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What is a skill?

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Skill –  (noun) the ability to do something well; expertise

In a sentence?

“I wish I could just run and be seven feet and just dunk. Like that takes no skill at all. I have to actually learn how to play basketball and have skill.” – James Harden

In the time since Harden’s comments to The Jump’s Rachel Nichols, basketball outlets everywhere have begun to deeply analyze what the word “skill” means in basketball. Certainly, Giannis Antetokounmpo presents an unprecedented type of seven foot force. The way he takes off from half court, in a mere three dribbles, and finishes with a thunderous jam over, around, and by defenders is a combination of LeBron Jamesian explosiveness with a Shaquille O’Nealian power and a Wilt Chamberlinian per 36 stat line. James Harden, who is a 6’7 perimeter player who excels more in shifting his speeds quickly than his raw top end speed, averaged a historic 36.1 points per game last season, the second most by a perimeter player ever, and second highest mark since the NBA / ABA merger. Harden’s current 34.9 ppg ranks 5th in both categories. Harden, further, continues to add new moves to his arsenal year in and year out, and was frequently credited for the maximizing the step back three pointer the league sees taking off with young players like Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and Trae Young.

While Giannis and Harden are in different conferences, the two have frequently been on opposite sides of debate. A year ago, the debate was the NBA MVP. Harden came in second to Giannis’ dominance, and the Rockets felt emboldened to tweet out a series of tweets outlining the historic scoring season that had just finished. Harden himself was quoted saying the NBA media tends to go with a narrative, implying that Giannis’ burst on the scene and the Bucks emergence as an Eastern conference power had won over voters and blinded them to statistics. Giannis took his shots back this year, commenting that he didn’t want Harden on his All Star team because he wanted a player that passed, and claiming after All Star weekend that he and his team gameplanned to take advantage of Harden’s defense.

When Harden spoke with Rachel Nichols, his surprise (either at the quote or at the question) sparked a fire that led to the aforementioned quote.

And that quote led to gasoline being poured on the flames.

Giannis tried to quell the flames in the days following, but the arguments have continued. Sportsfans everywhere are debating one, essential question

“but was James Harden wrong though?”

The game of basketball is certainly easier for taller people. 17% of Americans over seven feet tall are currently in the NBA, while less than 0.03% of American born high school basketball players even get drafted into the NBA. While there are obvious a plethora of international basketball players (including Giannis Antetokounmpo, a player in question here), and American focus seems outdated, the statistics are staggering and simple: being really tall helps in basketball. The average American male is 5’9”. Isaiah Thomas and Chris Clemons are both 5’9”, and the shortest players in the NBA. Only two other players under 6’00” are even on NBA full time rosters.

Size matters, but does it negate skill?  

Afterall, 36 of the 390 full time NBA basketball players are listed as 7’00” or taller. That’s almost a full 10%, which means every team has at least one. So why doesn’t every team have a Giannis?

The work Giannis has done on his body is well documented. Yes, he was born with a seven foot frame but he has worked to make his shoulders broader, his explosion more powerful, and his strength an asset. Further, his game has continued to develop. While his 30% three point shooting percentage seems typical, he’s shooting 5% better than a year ago with nearly twice as many attempts. The sky seems to be the limit for Giannis, and his literal growth from 19 to 25 only pushes that limit further and further.

While Giannis seems to be a clear front runner for a back to back MVP award, and continues to make Sportscenter Top 10 plays on nightly basis, as we watch him play… a large part of the pays he makes do tend to be because he’s bigger, stronger and faster than others. The explosion Giannis can make off of a single dribble move is unguardable.

So is that a skill?

Conversely, James Harden and other perimeter players continue to push the boundaries of what we call possible. Harden and the step back has us reconsidering what shot is a good shot. His unassisted three pointers make viewers question what an offense even is. As was documented by The Ringer last fall, Harden’s points per possession on isolation plays is higher than any other set any team in the NBA runs. And those isolation? They’re all calculated. While shifting gears, moving side to side, evading defenders off the bounce, and tricking them into reaching and creating contact, Harden’s mind is in constant action analyzing what the defense is and isn’t allowing. And if they’re allowing anything? He’s taking it. Whatever it is.

