I originally led today's SN column with a flip-flop:
For the last few years, I had been arguing that the NBA was no longer a "Big" (as in "Big Four") sport. That it had joined the NHL as being a "niche" sport -- albeit a large one. But still, very little mass/casual appeal -- it had avid followers, but few casual ones.
TV ratings were on my side. I also argued that rejecting my theory was a result of perception: When the country's most well-read sports columnist -- Bill Simmons -- is a die-hard fan of the NBA and makes it a huge part of his columns, it can feel like everyone loves the NBA, too. When the country's most influential sports-TV program -- PTI -- involves die-hard fans of the NBA (particularly Wilbon) and make it a huge part of their program rundown, it can make it feel like everyone loves the NBA, too. I felt like these things skewed perception a bit.
But I'm nothing if not willing to change my mind (often too quickly!) in the face of new evidence. And all evidence points to the NBA ascending back to its "Big" status, alongside the NFL, college football and MLB. People are watching; the games are compelling.
I am particularly optimistic about the idea that the Finals don't have to be Lakers-Celtics (or Kobe-LeBron) for fans to find them worth watching. As I said last year, Lakers-Celtics was a best-case scenario for the NBA; Lakers-Magic perhaps wasn't, and yet the ratings from game to game are virtually the same. In an era of increasing consumer fragmentation, this represents a huge positive step forward.
Between the way the league has dominated the last two months with its playoffs and this newly launched initiative to short up basketball player development -- which will hopefully mean increased professionalization of that development -- the NBA is in ascent, with a huge pivot point tonight's Game 4: If the Magic win, it's on. If the Lakers win -- ensuring the Finals are virtually over -- will that progress slow down?
That WAS what I led with, but I swapped in something new, hubbed off of something Kareem said about Dwight Howard, basically pointing out that Howard isn't very good...yet.
I asked if he's good enough to get his team to the Finals, how good will he be when he finally learns how to play the game. Someone made the point to me: How good would he have been if he actually went to college?
And that's where I had my usual allergic reaction. Going to college would not have helped Dwight Howard's development as much as these past 5 years of strictly professional development.
It couldn't be more clear: College coaches are not concerned with developing their players for the NBA; they are concerned with winning (ie, their job security). NBA coaches, on the other hand, are entirely concerned with developing their players into NBA-ready talents -- their jobs hinge on it.
Whether a player spends time with NBA coaches or in the D-League (or even Europe), they are getting better preparation for a pro career than if they play college basketball -- it works for both kinds of players, too: The one-and-done star clearly doesn't need college basketball; this forced year of unpaid internship is unnecessary... and probably stunts growth more than accelerates it. The four-year college player with NBA aspirations also would be better served to spend four years developing under pro tutelage than a college coach; of course, if a four-year player was any good, they would have left college for the NBA two or more years earlier.
Make no mistake: If Tyler Hansbrough would have been a Top 10 lock after his freshman or sophomore years at UNC, he would have left school early. It makes too much ecomonic sense, but strictly from a developmental perspective, it also is in his best interests to get coached to maximize his role in the NBA, not to maximize his role for UNC -- again: If his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA.
(This is related to my argument about the UFL letting in college players before the NFL would have them: How much better prepared would future NFL QBs be if, instead of playing an additional 30 games in a spread offense, they spent two years being trained to be an NFL QB, by coaches who are expert in developing NFL QBs.)
Anyway, my point is: Dwight Howard was/is way better off -- basketball skills-wise and financially -- for having skipped college and gone straight into his pro career.
More you'll find in today's column:
*Raul Ibanez: Why was it OK when Rick Reilly did the same thing?
*Jersey sponsorships: What would the Texans do for a buck?
*Knicks love Stephen Curry: Too bad the Wizards are going to yoink him.
*The Red Sox still own the Yankees.
Complete column here. More later.