There’s nothing sadder in sports right now than the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team is currently suffering through an almost unfathomable 26-game losing streak, a new NBA record for futility. In fact, the mark ties with that of the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an expansion team that lost the first 26 games of its existence, the longest losing streak in major American professional sports.
Everyone feels bad that LeBron James left Cleveland in the lurch last summer when he moved on to the Miami Heat, and the NBA is doing all it can to end Cleveland’s misery. But does any team really deserve a three-week home stand? The Cavs opened Game 1 of the eight-game dose of home cooking, which will keep the Cavs on Lake Erie until March 2, with a stinker of a loss against Detroit, and will get their next shot Friday night, Feb. 11, against the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite the favorable schedule, the Cavs are playing so poorly that there’s no end to the streak in sight.
But the Cavs are not alone in their awfulness. Over the past few years, the NBA has been infected with a rash of poor teams that have diluted an otherwise attractive product. Last season, and during the 2007-08 campaign, seven NBA teams lost 55 or more games, about two-thirds of their total (as recently as 2006-07, just two teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Boston Celtics, lost at least 55 games). That was the highest number of terrible teams since the 1997-98 season, an expansion era that had seen two teams, the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors, added two years beforehand (the NBA added its 30th team, the Charlotte Bobcats, in 2005). This year, six teams, the Cavs (of course), the New Jersey Nets, the Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings, are all on pace to lose over two-thirds of their games.
All this losing, and the financial bleeding that many teams have suffered in the recession, have NBA commissioner David Stern at least thinking about eliminating teams. James himself gave the contraction issue more attention when, around Christmas, he wistfully imagined a world where more premier players could join forces (like himself, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) on the teams that remained (of course, he got in hot water with the players’ union after making these statements, and recanted).
The economic argument for contraction is compelling. A less watered-down product could, theoretically, lead to long-term financial gains. Those fans outside the cities wiped off the NBA map would enjoy a more competitive landscape. But it’s cold to discount the social cost to cities that lose teams. And real jobs would go away — of both the professional player and the arena peanut-vendor variety.
In fact, contraction is a cop-out. Rather than focus on shrinking the league’s number of teams, the league should be working to grow the number of elite players, both at home and abroad. After all, if there are more elite players, there will be more competitive teams, right?
The blame for the basketball-talent shortage is widespread. Kids play too many video games. Youth basketball is more controlled by seedy summer-league coaches or street agents, who are more interested in attracting a juicy sponsorship from sneaker companies rather than actually teaching the game.
Yes, it would certainly help if teams like Cleveland had smarter management. They should have had a plan in place in case James, whom the Cavs knew was going to test the open market, had left. The words of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, unleashed on the Internet the night James left for South Beach, speak volumes about the team’s incompetence. “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE,” Gilbert wrote in screaming all-caps, “THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.”
Still, Cleveland is really America’s problem, and the world’s as well. You can’t get within 6 ft. of an NBA official before he starts touting the league’s international cachet. The NBA is televised in over 200 countries. Kids are passionate about the game in South America, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, hell, in Greenland and Antarctica. This season, a record 84 international players from 38 countries and territories appeared on the NBA’s opening-night rosters. Ten years ago, there were nearly half as many foreign players in the NBA.
These figures are great for marketing. But is that foreign talent any good? As more foreign players come into the league, why are there more bad teams? The Cavs, for instance, have two international players: Christian Eyenga, a forward-center from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Anderson Varejão, the veteran center from Brazil. That pair won’t scare a premier college team — and not nearby Ohio State, which is undefeated.
After Yao Ming entered the NBA in 2002, remember the excitement about the impending influx of talented Chinese seven-footers into the NBA? Nearly a decade later, the only Chinese NBA players are Yao, who is missing yet another season with an ankle injury, and 7-ft. Wizards forward Yi Jianlian, whose team has a record of 26-107 since the start of last season. What happened to all that help? Over four years ago, the NBA started a serious push to develop basketball talent in India. One 15-year-old kid, 7-ft. 2-in. Satnam Singh Bhamara, is being billed as that country’s Yao Ming. But will he be the lone return on the NBA’s investment?
Sure, through the decades, there have always been bad NBA teams. But now, through population growth and hoops globalization, the game is open to a million or more eligible workers, still competing for the same 360 or so jobs on NBA rosters. Should we be seeing historical futility right now? No way.
In the U.S., the NBA is sponsoring a grass-roots teaching program called iHoops to improve basketball fundamentals at the youth level. And though most kids, and parents, probably have no idea that this initiative exists, or are confused about its unfortunate name — is it an app? — it’s at least a start. The current system is designed to create eye-popping athletes, not necessarily the best all-around basketball players. So instead of thinking about contracting Cleveland or other poor-performing teams, maybe it’s time for players, coaches and management in America, and throughout the world, to step up.