So is size a skill? The athleticism is certainly something Giannis has earned. The baby deer of a frame certainly does not invoke the “Fear The Dear” mantra the Bucks currently hashtag.

Perhaps we call the “skill” the thing that is more replicable. Without lowering the basketball goal, and playing against small children, it is very hard for an average person to mimick what they see Giannis doing. But that step back after a few under the leg dribbles? We can try that in an open gym right now. We can feel how difficult that is because we can all go attempt it. This was evident in comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the 2000’s. Sure, LeBron earned multiple MVPs and shot an incredibly high percentage because of all of the dunks. But, when we threw a balled up piece of trash into a recycle bin, we all shouted “Kobe!” because we can all do that.

But just because we can’t do it doesn’t mean it isn’t a talent. Rudy Gobert is known for his athleticism and size, as is Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and countless other “unicorn” or “freaks.” But there is only one Giannis.

Each of the aforementioned big men have one discernable skill: defensively, they have the length, athleticism, and positioning IQ to protect the rim. Each of them block and alter shots at the basket. Gobert is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Giannis and AD are both pushing him for that trophy this June. Giannis, analytically, is having what may be the best defensive year of all time. He leads the league in defensive rating. 2nd place? His fellow teammate, Brook Lopez, who shares the floor with him the majority of his 30 minutes a game. To no surprise, the Giannis led bucks lead the league in most defensive categories. His versatility allows him to, frequently, draw the other teams best scorer.

Conversely, small ball has forced Harden to alter his defense. Where teams used to attacked him off the ball, many seem to be making the mistake of posting him up. In general, the Rockets may have sacrificed height, but they’ve got one of the strongest starting fives in basketball, with some of the most disproportionately long wing players in the league. Everyone assumes beating them up inside will be easy, but it hasn’t proven to be so.

Harden, amongst players under 6’9,” is surprisingly a very effective defender. While twitter folk and blog boys are quick to point it out, Harden is a strong post defender and actually uses his strength and length to get deflections. Per game, Harden ranks top 15 in deflections, and is seventh in the NBA in steals. While youtube compilations from 2015 are fun, and he still has moments of being a liability off of the ball, but his impact isn’t a negative. In their switching scheme, Harden is allowing less than 30% shooting, the best mark in the league for players who’ve ben posted up more than 50 times.

This, of course, only led to another layer of trash talk between the two recent MVPs

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So when does this get settled? Can it?

It won’t. But y’know what?

We will all be watching Harden and Giannis, March 25th. And whatever you define as skill will be on full display.

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#TimeTravelTuesday: FIBA and NBA Players in the Olympics

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On April 7th, 1989, FIBA made the decision to allow NBA players to compete in Olympic competitions. Prior to this, it was required that all competing FIBA basketball players be amateurs, and in the American basketball system that meant college players.

Following the legislative change by FIBA, the famous “Dream Team” of 1992 ran through the Barcelona Olympics, winning each game by an average of over 43.8 points. The stars and stripes led for nearly 307 minutes of the 320 played, and their largest deficit was an early 4-0 run by Spain (the USA turned it around, and won 122-81).

The involvement of NBA All Pro level talent since the 90s has been sporadic. The 2000 iteration was cemented in history books when, in a relatively close came, Vince Carter rose over Fredrick Weis of France. While some of their games were much closer than the Dream Team’s, they were also a dominant force. Further, future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Reggie Miller, and Allen Iverson all withdrew from the team, and left a feeling of “the USA won without even sending their best players.”

2004, that sentiment led to a very young team of NBA players representing the USA (albeit future superstars). Six of the twelve players were 22 or younger. While the future faces of the league were on the team, the ‘04 Olympic team took a beating from Puerto Rico to open group play. After losing to Argentina in the semi-finals, the Americans won bronze in a 104 – 96 win over Lithuania in the third place game.

