What the NBA has learned this decade
When I think of how the nation changed this decade, I consider the cars in my town, and I think back to the day several years ago when I saw a Hummer with a personalized license plate that claimed "8 MPG" -- as if the owner were proud of eradicating the earth's natural resources one block at a time. I thought of that guy when gas prices hit $4 a gallon, and wondered whether he still felt that way, or whether he begged for mercy and swapped his Hummer for a Prius. Even if he didn't, enough others felt that way to drop Hummer sales by 85 percent this year.
The NBA, just like the rest of America, is capable of learning, even if it sometimes requires a good deal of error amid the trials. This was the decade we discovered that gas-devouring SUVs aren't so cool when you're paying $4 a gallon at the pump, we learned not to throw all of our investment dollars in a company just because it had dot-com in the name, we found out that green-lighting mortgages for homeowners already deep in debt isn't such a bright idea, and the NBA realized it's not wise to become infatuated with players just because they have foreign names or to lavish huge contracts on centers who can't get you a double-double.
Fiscal responsibility became the league's focal point by the end of the '00s, whether it was saving salary-cap space for the 2010 free-agent market or trying to save a franchise from bankruptcy. One team executive estimated that up to 70 percent of trades are now made for financial reasons.
The same way that Wall Street wizards will have to explain how Pets.com could raise $82.5 million in its initial public offering in 2000, we can only shake our heads as we look back at some of the contracts given out earlier in the decade: $84 million for Zach Randolph, $86 million for Andrei Kirilenko, $80 million for Mike Bibby, $85 million for Steve Francis, $126 million for Jermaine O'Neal, $91 million for Kenyon Martin, $73 million for Erick Dampier.
You could look at Bibby as an example of how drastically things have changed; the contract he signed this summer was for $18 million over three years. Ben Gordon got the biggest deal this past offseason, at $55 million. Some of the reductions are due to a different collective bargaining agreement, but there's also a noted change in philosophy. No longer is being the best player on your team enough to get you a max contract. Owners and general managers will still find ways to overpay players, but as one agent said, the challenge now is to get $4 million for a guy worth $2 million a year, not to get a pretty good player a contract that will load up the trust fund for his unborn grandchildren.
Even as recently as 2008 Gilbert Arenas was able to get $111 million from the Washington Wizards, who were actually willing to give him an additional $16 million if he wanted it despite a knee that required surgeries (yes, plural). The telltale moment of 2009 was when Carlos Boozer decided not to opt out of the final year of his contract. Boozer was coming off a down year, but he still averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds, similar to the numbers Elton Brand put up in only eight games in an injury-marred season the year before. But while Brand landed a five-year, $80 million contract in 2008 (an average of $16 million a year), Boozer's read of the market told him he wouldn't be able to do better than the $12 million he had coming his way this season -- in other words, about the same amount Wally Szczerbiak made in 2006-07. Clearly, this wasn't then.
Spending is out. A recent Wall Street Journal graphic showed that the average American's debt ratio dropped below 18 percent this year after soaring from 17 percent to 19 percent in the first seven years of the decade. Even the Lakers, the NBA's most valuable organization according to Forbes, made Lamar Odom (a vital piece of their championship team) wait around and finally come back on what amounted to the Lakers' terms: $27 million guaranteed.
The good news for NBA fans is that we probably won't see teams load up their rosters with expensive players that spell salary-cap doom the way the Knicks did this past decade. The newer model is the Houston Rockets and their statistics-based approach. They're perfectly willing to acquire underpriced assets and now apparently willing to jettison their expensive superstar. Wouldn't you rather watch this Rockets squad overachieve than be subjected to what Knicks fans experienced the past decade?
The fans are the biggest winners going forward. The players can't expect exorbitant salaries, and the owners can't count on a huge appreciation in value for their franchises, but the fans are getting a better product. The eradication of the zone-defense rules and the elimination of hand checking have opened up the game.
As one coach said, "There's less boring, back-down, isolation basketball. More ball movement. A greater display of skill and team play."
With zone defenses, the offense often requires a second playmaker on the court to be able to attack from different spots. It has also brought an emphasis on outside shooting. For the first seven years after the NBA adopted the 3-point shot in 1979, the average team attempted only two to three long-distance shots per game. The past three seasons, it's been used more than ever, up to an average of 18 times per game. Teams still go inside-out, but now it's way out, best evidenced by the Orlando Magic.
"It's a necessary by-product of the style of our game," the coach said. "It opens up space to drive. It's become an extremely potent weapon."
Last season, the league scoring average was 100 points per game for the first time since 1994-95. But the best development of all is that the small player is as important as ever. Teams are forced to actually scout players, not just select based on measurements from the predraft camp. In the first draft of this decade, 2000, the first seven players selected were all at least 6-8; Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer and DerMarr Johnson are out of the league, while second-rounders such as Michael Redd and Eddie House are still around. In 2001, six of the top eight picks were at least 6-10. And in 2002, 10 lottery picks were 6-9 or taller.
This year, five of the top seven picks were 6-foot-5 or shorter, and you can bet the Knicks wish they'd made it six of eight and taken Brandon Jennings instead of Jordan Hill. And if the draft were held over again, you probably wouldn't see Hasheem Thabeet go second ahead of Tyreke Evans.
We have learned, but we haven't convinced everyone yet. After all, you still see a few Hummers on the road.