This year's Los Angeles Clippers team is all about depth. I discussed the matter in my previous post, and it has been alluded to repeatedly by NBA players, coaches, and media since the season began. In a league built on superstars, wherein hopeful teams will max out their salary caps on a few elite players, the Clippers have chosen more of a divide-and-conquer approach for the 2012-13 NBA season.
No other major North American professional sports league lauds its star players as the NBA does. Since the league skyrocketed in popularity during the 1980's due to the on-court success and marketability of the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the value of star players to both an individual team and the NBA as a whole has increased in corresponding fashion. Recent history has shown that the addition of a high profile player (or two, or three...) to an NBA franchise results in immediate increases in ticket and merchandise sales, television and media contracts, worldwide fan interest, and ultimately (in most cases) team success in the form of conference and league championships.
The phenomenon of the star NBA player compared to stars of other major leagues is, in my opinion, the result of a number of factors.
First to consider is team size. An NBA roster may feature 12 active players at any one time. Compare this to the 53-man roster of an NFL team, the 25-man roster of an MLB team, or even the 23-man roster of an NHL team (which is considered a major North American professional sports league as long as you are Canadian...), and it's easy to see how an individual star can greatly impact a team's profile and success.
Secondly, we must consider playing time. An NBA star is often called upon to play over 40 minutes out of every 48 minute game, unless the game is out of reach early or they find themselves in foul trouble. Basketball players are all required to play both offense and defense, being substituted strategically during stoppages in play throughout the game rather than automatically due to changes in possession. This, of course, is not the case in football, where players are on the field for either offense or defense exclusively (with a nod to those also participating in special teams), and are, thus, rarely featured for more than half of any one game. Major League Baseball has players playing both ways (aside from pitchers in the National League), but they're only called upon to bat every few innings and, in the case of starting pitchers (often the teams' biggest stars), not all expected to play even every other game. The only comparable league in terms of playing time is the NHL, but even there the gap is vast.
While the NHL has a similar approach to offensive and defensive responsibilities and continuous play, players are subbed into and out of the game on the fly, playing far shorter shifts and far less total minutes in a game. For example, last season's leader in minutes played in the NBA was the Chicago Bull's Luol Deng, who played over 39 minutes per game, while the NHL's leader in minutes played was the Florida Panthers Brian Campbell, at less than 27 minutes per game. Consider that an NHL game is 60-minutes in length and Campbell was on the ice for only 45% of the average Panthers game, while Deng was on the floor for over 81% of the average Bulls game. Campbell and Deng may not be their respective team's biggest stars, but it stands to reason that your best players will play the most in these two leagues and the numbers show that there really is no comparison as to which league's stars get more time to shine.
The third factor to consider is the accessibility of the fans. The NBA is the only league amongst those hereby discussed not to feature a physical division between the fans in the stands and the athletes in the game. In the NFL, the front row is walled-in, elevated off the field of play, and set back 30 feet from the sidelines. In MLB, the closest of the front row seats are walled-in, elevated off the field of play, and set back 20 feet from the first-base and third-base lines. In the NHL, the best seats are very close to the action, but are still separated from the game by 4-foot high boards and further 8-foot high glass. Unless you are the unlikely 12'6" hockey fan with front row seats, you will not be privileged to an unobstructed close-up view of your favourite Maple Leaf. Every NBA arena, on the other hand provides seating on the very court the players are running upon. No need for netting, walls, boards, or glass. Just be wary of loose balls headed your way, or you may lose your $12 beers to a charging 7-footer attempting to maintain possession.
Similarly, I have heard it argued that the NBA player's profile is increased due to the lack of uniform as a whole. That is to say that an NBA player with bare arms and legs, not wearing any protective headgear is more familiar to the average fan than the MLB fielder under his cap, or the NFL/NHL athlete covered head to toe in padding and sporting a massive helmet. Much like soccer players in Europe, who often translate their on-field heroics into greater cultural starring roles, this bodily exposure in the NBA also allows its players to express themselves and their personalities more so than other North American athletes through their facial expressions, on-court interactions and behaviour, hairstyles, and tattoos.
Lastly, a major consideration into a star player's impact on a team often overlooked by the average fan is the way the NBA game is played today. The league is progressive, in that the rules are forever changing. Each season sees a new group of regulations added to the referees considerations, mostly in an effort to increase excitement (ie. offense) and fanbase. The two biggest changes to the NBA game since the league's inception in 1946 were the addition of the 24-second shot clock in 1954 and the three-point line in 1979. Both these changes to the rules were made as a direct result of declining fan interest resulting from slower, more defensive-minded strategies employed to win games. Much like Major League Baseball has done in the recent past by bringing the outfield walls closer to home plate, and juicing their balls, bats, and players (all facts) to ensure more home runs and higher scores, the NBA has recognized the fans lust for scoring and acted in their own best interest. More recent rule changes, such as illegal defense and hand-check fouls directly limit individual and team defensive success. They also make it a lot easier for individual players to take over games when necessary, allowing them the freedom to get to their spots and get their own shots.
This is star-building at its finest. Players like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony live off isolation offense. Gone are the days of running your shooting guards and small forwards off seven back screens while working the ball from side to side in an effort to get an open look. Mostly gone also are the post-up centres, commanding double-teams with their backs to the basket before scoring or finding the open man. In today's NBA, you sign a star (or two, or three...) and you isolate him on the wing when you need a basket. Everyone not in possession of a max-money contract can clear out to the other side of the court and watch their team's investment break his man down off the dribble to score.
This is no secret. This is no conspiracy. This is very obvious and easy for the basketball-savvy to recognize game-in and game-out. Especially towards the end of a close game, when a team really needs a basket. Watch for it next time you're privy to a tight match. As the final 30 seconds of the NBA game in question drags for an eternity through intentional fouls and other oft-employed clock-management techniques; note the offensive movement, or lack thereof. Note the repetitive high screen-and-roll executed again and again in an effort to get the ball to the man making the money. Note the other eight players on the floor fading into the background as he and his unlucky defender square off. Note the defender's need to stay dangerously close, in case he should take advantage of the space allowed to launch the game-winning three. Note the same defender's unwillingness to create any contact due the new hand-check rules. Note the lack of help defense from said defender's teammates thanks to the illegal defense rules. Note the lack of concern on the indulged offensive star's face as his time to truly shine nears. It's the same look he's given you so many times before from the tv screen to the newsstand as he builds his brand, and the NBA's along with it. And he'll give it you again and again, just the way the league wants it.
After it's all said and done; after the shot falls or doesn't, note the players from both benches as they join in the respective celebration or consolation. Note how much it means to them, too.
More on one of them next time.