In the Olympic Games immediately preceding the 1989 FIBA decision, the USA also earned Bronze after losing to the Soviet Union in the semi-finals. ’88 was the first time the United States didn’t appear in the Olympic Gold Medal game, but it felt like there was an excuse… The Americans were forced to send college players like young Mitch Richmond, David Robinson, and Danny Manning. The ’88 American scoring leader was a 23 year old Dan Majerle with 14.1 ppg. The Soviet team that beat them? Arvydas Sabonis, a force in the USSR league that would later dominate Spanish and Italian leagues before finding his way to the NBA, was an “amateur” because, under Soviet government restrictions he did not receive paychecks for playing before the 1988 games. Sabonis, as well as other European league professionals, manhandled Uncle Sam’s college crew. Clearly, if the Soviets were going to find ways to play what were essentially professionals, all things were not equal.

But if 1988 can be explained, what is there to say about 2004?

Simply put: there is none.

The team had two recent NBA MVPs, three players off of the 2003 All Rookie team, 4 players that made all star teams in the previous two seasons, a future Hall of Fame Coach in Larry Brown. The team was missing five players due to family requirements, and three who were exhausted from the NBA season, as well as Kobe Bryant who was stateside and in court rooms. But there were NBA players, and good NBA players… So why wasn’t that enough?

In part, the 1992 team was too good. They inspired the world to play basketball, and took the game to an international level. Manu Ginobili, who led the Argentinian team that knocked out the USA, was 15 watching the Dream team. He watched American hoop stars in awe. Then, he was 27 and in the prime of his career when he dethroned the same red, white, and blue. He was the most prominent name after helping San Antonio win a title in 2003, but he was not the only pro. Carlos Delfino, Pablo Prigioni, Andres Nocioni, Ruben Wolkowyski, and Luis Scola were all NBA players either before or after their 2004 Olympic Gold.

In 2005, immediately following an embarrassing run in the 04 Olympics of Athens, Jerry Colangelo took over the program. USA Basketball became a three year commitment, and the “Redeem Team” began the quest for the 2008 Gold medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship games. NBA Superstars flocked back to the program, including Chris Paul (23 years old), LeBron James (also 23), Carmelo Anthony (24), Chris Bosh (24), Dwyane Wade (26), Kobe Bryant (29), and a veteran Jason Kidd (35). Legendary Duke coach Mike Kryzewski led the way, and the team publicly let it be known it was Gold medal or bust.

The United States only played one game decided by less than 20 points in the ‘08 games, a 118 – 107 victory in the Gold medal game against a strong Spanish team.

The USA had a similar run, with some of the same headlining names, in 2012. Again, the only game decided by less than 20 was a Gold medal game victory over Spain, 107 – 100.

2016 was a similar story on paper, but there were more close games. In the group stage, the USA only edged out Australia and the backcourt of Patti Mills and Matthew Dellavedova by 10. They had narrow three point wins  against Nikola Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Serbia and Rudy Gobert, Nic Batum, and Tony Parker, and the rest of the French national team. After a close semi-final against Spain, Kevin Durant led the way for the USA blowout in a second meeting with Serbia for a third consecutive Olympic Gold medal.

Since April 7th, 1989, The United States has just one brief blemish in international competition. Outside of the 2004 debacle, and the international run leading up to it, Team USA has managed to win Gold in six of the seven possible Olympic games. Further, tin those six games, there have only even been a few games that were close… So it stands to reason, with so much in the air surrounding the next 18 months of NBA basketball, the next 18 months of USA  basketball, and the realistic issues there may be with international travel, does the US need to keep showing off its pros?

It stands to reason that the rest of the world is catching up. The Tokyo Olympics, now happening in 2021, will be almost 20 years post Dream Team. Further, with how we watch basketball with modern technology, (so long as they have open WiFi) international basketball fans can find whatever level of basketball they want to watch. Further, the level of play internationally has increased more rapidly than anyone in 1989 could have predicted.

Eight of this years twenty-four all stars hailed from overseas. At the start of the season, the NBA set a record with 108 international players from 38 countries on NBA rosters to start the season, breaking the record of 103 set a year ago. Additionally, there were another 11 international G-Leaguers on 2-way contracts. The number of international players that can play at an NBA level is growing, and looks to only continue exponentially.

