By Ian Thomsen
March 20, 2009

At this time of year while the entire nation is gambling on the wholesome sport of college basketball, here are a few of the complaints I hear from fans about the NBA in relation to March Madness. I can't tell you how many times I've heard fans who love the NCAA tournament launch into complaints about pro basketball. In some cases their criticism is spot on, but a lot of the arguments are missing the larger point.

5. "They don't play defense in the NBA.'' Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "That's one you always hear, and then the [college] players get up here and realize they didn't play defense there [in college].''

If I may paraphrase, Rivers is saying that the defense is far more sophisticated and demanding in the NBA. I asked Heat rookie point guard Mario Chalmers, MVP of last year's Final Four, how many defensive schemes he learned in college. "We had four or five defenses at Kansas,'' he said in Boston this week.

How many defenses are schemed by the Heat? "I don't know,'' said Chalmers, who called across the locker room to Miami assistant coach Ron Rothstein. "Coach, how many defenses do we run?''

Rothstein wasn't quite sure how to answer. "We defend for the pick-and-roll,'' he said, "for isolation, for the catch-and-shoot, for the single screen, for the double screen, for the side pick-and-roll ...'' He went on and on.

"You're talking about more than a dozen defenses,'' Chalmers said.

Said Rothstein: "The NBA is about defensive situations. You have a way you operate, and then you go from there. Depending on the team you're playing, you make changes.''

4. "It's all about the money in the NBA.'' This is a good one. It is indeed all about the money in the NBA, and of course this is a problem. But don't you think it's all about the money in college basketball? How else is it that coaches are the highest-paid members of the faculty, that academic standards are routinely flouted to recruit the best athletes, that major basketball programs are the equivalent of money-making franchises for their universities?

The NCAA makes about $545 million per year from CBS for the rights to televise March Madness. And it's not about the money?

The anecdotal evidence is staggering that under-the-table money is used to recruit players to many schools, and it goes without saying that many players with NBA potential will be viewing the NCAA tournament as a launching pad for their pro careers. They will have people outside the college program counseling them after every game. Should they be criticized for this? Of course not, because they've gone to college to develop their careers.

The unpredictability and spirit of the tournament are without peer. I love it. But let's not pretend that it's pure of the influence of money. Big money.

3. "NBA players can't shoot.'' This is an old one. People who watch the NBA consistently don't make this claim so much anymore. It used to be that most NBA teams would rather sign an athletic defender than a skilled shooter. That priority has been reversed now that one-on-one defense is no longer mandatory and teams need shooting to deal with the zones that became legal a few years ago. The European style of kicking out to the three-point line is far more popular than it was a decade ago.

If the complaint is ultimately about the lack of fundamentals in the NBA, then what does that say about college basketball -- which delivers most of the talent to the NBA?

"The game has evolved,'' Bill Russell said. "You say they [NBA players] don't have good fundamentals. They don't have the fundamentals of the game that was played in the '40s, but, hey, they have the fundamentals of the game that is played today.''

2. "NBA players don't care.'' It's true that many of them are selfish at the expense of the team. But you'll find this to be true in the NCAA as well.

In another sense, NBA players have never cared more about their careers. Because there is so much money at stake, they train year-round and practice more often than players of previous generations.

I can tell you that it drives college coaches crazy when their players leave the program to undertake a 24/7 workout and diet regimen in preparation for the NBA draft. Kevin Love transformed his body after last year's NCAA tournament to improve his stock for NBA talent evaluators. Don't you think UCLA coach Ben Howland would have appreciated that commitment on behalf of the college program?

1. "Coaching doesn't matter in the NBA.'' The NBA is a players' league. The players have all of the leverage and depending on the lengths of their contracts, they can be virtually untouchable. They have more power than players in football (in which players can be fired without pay), baseball (in which players can be traded without having to match salary-for-salary) or hockey.

The power wielded by players makes coaching in the NBA an inordinately difficult job. It also makes coaching a highly important job. If you don't have a coach who commands respect -- it's hard to find leaders like Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown and Rivers, who are the only active coaches with NBA championship rings -- then your team has zero chance. To win in the NBA, a team needs talent and then a coach who can command that talent, much like a lion tamer holding a stool and a whip in a cage full of lions.

