easy fix, and the only fix, is to give every lottery team the same odds. Done and done. You also forget that every NBA player wants to live in either Southern California, New York, Phoenix or Florida. So unless you're prepared to put all 30 teams in those four regions, we can't dump the draft.
Back to your point about arrogance and sports leagues: Please tell me you're following the current officiating debacle. The two most-watched regular-season games (both Celtics-Lakers games) were ruined by officials. Game 7 of a classic Boston-Chicago series was ruined by officials. The Mavs' season was ruined by officials. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to flagrant fouls and how they are called, just that the ongoing indecision has compromised the quality of the games. Bill Kennedy had such a heated incident with Doc Rivers in March that both were fined; somehow, Kennedy worked two Boston playoff games (both must-wins on the road). Dallas went 1-14 in its past 15 playoffs games that Danny Crawford officiated; somehow he worked one of their 2009 playoff games (inevitably, a loss for Dallas). Joey Crawford got suspended two years ago for baiting Tim Duncan, then blew last season's season-ending Spurs call and somehow, he worked a must-win San Antonio playoff game in 2009. And the number of competent refs is so bad that Violet Palmer worked a Round 2 game last week. For a league that vowed to clean things up post-Donaghy, why haven't we seen any real results yet?
And how can you explain a system that relies on officials in their 50s and 60s -- well past their physical peak, with undeniable deterioration (however slight) in motor reactions and eyesight -- to successfully perform in a profession that hinges solely on motor reactions and eyesight? Shouldn't this job be performed by people in their 20s, 30s and 40s? You're telling me Dick Bavetta (69), Bennett Salvatore (59) or Joey Crawford (57) can run around for 150 minutes, then remain at peak physical capacity to make a game-changing call on a split-second reaction? My father is two years older than Salvatore and we won't let him push a baby stroller for three blocks. I don't get it. How would you revamp this moronic system? A little birdie told me the NBA's crew chiefs (the lead official for each game) consist of referees who were hired at least 10 years ago. In other words, the league hasn't hired an official competent enough to run a game in more than a decade. How is this possible? You grew up in a country that figured out health care; figure out the NBA's officiating crisis for us.
Before I answer that, can I lodge a complaint? I don't know if readers realize how this has gone. You e-mail me something. I fret and agonize and worry and send something back a day and a half later. Then half an hour passes and a 1,000-word e-mail pops up in my inbox, with the taunting subject line "Back at you." You are basically one of those Doug Moe Denver Nuggets teams from the 1970s, which would put up 85 points in the first half. (By the way, if you're the Nuggets you have to run, right? Just as the team with the most reason to play the no-huddle in football is the Broncos. If you're the team accustomed to playing at altitude, you're crazy not to press that advantage by speeding up the pace of play). Anyway, I'm exhausted. Plus, I'm in the middle of reading the galleys of your new book, which is a quarter of a million words long. I already know how I'd blurb it: "Simmons can score in bunches."
I got nothing on refs, I'm afraid. I guess I would only say that I would always rather see a non-call than a questionable foul, and if having senior citizens as refs is the best path to more non-calls, then so be it. (In Canada, we would not fix this problem, by the way. We would simply nationalize the NBA, which would mean the refs would strike every four years along with the postal workers. Oh, wait, I'm getting my countries mixed up. It's America that would nationalize the NBA.)
I sense that we're running out of time in this exchange, and we still have a zillion things to talk about. Didn't you promise to rule on the question of whether the all-time all-white-guy basketball team could beat the all-time all-black-guy team? (Usual guidelines; six players to a side; any player from the modern era is eligible, and you get him as he played in his best season.) I think the fate of the white guys depends on whether Jason Kidd decides to call himself black or white, because the whites are going to need him to deal with Magic. (As a mixed-race guy myself, I feel uniquely qualified to rule on this.) I'm guessing he goes white, just like those Kenyan runners who move to Denmark to improve their odds of making the Olympics. And what if the whites moved Rick Barry to the 2? That gives them Kidd, Barry, Bird, Sabonis and McHale, with Walton coming off the bench. It's a team that lacks certain basketball-like traits, like defense. But it's at least a game, isn't it? I like this almost as much as I like my idea of the "Minnesota Christians." Incidentally, I think the logo of the Minnesota Christians is that picture of Jesus with long hair you always see on "cool" Bibles, only now he's wearing a headband. When you take over as GM of the Timberwolves, will you hire me as your head of marketing? Please?
Your comparison of my writing to Doug Moe's Nuggets hurts since they never made the NBA Finals. You could have compared me to the '85 Lakers; they averaged 126.5 points in 19 playoff games and won the title. Instead, you compared me to a franchise that tried to contend by playing Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English together when they were the two worst defensive forwards not just in the league but ever in the history of mankind, and I'm including women, children and the four golden retrievers who played Bud in "Air Bud 2." So that hurts. Anyway, I tackled the All-Time Black/White Finals on Page 1,448 of my book in the second footnote. You haven't gotten there yet. Just know that I refuse to count foreigners as white guys, and you can't make me.
Let's wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he's still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel's amp. He alternated between "9" and "10" in the regular season, and he's been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can't shake the feeling that he has an "11" in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that's it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It's a whole other ball game: You aren't just beating teams, you're destroying their will. You never know when you'll see another 11. I'm just glad we're here. End of tangent.) But his relationship with his teammates continues to fascinate me; because of his character and the spirit of the players that surround him, it's like watching a more animated/funny/bombastic version of Duncan's Spurs, or even last season's Boston team. I really get a kick out of them. Only LeBron and Magic could foster a climate like that just by being themselves.