Now, that’s not some “hot take” by any stretch of the imagination. The growth of international players, from the aforementioned Sabonis and his contemporaries like Hakeem Olajuwon or Vlade Divac to the modern, young superstars like Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid, is well documented.

The international growth of the game was made possible by the FIBA ruling on April 7th 1989. The rest of the world saw basketball at a “Dream Team level,” and went home and started living out the dream. More than 20 years later, does the international growth caused by the FIBA decision not just allow the best American NBA players to play, but necessitate it?

 Of the 40 finalists for Team USA in the 2020 (now 2021) Olympics, just over half have played in an All Star game. And of them, guys like Chris Paul, Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Dwight Howard are much closer to the end of their careers than the peaks. Then, when you factor in a major injury to Kevin Durant, the way Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James manage their bodies, and Steph Curry’s year of injuries…

Obviously, that every player on Team USA is a blessing in itself. Even with just the non All Stars, that may be enough to make them the “Vegas Favorite.” But, after the group stage, the knockout stage is a bunch of single elimination games. What is to say the USA draws Slovenia in a knockout stage on a day that Luka has another coming out party to 50 points and a win? Or they run into Greece and Giannis on a day he gets hot from 3? The variance in a single elimination knockout style bracket is enough to concern American basketball.

Much like in 2004, it appears the United States may hold off on sending the best players, in their primes, to the Tokyo games next summer. The arrogant say America doesn’t need to, but the realists say they can’t. The next 18 months of NBA basketball are an unknown. If they attempt to finish the current season, and then play a full 82 in the next one, there’s a very real chance players pull out of the 2021 Olympics just from fatigue. That’s 100 NBA games and two playoff runs in roughly 14 months, and the window is only getting shorter. It’s hard to imagine guys like Kawhi and LeBron make two deep Western Conference Playoff runs, and then turn around quickly and play a 10 day tournament in Tokyo. But if Team USA wants a sure deal, they may not have that option. They may have to settle for the best NBA players that didn’t make it to the conference finals, or they may have to settle for guys that are going to need to rest on Olympic practice days.

On this date, 31 years ago… Allowing the NBA players to come play in the Olympics was the trump card. It was the concession that “America has been sending the B-squad, but they really run this game.” Now, sending the best NBA players feels like a necessity… and one that America may not have.

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#FlashBackFriday: Losing and the Draft

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On April 3rd, 1996, The Vancouver Grizzlies broke their 23 game losing streak with a 105-103 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. A loss would’ve tied Vancouver for the longest losing streak in NBA history to that point, and likely would have set an unbreakable record had they not won that night. Vancouver also lost 7 of their next 8 games, with the one win being by a single point.

The 1995-96 season was the first for the expansion franchise. Led by rookie Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and five year vet Greg Anthony, the turquoise, bronze, and black were looking for a leader… and were primed to find that leader in one of the best NBA Draft classes of all time. The Grizzlies had the worst record, and thus the best shot at the number one pick in an NBA Draft that would feature 10 future all stars, 23 players with 10+ year careers, three different MVPs, and what may settle at four or more hall of famers.

While the accolades were unknown in April of 1996, the names were not. Allen Iverson left Georgetown the all time leader in points per game, Steve Nash was a back to back West Coast Conference player of the year at Santa Clara (the only college that offered Canada’s finest a scholarship), Marcus Camby won the Wooden and Naismith College Player of the Year awards while at UMass after he set numerous records for blocks,  Stephon Marbury had gone from New York City legend and McDonald’s all American to freshman phenom and ACC Freshman of the Year at Georgia Tech, Ray Allen was the USA Basketball Male athlete of the year… Oh, and the most “unknown kid?” Kobe Bean Bryant, son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a 4 year starter from Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia… While hindsight may make it obvious, Bryant was as decorated a high school player as there ever was. Bryant entered the draft out of high school as the all time scoring leader in Pennsylvania High School Basketball history (passing Wilt Chamberlain to get there), a two time Pennsylvania player of the year, and Gatorade’s National player of the year. Bryant was just the second high school player to make the leap from high school to the NBA in 20 years, and gained a lot of notoriety in doing so. But, Bryant was young. Since he was just 17, he legally needed to have his parent or guardian signature on his first NBA contract.

