Last night, before scoring 36 points on his way to helping his team defeat the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat forward Lebron James made some comments about contracting the NBA. The reigning league MVP apparently feels that the league should be reduced in size so that it would be similar in size and competitiveness to the league as it was in the 1980s. He also intimated that current stars like Robin Lopez and Devin Harris of the New Jersey Nets, and Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves ought to be moved to more competitive teams. However, this statement ignores a couple important facts. The first is that Love is not the only star on the Timberwolves. Fellow forward Michael Beasley is among league leaders in terms of scoring and talent. Whatsmore, it's not like the Timberwolves haven't been competitive. They recently lost to a very formidable Utah Jazz team, but only after leading for the vast majority of the game. They ended up making a few foolish fouls that allowed the Jazz to catch up. The Wolves, like the Nets, are a young team, and they will learn from these mistakes and win more games in the future. It is a natural cycle that teams go through in becoming better.
Perhaps James, who spent the first 7 years of his career trying in vain to win a championship in Cleveland, doesn't believe that such a maturation process is possible. If he did, he probably wouldn't have left his home state and adopted city and taken his "talents to South Beach" to join Dwane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat. In doing so, he went being the only superstar on his team, to being one of the newest and most talented trio of superstars on one team.
Admittedly, James (and Commisioner David Stern, who also believes in contracting the league) does have an argument. With teams like the Lakers, Celtics and Magic loading up on talent through free agency, the league is quickly becoming one of haves and have nots. While there are a lot of good teams, there are also a lot of bad ones.
There is also the problem of money. The New Orleans Hornets, which have one of the league's most exciting point guards in Chris Paul, are losing money. Despite beginning the year 9-0, they have not been able to attract enough fans to meet the NBA's quota. If things don't change soon, New Orleans will probably lose Paul and the Hornets. This, however, may not be so much a league problem, as a city one. There are a number of other cities; such as Louisville, Kansas City, Baltimore and Las Vegas; that have expressed interest in hosting an NBA team.
The other problem, alluded to in the Lebron interview, is the perceived lack of talent that exists in the league. James, himself, called the league "watered down."And though it is true that expansion does tend to dilute talent, with the popularity of basketball world wide there is now a larger number of foreign born players to make up for any loss of talent from this country. German born Dirk Nowitzki is consistently among the league's top scorers and rebounders. China's Yao Ming was a dominant center until injuries side lined his career. And the Spurs championship winning trio of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan were all born outside of the contiguous 48 states.
Beyond that, it is difficult to see much of a drop off in talent in the league. During the hay day of Michael Jordan's reign in Chicago, Sports Illustrated featured an article about how much talent existed in the league. Are we to believe that in a little over a decade much of this talent has been lost? Sure, individual players have retired, but they have been replaced by others who seem equally if not more talented. Ray Allen will soon break Reggie Miller's 3 point record. Steve Nash is on pace to break John Stockton's single season assist record, and Kobe Bryant (who is already among the all time scoring leaders in the league) has a chance to tie Michael Jordan with six championship rings.
And, as far as the bench players go, last year Paul was injured for much of the season, but he was replaced by Darren Collison, who performed almost equally as well, and is now starting for Indiana Pacers. This year, Harris was sidelined for a few games and replaced by Jordan Farmar. The former UCLA star saw his averages for points and assists double while filling in. Then there is J.R. Smith. Smith doesn't even start for the Nuggets, but is capable of putting up 20 or 30 point on a given night. He also recently displayed his athaletic ability with a monster slam over the Spur's Gary Neal (another bench player making hay while a starter is out) and by making an incredible 360 layup around the Spurs' Tim Duncan. By any measure, the league is deep.
In fact, the only one in the league who may not be replaceable is Lebron himself. With the ability to leap high enough to dunk over almost any defender, chase down opponents and block their layups from behind and shoot 30 foot 3 pointers seemingly at will, James truly is in a class by himself. Perhaps that is why he might think the rest of the league is a little too "watered down" for his abilities.
Even so, these are bold words from someone who has yet to win an NBA title. For now, "King" James ought to stick winning games and developing better chemistry with his fellow superstars. Though the Heat has been winning a lot lately, they still have a losing record against the stronger teams in the league, and have yet to figure out a way to make up for a lack of a strong post presence. If they don't do these things within the next few months, we may once again see "The King" sent home early...sans trophy and ring.