Thursday, April 24, 2014

Two major reasons the NBA lost me

1. Tim Donaghy

Convicted felon and former National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy said he won up to 80 percent of his bets on professional basketball games. He compared his pattern of success to that of an insider trader who had privileged information about various stocks. He knew which player, coach, owner or anyone else associated with a particular team had drawn the ire of his fellow officials and those officials would make calls that influenced the outcomes of several games.
Officials didn’t like Allen Iverson, so they called fouls on him - A LOT. If he got bumped as he drove to the hoop, no whistle. There were other personalities who received (and probably still receive) similar treatment. I can only imagine the numbers of Dallas Mavericks games altered because of Mark Cuban, or Detroit Pistons games that wound up in the loss column because of Rasheed Wallace, etc.
While Donaghy bet on some of the games he officiated, he swears he never did anything to change the outcome of who won or lost or the point spread.
“I didn’t have to do anything on the court to pick a winner,” he told “60 Minutes.”
He said he could elicit a strong guess on the outcome of any game simply by “knowing what I knew an hour before the game.”
Donaghy’s credibility comes under question and it is easy to understand why. He had a severe gambling addiction and as a result, got sucked into a vortex involving millions of dollars, organized crime and a separate life behind the curtain that he desperately scrambled to keep hidden from his family and employer. I’m sure he told lies to keep that part of his life from his friends and family. The short story of his downfall is that his partner in crime had loose lips, which attracted attention from the mob. They got into the action. That’s how the F.B.I. discovered him, from wiretap recordings.
Donaghy lost his career, his wife and custody of his daughters. He also was convicted and put behind bars. He got “knee-capped” while in prison.
After everything went down, Donaghy did the best thing he could do. He confessed. He cooperated with the F.B.I., which led to the prison attack.
The lead investigator, who learned about him and his gambling associates while probing the Gambino crime family in New York, fact-checked everything Donaghy said. He believed him. Hell, even the NBA, which conducted its own investigation, reached conclusions that were consistent with what Donaghy had told authorities.
Donaghy swears he was the only referee who was betting on games - to his knowledge. He wasn’t interested in wrecking the league he loved. His only urge was to come clean. He wished tell his side of the story, admit his mistakes, forgive himself and pick up the pieces - and yes, make a few pennies from his book.
In the end, I believe him. He shined a light on some major problems with the NBA, which generated sharp responses from then-Commissioner David Stern, who presumably ordered the network that shares coverage of the league - ESPN - from covering Donaghy’s story or interviewing him or mentioning anything about the allegations he made in his tell-all book. Stern dictated how the “World Leader” covered the NBA. If he didn’t like someone calling a game, he’d complain and that person would be reassigned. NBA “news” is over emphasized on the network - because ESPN is so desperate not to lose the rights to the league. That’s another subject for another day. The bottom line? Stern didn’t want Donaghy on the air, so ESPN obliged.
Donaghy exposed something specific that warranted attention - lots of it. Instead, sports journalists (if there is such a thing anymore), glossed over it.
Donaghy explained the absurdity of the 2003 Western Conference Finals, a seven-game series involving the mighty Los Angeles Lakers and small-market Sacramento Kings. The Kings “let” slip away a 3-2 lead and lost the series. The two games they “blew” were at home.
Game 6 involved a lot of free-throw shooting, mostly by the Lakers. It’s exceptionally rare for a visiting team to have an 18-free-throw-shot differential over the home team. It happened in 2003 - because the NBA wanted and expected a seven-game series as well as a victory by the darling Lakers. That mattered deeply to Stern - who wanted to avoid, at all costs, a New Jersey Nets-Sacramento Kings final.
How do we take this league seriously? Why is it that out of the 67 NBA championship series in history, the Lakers and/or Boston Celtics have appeared in a combined total of 61 (31 and 21, respectively)?
I know Stern is gone - but for such a small man, he casts an impressive shadow. I suspect it will linger for a while.
NBA fans probably roll their eyes at those who say the league is “fixed.” It’s an overstatement and an oversimplification, but I never roll my eyes when I hear someone say that, not anymore. They’re in the right zip code. I actually think defenders of the league come off more naive these days.

2. Predictability
After the Lakers and Celtics, the team third on the list with the most finals appearances is the Philadelphia 76ers - with 9. The 76ers last won a championship in 1983. Instead of starting there, let’s begin the list of NBA champions from 1980 playoffs. That was the year Ervin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird were rookies. They’re credited with resuscitating the NBA, or better yet, lighting the spark that promptly burned out after Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for the final time following the 1998 season (ratings are down about 40 percent compared to 1998 and they were at record lows in the mid-aughts).
The teams that won from 1980 through 2013 … Lakers, Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, Celtics, Lakers, Celtics, Lakers, Lakers, Detroit Pistons, Pistons, Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, Houston Rockets, Rockets, Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Lakers, Lakers, Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Spurs, Miami Heat, Spurs, Celtics, Lakers, Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Heat, Heat.
In 34 years, nine teams have won at least one championship.
Parity? Not hardly.
It gives more credence to Donaghy’s claim that he didn’t need to do anything to alter the conclusion of games. It’s easy to pick a winner when the league is so top-heavy. The small cluster of elite teams sits on a different perch. Upsets happen during the course of a season, but players relax, particularly in November, December, January and February. You can see the “What’s-my-motivation” look on their faces for most of the season. It shows in their body language and effort, too.
Let’s face it, Lebron James and the Heat on cruise control are going to usually beat Arron Afflalo and the Orlando Magic at full throttle. So why should the Heat play hard?
Maybe I should consider sports gambling for a hobby. What could be easier than picking NBA playoff results?
Even teams that are playoff locks aren’t in the championship discussion. Does anyone think the 2013-14 Portland Trailblazers are going to contend? They won 54 games. Did anyone think the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets were going to make a run at the Finals? Not the NBA Finals, but the Western Conference Finals? They won 57 games! Nobody picked them. Everyone was right. They were ousted in the first round.
Going into this season, it was obvious there was going to be a Big Four - the Heat, the Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Indiana Pacers. Some out there are paying attention to the Los Angeles Clippers and maybe there are still some who are desperately clinging to the notion that the Brooklyn Nets will challenge (they won’t). The Rockets? Please.
The Heat will win the East. The Spurs have the best record, but have struggled against the Thunder. The Clippers are formidable, but the Thunder still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are respectively the best scorer and the most explosive point guard in the NBA.
The Spurs, with their home-court advantage, still get the edge over the Thunder. I’m only 60-40 on that.
If the Heat meet the Spurs, the Spurs win. If the Heat meet the Thunder, the Heat win.
See how easy that was? I’ve watched a total of 10 minutes of NBA action this season. Maybe 5 minutes.
Even if I’m off, I won’t be off by much.
There’s no need for an 82-game season nor is it necessary to have a post-season that stretches across the better part of three months.
Blow up the playoff system and make it more exciting.
At the very least, the coverage should better reflect the league’s modest ratings. Less airtime would be just fine.