The NBA knew a young crop of talent was coming, and the Grizzlies losses made it as if they were poised to make sure they were included. Even after breaking their losing streak, Vancouver ended the season at 15 – 67. Philadelphia ended the season at 18-64, Toronto (also an expansion franchise in the 1995-96 season) ended it at 21-61. While they had the best odds at the number one pick, Vancouver fell behind Philadelphia and Toronto in the ping pong ball lottery. What’s most odd, however, is that they were the only team that changed in order. 4-13 of the lottery went in the exact reverse order of their records, Philadelphia had the number one pick with the second worst record, and Toronto had the number two pick with the third best record.

The 1996 NBA Draft was loaded with talent, and Vancouver was sure to find their talented leader at pick number three. The only issue was, who?

Allen Iverson was a consensus pick at number one… unless you were on the other side of the polarizing guard. The only issues for Iverson were his height (he is still the shortest player drafted number one overall) and a run in with the law as a senior in high school, but that led to a 50/50 split amongst a lot of basketball followers. Some wanted to see him drafted number one, others thought their teams shouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole. Philly, clearly, chose the former.

Marcus Camby was a lock as the next pick. As a defensive stopper, Camby had led UMass to a number one seed in the NCAA tournament twice, and blocked 43 shots in 11 tournament games. If you’re drafting, especially in 1996 basketball, 6’11” 240 lbs. translates. Further, in a draft filled with youth, Camby had played three terrific years of college basketball under Coach Calipari. There was little left to question for the Camby Man.  

But Vancouver came up next and went with one of the names that evades us from that draft class… Outside of a beautiful throwback both in it’s nostalgia for the 90s and the eleven character, hyphenated last name, Shareef Abdur-Rahim is left out of a lot of modern hoops conversations. Obviously, Reef was in the same draft class as Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Steve Nash… and the MVPs dominate the conversation nearly 25 years removed. Jermaine O’Neal, Antoine Walker, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, and Derek Fisher are in a different tier looking back at the ’96 draft. Each had crucial roles on their respective teams for a long run in the NBA. Further, they have iconic “moments.” Jermaine O’Neal was in the Malice in the Palace, Starbury was a New Yorker and a Knick, Dray Allen hit the shot in Game 6, Derek Fisher hit the 0.4 shot, etc. Peja Stojakovic, Kerry Kittles, Malik Rose, and Eric Dampier occupy their own tier of memorable pros from the turn of the century found in this class as each was a long time NBA starter. Each played on good teams for a long time, and each was a better than average role player for a good or great team

But ‘Reef Abdur-Rahim is a “hoop fans hooper.” His game and memory, however, isn’t as strong as others from the ’96 draft.

Abdur-Rahim finally made an All Star game in 2002, his first season after leaving Vancouver. For the Grizzlies, Abdur-Rahim averaged 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3 assists over five seasons…

The Grizzlies won 14, 19, 8, 22, and 23 games before they too left Vancouver for Memphis. They had two seasons of the lowest attendance in the NBA, couldn’t win many games, and it was looking more and more like they’d drafted the wrong guy. Kobe Bryant was winning a second title in LA… in a battle against Allen Iverson. Starbury, Ray Allen, and Antoine Walker, the three picks immediately after Abdur-Rahim, had each already made an All Star game. It’d be easy to say Vancouver made the wrong move.. but is it really that simple?

‘Reef Abdur-Rahim was, on paper, the right pick in every way anyone taken after him was. Two time Georgia High School Mr. Basketball, Abdur-Rahim averaged 21 and 8 his freshman year at Cal while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. He was the Pac-10 freshman of the year, and broke several single season freshman scoring records. He was young, sure, but so was everyone going into the draft that year.

A lot of people tie the youth movement in the NBA to the ‘96 draft. Many of the top eventual pros were far from seniors in college, and some of the more notable names were closer to their Senior Prom than legal drinking age. But the case of Abdur-Rahim may show us something else about young talent.

