A Year of Ws: The NBA

(via @NBA on Instagram)

Smooth isn’t enough to define the transition of power between former NBA commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver. In his short tenure, Silver has assured the rapid global expansion of the NBA brand and the game of basketball, overseen some solid franchise rebranding efforts, and has managed to not look like a super out-of-touch rich White guy.

The last part is super-important since the NBA Player’s Association (NBAPA) has become the most vocal, upstanding group of (male) professional athletes in the United States. They’re making the most money, giving us the most entertaining seasons, and proving themselves to be the best role models in professional men’s sports today.

Below is a list of the Ws the NBA has earned in the instant classic that we call 2017.

LeBron calling the 45th president a bum

The president of the United States got a tad sensitive about the Golden State Warriors’ team decision to not attend the White House as the 2017 NBA champs. Continuing his tradition of player support and advocacy, LeBron dropped this gem on Twitter:

Steph, Harden, and everyone else cashing the fuck out

When Kobe Bryant signed a 2-year, $60 million dollar extension, people lost it. 30 million dollars a year was absurd. We loved Kobe but damn, he really brought the Lakers down with him.

I’m not comparing any of these stars to 34-year-old Kobe Bryant, but $30 mil isn’t shit for the NBA’s best now. The victory of the NBA’s 9-year/24 billion dollar television deal with ESPN and Turner has played a large part in increasing annual salary caps to nearly $100 million per team per year. The jump from 2016 to the summer of 2017 was $24 million, the largest salary cap increase in league history.

Max deals, now dubbed “supermax” contracts, signed by players like Steph Curry (5 years/$201 mil), James Harden (6 years/$228 mil), and Blake Griffin (5 years/$173 mil) have bumped NBA players way up in the highest-earning athlete rankings. And with the increase in viewership and fan engagement, the investments seem to be well worth it.

We are all witness: domestic and global ratings skyrocket

Since the beginning of the 2010s decade, the NBA’s growth in popularity has been fast and steady. Along with good business, the more varied nationalities of NBA players and the reach of the league’s best global representatives (e.g. Yao Ming, Kobe, Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki) have made the NBA more successful in their international expansion than any other American sports league.

A deal earlier this year with Chinese tech company Tencent has been projected to improve on the already enormous 760 million Chinese viewers the NBA attracted in 2015-2016. Not to mention ESPN’s NBA coverage has seen a 19 percent increase in viewership between this season and the 2016-17 season. Basketball is becoming more accessible than every other sport in the world that isn’t soccer, and the NBA is doing an amazing job at gaining buy-in from the international community.

International relations flowering (from Yao and Kobe to Steph and Klay)

Klay Thompson on an NBA Nation tour in 2013

The Dream Team—really the entire Michael Jordan era—was the NBA’s first major step toward globalization. Kobe Bryant’s worldly ass, Yao Ming’s rise, and a strong collective of European stars have built long-lasting bridges in East Asia and Europe. Today, those bridges are stronger than ever and well-traversed.

In the 2015-2016 season, nearly 30 percent of NBA players who appeared in a game were foreign-born. That’s absurd, and even more exciting is the number of elite players that aren’t American. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, and Ben Simmons, the future of non-Americans in the NBA is enormous. While we were blessed with the likes of Dirk, Vlade Divac, Manu, and Yao, today’s best foreign-born players might end their careers firmly in the GOAT discussion.

23-year-old Cameroonian Joel Embiid joins the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo (8th and 5th) on SB Nation’s list of top MVP candidates a quarter of the way into the 2017-18 NBA season (via @joelembiid on Instagram)

Another monumental offseason of moves

Not only did everyone get paid, but a number of All-Stars in their prime or slowly fading out have found their way off of sinking ships and onto competitive teams. Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Chris Paul, and Rudy Gay have all found homes on teams that can make convincing playoff runs this year.

Aside from the obvious entertainment appeal, the freedom with which players are allowed to decide on their futures is relieving. The very American contradiction of expecting players to be blindly loyal to an organization while still prioritizing trophies above all else still exists. But the strength of the NBA players community, which is sometimes mocked for its buddy-buddy nature, has done wonders for the league.

The bravery of players starting with LeBron’s infamous move to Miami has created a culture of flexibility, player support, and potential maximization in the NBA. For as much as we can lambast great players for not singlehandedly “carrying their teams,” it is a huge net positive to see the NBA’s best leave situations that hinder them in exchange for the chances we know their talent and work ethics deserve.

We want to see LeBron and Kevin Durant in the finals as much as possible. They’re the best. We want to see Kyrie lead a team in his prime. If there every comes a time where the Bucks continue to fall short of their promise in the playoffs, do you really want Giannis Antetokounmpo to grow stale in Milwaukee while his once-in-a-generation skill set withers for the sake of loyalty?

As I’ve said before, having a sporting culture that more closely resembles international soccer can only be a good thing for American sports. And on top of basketball’s simplicity and the pace of the game, the strengthened culture of guilt-free player movement brings the NBA closer to the exciting standard set by soccer abroad.

Stealing spotlight from the NFL

It’s not that the NFL is political. It’s the NFL’s painfully fake and generic brand of politics that has made the league so unpopular this season. The wishy-washy stances on Kaepernick’s protest, and the arguments for and against the erroneously dubbed “national anthem protests” sound like all the stereotypes we have about old White Southerners, Uncle Toms, and Black celebrities that only speak up when convenient.

We didn’t need Ray Lewis pathetically taking two knees at a Ravens’ game just a week after getting dragged for his criticism of players kneeling during the anthem. We also certainly didn’t need Texans owner Bob McNair likening NFL players to unruly inmates in a prison.

While it’s hard to compete with the pristine image of LeBron James, the NBA as a whole seems way more comfortable with its relationship to the rest of society than the NFL does. While Commissioner Adam Silver was vocal about his expectation for NBA players to stand for the national anthems (Canadian anthem for Raptors games), it is, in fact, a league rule that has been around long before him. But NBA players have been just as vocal as some NFL players in regards to America’s social climate, and not one fine, condemnation, or threat has been issued to NBA players by the league.

Though not explicitly supported, coaches and, more importantly, prominent Black figures in the league are allowed the freedom to talk about shit that really matters beyond the court.

As a sports fan, I support leagues that do their best to let their players shine, to make their content more accessible, and to allow their employees to be human beings without consequence. The future of competition, entertainment, viewership, and activism in the NBA is here, is now, and is crazy exciting.

Congratulations to the NBA. Hold this W.


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