Physical Play in the NBA: Chef Diesel on “Spider and The Henchman”

The other day I called up the Spider and the Henchman podcast to talk about a problem I’ve had with the NBA in recent years: lack of physical play. My question is around the 48 minute mark. John and Kevin do a decent job addressing their take on the problem, especially the societal angle, but since I spoke too fast, mumbled and didn’t really articulate my point as well as I’d have liked, let’s break it down more here.

Back in the day, players actually cared in the NBA. I recently watched the Magic & Bird documentary on HBO and Winning Time on ESPN. Both these films had clips from the eighties and nineties of hard fouls, brawls, intensity, passion and effort–things that have completely disappeared from the league today. We’re now left with flopping, unnecessary technicals and flagrant fouls, players begging for bailout calls from refs on every drive, players feeling “disrespected” if another players commits a hard foul, and players who only care about getting theirs. Why has this sea change occurred?

Players are paid too much money
If you were getting paid over ten million dollars a season guaranteed, would you give your maximum effort on every play of every game for the entire season? You can count the players that bleed basketball in the league on one hand right now–Kobe, LeBron, Durant, KG. Everyone else is just showing up for their paycheck and to see their name in lights. As soon as the max deals and endorsement money came flooding in after Jordan retired, the daily competitive edge was lost. As John Salley said, teams and the league can’t afford physical play in the league anymore. There’s too much money invested in these superstars from the front office and on the players’ end. How’s Dwight Howard supposed to sell shoes if he’s out for the year with a torn ACL? Would Nike endorse Carmelo Anthony if he got into a brawl and was suspended for several games? (Uh, yea actually.) Above all else, the NBA is a business and an entertainment product. The NBA of today is a finesse game with skilled athletes. The physical play of the Pistons in the eighties or the Knicks in the nineties just doesn’t jive anymore with the league’s global mission and their desired international image.

Players are too friendly with their opponents
It’s pretty clear that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are all friends off the court. On the court, they look just as chummy. The NBA feels like one big pick-up game down at the park where everyone is friends, they’re just playing around and seeing who can break who off. Say we’re in the NBA Finals and Chris Paul is on a fast break with LeBron charging from behind. Do you think LeBron is going to take out Paul with a statement foul and say “NOT IN MY HOUSE!” No, he probably grabs him at the free throw line or goes fifty percent for the block, maybe raking the wrist so that the lay-up is missed. Rivalries are dead. Everyone loves everyone. There’s no such thing as bad blood anymore when you’re all brothers.

Players are selfish and really just don’t care
It’s a proven fact that once players make it to the NBA and get their guaranteed contract, they become entitled and fail to maintain their desire and intensity for the game. Players just don’t care like back in the day. Personal pride, respect and honor mean shit as long as the checks clear. Then, when a player does assert themselves on the court and is challenged physically, every foul is seen as a personal attack on their livelihood or as disrespect. Um, no. A foul is a foul. It’s part of the game. The defensive player’s objective is not to let you score. Sometimes there’s contact. Sometimes the defense needs to send a message. Sometimes the defense would rather you earn your points at the foul line. Players don’t need to get all up in each others faces after a hard foul. Being fouled on the court is not the equivalent of someone questioning your manhood in the streets. Get up, walk away, play on.  Critics like to call NBA players just a bunch of dumb thugs with tattoos, and unfortunately for the majority, it’s true. They’re more concerned with their rep and street cred than winning and supporting their teammates. I bet everyone in the league has balled at a playground. Whatever happened to ‘No blood, no foul?’

The culture of fear
Ever since the brawl at the Palace in Detroit, David Stern has been on a crusade to end unnecessary violence and hard fouls in the NBA. The NBA has always had fights. Back in the day even Bird and Dr. J got into a scrum. It’s part of the game when you’re playing hard. Tempers get heated, you blow off a little steam, then you shake hands after the game for sportsmanship. The players policed themselves and that system worked pretty well for forty years. Then, Artest goes after some fans in the stands and all the rules change. Flagrant 1s and 2s, techicals for one slip of the tongue to an official, fines, suspensions. Stern went overboard. And what we’re left with is officials with quick whistles, players flopping, begging for calls on every trip and playing soft because their scared of the punishment, the league handing out ridiculous discipline in order to stop the bleeding, and disappointed fans. I bet everyone in the league has balled at a playground. Whatever happened to ‘No blood, no foul?’

Hope you’re happy Stern. You created this.


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