Clearly, where a guy ends up is as valuable as when he ends up there. Abdur-Rahim, a young pro, landed in a young franchise. He was the centerpiece of an NBA Franchise at 19, but the franchise was a literal toddler. He became a tradepiece, and got shipped off for Lorenzen Wright and (the draft pick that landed) Pau Gasol. Atlanta was in a re-build, and figured trading for a star may work better than drafting one. He later got traded to Portland in the dismantling of the “Jail Blazer” Trail Blazers, which sent Rasheed Wallace to Atlanta… and put Abdur-Rahim in another rebuilding situation. Abdur-Rahim was always one of his team’s best players, but rarely was he in a position where the team was ready for success. His lone playoff series came in 2006, ten years after being drafted, when he was a sixth man for a Sacramento Kings team that lost to San Antonio in the first round. Two years later, he retired after two knee surgeries in six months.

When we see teams in the NBA tanking for talent, they always hope the draft they are in has as much talent as the ’96 draft. ’96 felt like a year that nearly everyone drafted had a real career, and even had the notable Ben Wallace go undrafted. 10 future All Stars in a draft is special, that’s 1/6 of the players drafted that night. 23 players with 10+ years in the NBA is special, that’s more than 1/3 of the players drafted that night.

But if you’re Vancouver, it’s more than just losing to get the top pick, and it’s more than getting a great pick in a great draft. As a franchise, surrounding the player with opportunities to develop and succeed is clearly just as important.

It’s to the shock of few that Shareef Abdur-Rahim is now the President of the NBA’s G League, where the NBA has its young players develop. Abdur-Rahim is adamant about making a full, 30 team G League, where guys can develop talent while still being tied to an NBA team. The goal is for the league to become a true feeder team, much like the AAA baseball model. And thus, a place for young guys to develop. Nearly 25 years later, the youth and potential movement still drives the NBA draft. Obviously, you want a Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic… But if you can draft and develop a Danny Green, a Quinn Cook, Fred Van Vleet, or a She Curry and develop them, your team will be better prepared for when an Abdur-Rahim shows up.

So as we look back at today in NBA history, we need to understand a rebuild and tank is more than just losing games. Sure, historically long losing streaks (or narrowly avoiding them) can help net a top pick. Sure, a single draft can fill out an all star roster. But it’s going to take more than that one player to spin a franchise. Even in the quickest turnarounds, with the best young stars, need more to them. Abdur-Rahim was not the wrong pick. Even in hindsight, where he ended up (and where he continued to end up) played a bigger part in anything in shaping our collective memory of him as a basketball player nearly 25 years later.

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#TimeTravelTuesday: Money, Pie, and the NBA

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(This is just an attempt at an extension of the #FlashbackFriday series, really. If that’s not your jam, I suggest you won’t like this either)

Go back to a simpler time… On March 31st, 1982, the NBA Player’s Association reached a deal with the owners that meant, starting with the 1984-85 season, players would receive 53% of the total league revenue. For reference to where that was for the 1980s, the current number in the NBA is exactly 50% (depending on where the team falls within the cap, and luxury taxes paid, it could range from 49% – 51.2%). The NFL just passed its new Collective Bargaining agreement that will increase the player percentage to 47% next fall, and then to 48% from 2021 – 2030. And to do that, they had to agree to play a longer schedule and add more playoff teams.

The unpredicted thing on March 31st, 1982, was just how high that total revenue was going to rise. In part due to the late David Stern, in part due to a rekindling of a Boston vs. Los Angeles rivalry, and in part due to a young rookie by the name of Michael Jordan, the NBA saw revenues take off by the time the deal kicked into action. Stern sought to sell the league on its individuals, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were those individuals on historic franchises in booming markets, and Jordan became the face of all faces in the sports marketing boom of the late 80s and 90s. The 1970s had NBA Finals games on tape delay, late into the night when folks were busy watching Johnny Carson. The newly agreed to revenue sharing came just before Stern’s got the NBA into a new television deal, and the branding took off.

For reference as to how big? The season after this CBA was signed (the 1982-83 season), the entire NBA had a revenue of roughly $118 Million. By 1990? The NBA’s 27 teams brought in a combined $500 Million. In the 2018-19 season? The New Orleans Pelicans had the lowest revenue of any of the now 30 franchises, and they ALONE brought in over $224 Million.