We had lunch a few weeks ago and discussed the parallels between music and basketball. The structure is fundamentally the same: You have a lead singer (the NBA alpha dog, like LeBron or Kobe), the lead guitarist (the sidekick, like Pippen or McHale), the drummer (an unsung third wheel, like Parish or Worthy), the bassist (a solid, reliable and ultimately disposable role player: like Byron Scott or Anderson Varejao); and then everyone else (the other rotation guys). Bands can go different ways just like successful basketball teams. McCartney and Lennon were two geniuses who ultimately needed one another (like Young Magic and Older Kareem, or Shaq and Young Kobe), whereas MJ and LeBron were more like Sting or Springsteen (someone who could carry the band by themselves). And if you want to drag hip-hop or rap into it, the best parallel would obviously be Jordan's post-baseball Bulls: MJ was Chuck D, Pippen was Terminator X, and there is no effing doubt that Rodman was Flavor Flav.
But you mentioned watching a documentary about the Police and realizing that Sting carried that band; the others were talented in their own right, only it bugged the hell out of them that Sting was better, and he was a blowhard to boot, so that led to many of their problems (and the band's ultimate demise). Then you look at U2: same four guys grow up together with a natural pecking order in place; everyone understands their own limitations; everyone gets that Bono is the alpha dog; and really, over everything else, that explains why they have chugged along for three solid decades without ever breaking up. (Hell, none of them ever even made a solo album. They were and are a band. Period.) Well, I thought about this. I analyzed it from every angle. And in my opinion, LeBron has a chance to be U2 or Springsteen in Cleveland. Now that he's winning, and now that the Cavs know how to build around his personality -- in a nutshell, finding complementary players who won't be threatened by him, enjoy basketball, enjoy life and aren't afraid of failing -- this could just go on and on for as long as he wants. Other stars will take less to play with him. Older players will take the minimum just to play with them for one season. Basically, it will be like Bruce deciding, "Hey guys, we're going on tour again," and the rest of the E Streeters dropping whatever they were doing to join him. Why? Because you don't turn down Bruce Springsteen. I don't believe LeBron can replicate Jordan's force of personality, and I don't think he can match his ferocious day-to-day competitiveness, because nobody can. But he's more fun to play basketball with, and he's more fun to hang out with. Like a cross between Jordan and Magic, if you will.
Considering LeBron is only 24 right now, considering how indestructible he is I mean, where in God's name is this going? We always hear the word "genius" thrown around. Hell, B.J. Armstrong read up on geniuses once just to figure out how to play with Michael Jordan. Is there a certain genius in LeBron's ability not just to play basketball, but to connect with teammates? And are there parallels to Springsteen and Bono? Where do you see this headed? Those are my last three questions for you before you can return to feeding strawberries to Anne Hathaway on your yacht.
It actually wasn't a documentary on the Police. It was Elvis Costello interviewing the Police on "Spectacle" on Bravo (airs on Sundance channel in the U.S.), which might be the most entertaining show on television. I never was much of a Police fan, but the show reminded me of several things. First, they had way more great songs than I had remembered. Second: Stewart Copeland? Lunatic! (I'm reminded of the fact that a couple of years ago I read this great memoir from an old CIA hand. It had all kinds of completely amazing stories about his time with the CIA's precursor -- the OSS -- during World War II. So I called up this intelligence expert in England and asked him whether the stories were true. "That book?" he said, and I could literally hear him rolling his eyes. The ex-spy who wrote "that book," by the way, was Miles Copeland, father of Stewart. Nuttiness runs in that family.) And then there's Sting: Way better-looking, cooler, smarter and more charming than I had remembered. But he so obviously loathed Copeland, and Copeland so obviously loathed him, that halfway through the interview you realize that even being in the biggest and most successful rock band of your era isn't enough to make you want to stay together.
And that's the thing I worry about with LeBron. You say that this could go on for as long as he wants, but the truth is these things rarely go on for as long as anyone wants. U2 is a weird exception. In most cases, John turns on Paul, Axl gets fat and Kurt Cobain commits suicide. In your book, you talk about McHale's decision to keep playing the '87 playoffs with a broken foot, and how he was never really the same after that. A lesser player sits out. But the act of prudence and selfishness that prolongs the lesser player's career is why that person is a lesser player: If McHale puts his foot ahead of the interests of his team, he's not McHale, is he? I wonder if the kind of passion necessary for greatness inevitably limits someone's time at the top.
I've just been reading several of the books that were written about the fall of Bear Stearns, and those books illustrate another side of this story. Bear Stearns didn't fail because the employees were incompetent, because they weren't good at what they do. They failed because they were good at what they do. They were so successful for so long that they grew overconfident and arrogant and complacent. The biggest obstacle to success is success. My biggest worry for LeBron is that he wins the title this season. And if he wins again next year, and the year after that, then what do you have? A guy still in his mid-20s who has already done it all, and has no reason to doubt his own skills and judgments, ever. You'll bring him in as a free agent when you become GM of the Minnesota Christians and team him up with Larry Bird's nephew and two 5-foot-9 "character guys" from Holy Cross, and it'll all be downhill from there. Mark my words.
It has been fun, Bill. Let's do this again in four years, when I'm finally recovered.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.