Monday, March 26, 2007

In the May 22, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, Jon Landau famously wrote: "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." We haven't seen the future of the NBA yet, but we will this weekend. It really doesn't matter, either, who ends up winning this year's NCAA championship. What does matter, for the future of the NBA, is that we'll see if Roy Hibbert can be the rival Greg Oden needs to save the NBA on Saturday.

Make no mistake about it. The NBA needs salvation desperately. Ratings peaked in 1998, and they show no signs of getting back to that level any time soon. There is even a great deal of consternation in some circles that Major League Baseball has scheduled a game between the Red Sox and the Yankees up against an opening round playoff basketball game. Can you imagine the NFL fearing to schedule a playoff game against another sport's regular season game?

Anybody who tells you that the NBA's ratings are falling because of the hip hop culture or mainstream white Americans turning away from it are full of sanctimony and not correct. At the end of the day, people want one thing, and one thing only from sports. It isn't cultural commentary or the world of yesteryear. People could care less about how long the player's shorts are, what kind of music they listen to or what they wear. They want to see good basketball and nothing more.

The ratings are falling because basketball is not being played the way it was intended by Dr. Naismith. Basketball is not being played the way the Russell era Celtics played it. Basketball is not being played the way the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s played it. And it's not really being played the way Jordan played it.

In a sense, it's Jordan's fault that the ratings are falling. And not because he retired and came back and retired again. The NBA Finals which enjoyed the highest rating of all time was the 1998 series which featured the Jordan Bulls against the Utah Jazz. Jordan won the series with the famous, iconic isolation play (where he may or may not have fouled Byron Russell). And since that play, that has become the core of most team's offense in crunch time.

Look at the end of the Laker game against the Warriors. Kobe Bryant dribbled and dribbled through the defense until he had an opening to take the winning shot. Yes, he made it and the Lakers won their fifth straight game. But that's not basketball. Maybe his teammates aren't very good. But a professional basketball player ought to be given a chance to make the last shot.

Who really wants to see four grown men who are extremely well paid stand around and watch one guy dribble through a crowd? That's not worth the price of admission. That's junior high basketball. Or worse, the one bigger kid playing on the playground with his little brother and his friends.

Oden can save the NBA because he'll give a team a dimension no team has had in a long time, not even Miami - a true center. Shaq doesn't really count any more, as age and his bulk have limited his minutes and his effectiveness over the last few years of his career. He can only play with full on intensity for a few minutes at a time. And Duncan, Garnett and the rest of the big men in the NBA these days seem more comfortable away from the basket than in the post, or they might just as well be sold for spare parts (Dampier, Djiop, Kendrick Perkins, et al.) as paid to play basketball.

Oden has a combination of size and athletic ability that is inordinately rare, even in professional basketball where inordinate size and athletic ability are the rule rather than the exception. He can control the glass on both ends of the court. He can run with the break, which is almost funny, since no NBA team can really run a break anymore.

But what he really needs is a rival. That's the one thing that kept Shaq from being the best center of all time. He never had to work day in and day out to hone his skills to beat that one opponent worth beating. Am I the only one who stops to wonder what Bill Russell would have been like without Wilt Chamberlain? Or Chamberlain without Russell? Even Kareem had Cowens and Walton and Willis Reed and Wes Unseld among others hanging around when he was young. The only guy on the horizon that can be that rival for Oden is Hibbert, as I see it. His offense needs a bit of work, but he is a very good defender.

A player like Oden will give a team a low post option that opponents must respect, he'll draw double teams which will open space on the floor for shooters. Not that that's necessarily a good thing, what with the fact that even "good" shooters seem to have difficulty hitting the floor upon falling out of bed two days out of three these days. At least, with any luck, that might bring an end to the 1 one 5 superstar suicide charge that is the NBA equivalent of the four minute offense from NFL endgames.

For his sake, and for selfish reasons, I hope Oden doesn't come to the Celtics. Since this ownership group has steadfastly refused to terminate Ainge's employment, Oden could prolong his tenure in Boston indefinitely. For obvious reasons I don't want that to happen. But it won't be good for Oden, either.

Let him go to a team that isn't crippled by salary cap woes. Let him play for a team that doesn't have Brian "The Great Brain" Scalabrine as it's fifth highest paid player. After all, won't drafting Oden cast aspersions on the $4.48 million due to be paid to Kendrick Perkins. And above all, let him go to a team that isn't crippled with a superstar who is a selfish, petulant boy emperor who can't play a team sport with a team.

In the immortal words of Detective John McLane: "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Quit being part of the problem." Paul Pierce isn't part of the solution. He can't share the spotlight. He couldn't with Ricky Davis, he couldn't with Antoine Walker. How in the world could Paul Pierce, the face of the Celtics, share the spotlight with a projected savior of the franchise. Pierce may or may not be one of the brightest minds in professional basketball, I wouldn't know, but he has to see that if the franchise has to be saved, in a sense, it has to be him from whom the team must be saved.

But it's all academic if the game within the game between Oden and Hibbert doesn't deliver. Any one of a million things could go wrong, one or both could get into foul trouble. Oden could eat Hibbert alive (metaphorically speaking, I hope), or vice-versa, which is infinitely less likely than the former. Or God forbid, one or the other could get hurt.

If this game doesn't live up to the hype, I think the NBA is in trouble. Then the future of the league is in the hands of Kevin Durant and OJ Mayo. And will those players make a team better. And I don't just mean wins and losses. Because what will the difference of 10 or 12 wins to the Celtics mean for next season? Will it make them a playoff team? More importantly, will it make them a worthy playoff team?

Whatever flaws it had (and it had a few), that 2001-2002 Eastern Conference Finalist had an energy and a chemistry that made it fun to watch. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a sporting event more than I enjoyed that monster comeback against New Jersey. Now put Oden or Durant on this Celtics team and tell me they'd be capable of something like that. I don't see it. It might make them a lower seed in the first round, and maybe they could be dangerous. But since the NBA went to a seven game format in round one, miracles have been outlawed.

Let Oden or Durant go to a team that can build around them from jump street. Let the Celtics take Joakim Noah and sink with the spare parts. Get rid of Ainge. Sell the team to an ownership group that won't preside over a poorly managed but expensive tax dodge, but actually try to build a champion. FYI, no one trying to build a champion would sign Brian Scalabrine to any kind of deal.

PS - Durant ought to come out for economic reasons, but he's less NBA ready than Oden. He's way to skinny to survive the NBA right now. He'll be knocked around until he can bulk up to withstand the punishment. Staying in school would help, since college teams aren't allowed to turn basketball into rugby as often as NBA teams do it. I think he's two years away at least from really contributing, maybe three if he has the misfortune to get hurt.

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