Players’ percentage of revenues, and the rapidly increasing revenues, were central in the 1995 lockout (which was so quick no games were missed) and the 1998 lockout (which was so slow that even an abbreviated season led to 32 games being missed). Since 1998, the NBA has had a variation of salary caps and measures in place to ensure those percentages are met. In 1984-85, the salary cap for an entire team was $3.6 Million (the equivalent of nearly $9 Million in today’s dollars). At Stern’s retirement in 2014, the league average player salary was roughly $4 Million. Growth, growth, and more growth.

But some of those numbers have stopped going up. The pie continued to grow rapidly, exponentially, and seemingly endlessly… but the player percentage of that pie has not. NBA Players receive 50% of revenues, down 3% from 1984-85. But the more stark contrast comes when comparing that 50% to the 57% it was in 2011. In 2005 the NBA reached an agreement (that lasted through the 2011 lockout to increase the percentage of revenues players receive), players negotiated a raise in their cumulative slice of the pie, not a shrinkage.

In simple terms, the 2011 NBA lockout led to players agreeing to take, as a team, a smaller portion of the pie all together while allowing players themselves to get bigger slices. Max contracts went up dramatically, so some players could get bigger pieces themselves, but the overall team player salaries were a smaller chunk of the pie, so their portion was smaller. But that pie was going to get bigger each year, theoretically. Sure, their percentage of the pie was smaller, but some key players were going to get bigger individual slices and if the pie keeps getting bigger, everyone can still win, right?

All of those numbers, and pies, date back to 38 years ago today, when the NBA players agreed to terms that, when looking at percentages, were better than they are now…. The NBA Players in 1982 got a much bigger portion, as a whole, of the much smaller pie. The pie in 1982, for reference, wasn’t even twice as big as the average player’s slice is today. Few could look at the player salaries now, compare them to a 1985 salary, and somehow think they’re “worse off.” The slices may be smaller percentages, but the pie itself is so much larger it might seem moot.

But as the NBA enters the same uncertain economic waters as the rest of the nation, players may wonder why they ever let that percentage trends downwards.

Last fall, the NBA money talk began to see this concern. Well before games were postponed or cancelled, Daryl Morey’s retweeted image in support of Hong Kong sparked controversy. China, one of the largest international markets for the NBA, did not take Morey’s comments lightly, and pulled all of their live TV coverage of the NBA. In January, the estimated loss was nearly $200 Million.

But by the end of July, that $200M may seem insignificant in revenues lost this season.

The NBA is mulling over options to avoid it, but there is a real possibility that the NBA season is done. Sure, they may start playing again July 1st. Sure they may do some abbreviated playoff bracket on cruise ships to seclude the players from the virus. Sure, they may be playing after Labor Day.

But what if they don’t? How much money does that mean is lost? How much does that impact the overall pie?

For reference, in 2019, the NBA Finals alone had a revenue of nearly $300 Million… from just the advertisements.

All of the sudden, that potential 7% difference from 2011 looks a lot different. Even the 3% difference from 1982 to now seems like Mt. Kilimanjaro

38 years ago today, the president of the NBA Players Association was Bob Lanier. Lanier, an eight time all star who played for Detroit and Milwaukee, sought to increase the percentage of money the players received because they, simply put, are the ones playing the games. He really didn’t think it needed to be more complex than that. The business of the NBA wasn’t what it is today. If anything, the players getting just 53% seemed like they may be getting shortchanged.

In 2011, Derek Fisher (as president) negotiated a deal that really increased the ceiling for player earnings, but shrank the overall percentage of the revenues. With revenues rapidly rising, the trade off seemed worth it to some (it should be noted, many players did not like the action, and actually sought to dissolve the union… a much more complex story for a different history lesson).

Revenues were trending up in 2011, and the players settled (after missing months of work and paychecks) to take a smaller percentage of them. The number would never go down… until now. Now it has, and the NBA players may be wondering in a couple of years…

Why didn’t they do what they did in ‘82, and refuse to take a smaller share of the pie?

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