1. Finals Fallout: Not the most memorable Finals, to say the least, but let’s see where the participants go from here:
-Cleveland Cavaliers: Obviously, it was a nice year for the Cavs but what happens now? Cleveland has made steady progress since LeBron James came to town but a Finals appearance at this point seemed decidedly ahead of schedule. James still looks really raw and the talent around him is not great. As for future improvements, the team is right up at the salary cap for next year (about $65 million) and has no draft picks. Moreover, we all know that a lot of cash is committed to overpriced and hard-to-move contracts (Larry Hughes at $12 million, Eric Snow at $6.7 million, Damon Jones at $4.2 million, and Ira Newble at $3.4 million). So, trades and changes seem pretty unlikely for 2007-08 unless the Cavs are willing to take bad contracts back.
This does not mean the Cavs can’t improve. LeBron is not yet at his peak and he should keep going up and that’s a huge start. While I don’t love Hughes, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, or Sasha Pavlovic they all are pretty young and have reasonable shots at improving next year. Granted, none of the supporting players are potential stars but throw in Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Donyell Marshall and this is a solid core (though really weak at point guard).
The more encouraging point is that there is no team in the East that is clearly better. Detroit is older and Miami is a threat if Shaq is healthy and they go for broke and overpay for a couple more star-type players but the only other team to surely improve and be at title level in conference is the Bulls. So, the Cavs should be in the thick of things again next year.
–San Antonio Spurs: What else can you say? They are really good. The team is actually below the cap going in to next year ($61 million in payroll in total). They have some decisions to make on Michael Finley (player option at $3.1 million), Fabricio Oberto (player option at $2.5 million), and Bruce Bowen (team option at $4.1 million). Neither Finley nor Oberto are irreplaceable but the price is right to keep them around one more year. Finley’s per minute numbers have stayed relatively steady for the last few years and, at age 34, he should be able to continue to be solid for another year. Oberto looked like a total stiff at first but he has shown himself to be a decent live body and, again, the price is right.
As for Bowen, I keep waiting for the bottom fall out. He has gradually declined offensively (and even defensively) for several years now and is about to hit 36. At $4 million, however, there is no way the Spurs won’t keep him. In the past, Gregg Popovich kept around other vet guys like Avery Johnson and Mario Elie well into to their mid-30s, even where younger players were on the bench. Like those guys, Pop loves Bowen and a one-year commitment really isn’t too big a deal.
The other discussion centering around the Spurs now is whether they are a “dynasty.” Opinions have run the gamut and all really skirt around the issue of how one defines the term. Don consecutive titles matter? Is it wins per year? What about longevity of the teams? Under any definition, clearly, the most impressive dynasty was the Bill Russell Celtics (11 titles in 13 years) followed by the Michael Jordan Bulls (six titles in six straight full seasons). And even those two could be switched as the Bulls were generally involved in much more grueling playoff formats. But outside of those two teams, the Spurs four titles in nine years is a run that only the Magic Johnson Lakers have exceeded (five titles in ten years).
The other two knocks on the Spurs have been (a) they have won multiple titles but never back-to-back and (b) they haven’t played great teams on their title runs. With respect to the first point, titles are titles. It’s impressive to win two or three in a row (as the Lakers did with Shaq and Kobe) but I think, as a fan or owner, you’d rather have the Spurs’ success record since 1998-99 (four titles in nine years) than the Lakers three-year run of dominance without any other titles. As for the stregth of competition issue, we already looked at this last week. The premise is correct. The Spurs have had the easiest routes to the title of other multi-title teams but the difference in opposition is not nearly enough to undermine the Spurs’ greatness.
2. Ratings: The biggest story of the Finals wasn’t really the games themselves but the reactions of writers all over the country about how the Finals weren’t watchable and how the ratings suffered. Indeed, the NBA Finals were at their lowest point ever, recording a 6.2 share. The ratings decline is a reflection of several factors:
-The series was a blowout.
-The gradual decline in network ratings for all shows and all sports broadcasts based upon the ever expanding entertainment and media alternatives for viewers.
-The fact that neither team came from a major television market.
The Spurs are not ratings gold. Take a look at this ratings chart. The Spurs 1998-99 Finals was the lowest-rated Finals in the 18 previous years (though the Lakers didn’t really draw much better ratings the next three years). The Spurs also have the second lowest (2002-03) and third lowest rated Finals as well (2004-05). Still, that does not tell the whole story. My sense is that if you magically transported the 2006-07 Finals to the television environment of the 1980s and 1990s, the Spurs would draw lower end of ratings spectrum along the lines of the 1989-90 Finals (Detroit v. Portland). But in the present context, the Spurs ratings more depressed then they would be in another sports era.
There is also the side issue of whether the major sports are losing fans to the increasingly niche-based entertainment world. Whereas in 1980 a sports fan had few choices, now virtually any sport/entertainment option in the world is available online or on digital cable. The bottom line is that media is changing and the real questions for the NBA are (1) whether the fans are following the sport in ways not reflected by traditional broadcast ratings system and (2) how the NBA (and all major sports and broadcast networks) will be affected by this paradigm shift. The answers will lie in whether revenues continue to grow. If the revenues grow ratings decline only indicates a shift. If revenues decline a reassessment will be in order for the NBA suits.
Finally, some have posited that the ESPN/ABC system of shifting the games between the two networks has led to a decline in ratings versus the 1990s when NBC aired all the games on network. I have no evidence or data on the subject but I, for one, was unsure of the broadcast schedule for ESPN/ABC. Even if this is true on a larger level, I cannot imagine that the ESPN/ABC factor knocks the ratings down more than few decimal points and that the more significant issues were the ones we discussed above.
Outside of the ratings issue, however, there is no need to change the format of the playoffs. I know Bill Simmons and John Hollinger, among other, wrote about making interesting changes to the playoffs in the realm of having a league-wide seeding system for the playoffs. I don’t mind making changes to the system in theory but to seed the team irrespective of conference does more harm then good. The teams play an imbalanced schedule, skewed to the teams in one’s conference. So, the teams should be judged against those teams they play more often for the the playoffs. More importantly, we are one year removed from an amazing playoffs in nearly every round. Sometimes, playoffs lack intrigue (ultimately, the Mavs’ loss to the Warriors undermined a big Spurs/Mavs showdown) but that’s something that can’t be helped by constant tweaking. On a fundamental level, you just have to trust the product and have faith that the playoffs will be fun more often than not.