The Orbit, and The Empty Space

A few weeks back, we discussed the sorry state of the NBA’s Eastern Conference due to the LeBron James effect, through a metaphor comparing Cleveland’s “King” to the king of the planets, Jupiter.

That argument remains sound (in my judgment, at least), but further consideration reveals another side to the metaphor: it’s not just about the gravity of the biggest body in the system, but also the space swept clean by that gravity’s influence. Apart from the vacuum that is the Eastern Conference’s bottom two thirds, there’s also a much vaster expanse of emptiness, a field of nothingness that has also contributed to the seemingly perpetual crippled state of the eastern teams. And you’ve probably spent much of the last two weeks watching it.

The bigger empty space that’s ruining the NBA’s Eastern Conference is, of course, college basketball.

The DFR logo with Basketball Simply put, college basketball sucks. You probably don’t buy that, especially if you have been gorging on the NCAA Tournament these past few weeks, but I’ll prove it to you…shortly.

First, however, we need to step back and take a big picture look at the problem. A great deal of the bloviating about the Eastern Conference and its pathetic state centers on the fact that losing teams will appear, again, in this year’s playoffs. Those with an abundance of outrage–but a dearth of wit–have been clamoring to see the NBA change the playoff format so that only teams with winning records get in the postseason.


 “The days of stars coming out of college and making a bad team good right away–Bird and Magic, Hakeem, Ewing, The Admiral and Tim Duncan, Shaq–are gone.”


The problem with that “solution” is that it doesn’t address the actual problem. What, in fact, is the real problem? Simply this: there are too many bad teams in the Eastern Conference, and they are not getting any better. This situation was not created by the playoff structure; thus, changing the postseason format will not solve the problem. You solve that problem by taking all those bad teams and making them better.

So how do you do that? There are two traditional methods for making a bad team good, both of which are iterations of the same tactic: get better players. First, you can acquire better players through trades and free agency. As discussed in the original commentary, the NBA is hostile territory for dramatic player movement. Meaningful trades don’t happen very often, and free agency is largely about middling players moving around; the big fish tend to stay put. Also, as noted previously, few free agents have wanted to move east and compete directly with LeBron James. Given these facts, Eastern Conference teams must resort to the draft for getting better players.

Ah, the draft. Here’s where that vast empty space comes into play. Despite all of those bad Eastern teams having lots of lottery picks, few of them seem to be getting any better. Orlando, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit–lots of familiar names litter the east’s slag heap. Where is all the talent that should be making these bad teams better? Remember, Cleveland has had three recent overall number one picks–but only got good again when James decided to exercise some noblesse oblige and go home. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for building with youth.

Simply put, colleges are not producing players like they were back in the day. You need look no further for proof of this than everyone’s current favorite college coach, John Calipari. Kentucky’s coach has spent six seasons at the head of Wildcat Nation, and the results have been impressive. His win totals in six seasons (35, 29, 38, 21, 29, 38) have led to four Final Four appearances and (up to this weekend) one national title. And Calipari’s efforts at Kentucky have produced thirteen NBA draft choices (if you count Enes Kanter, who never actually played for Kentucky).

Let’s look at those players (minus Julius Randle, who tore up his leg in the first game of this season). Note that the stats are for this season.

Player Pos HT WT Draft Yr NBA Team GP PPG RPG APG
Eric Bledsoe PG 6-1 195 2010 Suns 74 17.18 5.39 6.00
DeMarcus Cousins C 6-11 270 2010 Kings 56 24.05 12.39 3.27
Anthony Davis PF 6-10 220 2012 Pelicans 59 24.66 10.41 2.02
Archie Goodwin G 6-5 198 2013 Suns 34 5.24 1.76 1.12
Terrence Jones PF 6-9 252 2012 Rockets 25 12.40 7.28 0.84
Enes Kanter F 6-11 247 2011 Thunder 67 14.76 8.61 0.75
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist SF 6-7 232 2012 Hornets 55 10.87 7.56 1.40
Brandon Knight G 6-3 189 2011 Suns 63 16.98 3.87 5.25
Nerlens Noel FC 6-11 228 2013 Sixers 71 9.99 8.20 1.69
Patrick Patterson F 6-9 235 2010 Raptors 73 8.18 5.42 1.84
John Wall PG 6-4 195 2010 Wizards 74 17.70 4.70 9.78
James Young SG 6-6 215 2014 Celtics 30 3.20 1.37 0.37

(Source: RealGM.com)

Are you impressed? There are some solid players there…but big time, transformational players? Players who bring instant credibility to a losing team? The three best–Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and John Wall–are All-Stars, but none live at the top of the standings. Cousins has been as much trouble as talent for the going nowhere Kings; Wall’s Washington team, though in the playoffs with a winning record, have been an “Everybody Beats the Wiz” flophouse for the last half of the season and look primed for a first round exit; and Davis, probably the best of the three, has still only been good enough to get his Pelicans to ninth in the west–well behind a crippled Thunder team.

The others? Decent pros, but nothing spectacular. And remember: Calipari’s erstwhile Kentucky players represent the best that college basketball has been offering these last few years. How much of a drop-off do you get with a player from that 20th ranked team that gets bounced from the first round of the Tournament? And remember, too, that Davis, Cousins, and Wall are not rookies; the latter two are in their fifth seasons, while Davis has taken three years to get his crew to within sniffing distance of the playoffs.

The days of stars coming out of college and making a bad team good right away–Bird and Magic, Hakeem, Ewing, The Admiral and Tim Duncan, Shaq–are gone. Nor are there high school phenoms, like Kobe, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron himself, filling the gap and coming in to make teams better, thanks to the NBA’s one-and-done rule, implemented in 2006. Indeed, James’s advent marked the end of the high school draftee era–again, his influence hangs over everything basketball.

So now we have what we have today: a world of college basketball players who just aren’t that good. And with that well dried up, there’s no way that bad teams can make themselves good quickly anymore–and the sad-sack Eastern Conference is the result. This is why tanking is so stupid; there’s not enough talent in the pool to offset tanking’s negatives with that big positive of a transformational player.

Put it all together and you see the real solution to helping those Eastern Conference teams get better: the Association should adopt draft rules similar to baseball and football. There’s already plenty of clamor for that adjustment (just do a search for “one and done rule” and you’ll find a plethora of chatter on the topic); there’s a good chance a rule change will come sooner rather than later. Then, and only then, will you see real progress in making the NBA’s competitive balance better.

That one great player who dominates the entire league, including changing competitive balance for a generation; an imbalanced league leading to distortions in the playoff structure; a restrictive salary cap environment that makes meaningful player movement difficult if not impossible; bad draft rules that damage not just the NBA but also the college game, too. Put all these threads together and you get a kind of Grand Unified Theory of Basketball, an intellectual development that explains all the currents in basketball today, and which (now that you’ve read this commentary) should allow you to go forth with true wisdom to share with hoops adherents everywhere.

You’re welcome.

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