4. Ian, you're a great writer and honestly my main source for NBA stories, information, etc. But please, PLEASE stop feeding into the "Kobe is the best player" garbage. Toward the end of your most recent Weekly Countdown, you mention how you like the Cavs in the East this year and how they have the "second-best player" in the game. LeBron has been the best player in the league for three years now, and honestly I don't even think it's that close. In fact, I would just barely put Kobe ahead of Chris Paul. And yes, I am a Celtics fan but have tremendous respect for Kobe and his game. I just feel that it's blatantly obvious that LeBron is not only better but also more valuable, more talented, more everything. Then Kobe, with Paul and Dwyane Wade just behind (and Dwight Howard closing fast). Anyway ... keep up the great work. Thanks for your time.-- Chris Morris, Burlington, Vt.

I appreciate the thoughts, and I do think LeBron will be MVP this year. The comment citing him as the "second-best player'' came from a league personnel executive, and there are a lot of people in basketball who agree. Last summer, when the final of the Beijing Olympics was tight and the gold medal was in doubt, it was Kobe who carried that team with big plays down the stretch. The other stars looked to him for leadership, and to me that defined his place in the game today.

So I see nothing wrong with giving Kobe his due. He has made big plays to win championships and he led a young team into the Finals last year. LeBron isn't even halfway through his career, and there will be plenty of time later to say who was the better player. LeBron has everything a player could want to be better than Kobe or Michael Jordan, but today Kobe is the more accomplished star.

3. Personally, as a fan, I see the financial problems of sports leagues as a good thing. For too long, we've been taken for granted, and our loyalties have been abused by players and teams alike. I'm thrilled with the idea of owners and players having to make less money (Exhibit A is Carlos Boozer, who screwed over the fans and team in Cleveland by lying about re-signing with them and then bolted for more money).

My solution for the NBA is to copy the NFL. Hard salary cap, no guaranteed contracts (but keep the rookie salary structure, which is all the NFL needs to fix). Even if you go back one to two years (before the current economic issues), if teams were allowed to just cut players, I bet two-thirds of the league would have been cut. That just tells you EVERYONE is overpaid. -- Jeff Klein, Landenberg, Pa.

For weeks I've been viewing this crisis as an opportunity for the NBA to resolve its issues by negotiating a new agreement that will enable teams in small markets to compete with the bigger cities. The only way to make this happen is for all sides -- big franchises vs. small, owners vs. players -- to realize that to continue in the current system will mean disaster for everyone. The players will realize the impact this summer when many of them can't find owners to supply the typical long-term contracts.

Let's be realistic about it. We aren't going to see the players go from maximum six-year deals to contracts that are not guaranteed. The contracts will probably be shortened and the raises will be diminished.

The problem with having a hard salary cap is that a few teams will walk away with huge operating profits while spending the same money as Oklahoma City or New Orleans. If the owners want a true partnership with the players moving forward, then some of the income generated by the Knicks and Lakers must circulate throughout the league. That's why some kind of a new approach to revenue sharing must be developed, so that everyone is involved in a system that benefits all parties. The alternative is a painful lockout and perhaps a season sacrificed to no greater good.

2. As a lifetime Spurs fan, I have a hard time buying all of the hype surrounding LeBron's free agency. Tim Duncan was a potential free-agent superstar from a small-market team once. He stuck with the team that could pay him the most and gave him the best chance at rings. Why is LeBron's situation any different? The Cavs have done everything possible to surround James with talent, and they have strong ties to the Spurs, one of the best organizations in basketball. As long as King James is still King James, players will want to play in Cleveland. What possible reason could he have for leaving? LeBron James is BIGGER than the New York Knicks.-- Jared, Littleton, Colo.

I see where you're coming from, and for the most part I see all kinds of reasons why he would stay in Cleveland. It's near his hometown, the Cavs emphasize championship defense, their owner is ambitious and they're a lot closer to winning titles than the Knicks.

But here's the one thing that gives New York hope. Would Shaquille O'Neal be the star he is today if he had won his first three championships in Orlando? I don't think so. What he accomplished was bigger because he did it in Hollywood. As a showman, L.A. was perfect for Shaq -- just as New York could be perfect for LeBron. To win multiple titles in New York would have a much larger impact than to win them in Cleveland.

The question becomes whether he can win those championships with the Knicks. They have a lot of work to do before LeBron can be sold on that one.

1. Any thoughts on the NBA's "selling its soul" to finally permit courtside alcohol advertising to generate revenue during the recession? The Sports Business Journal notes that "the league is also crafting policies that could allow teams to offer hard liquor advertising on team Web sites, point-of-sale retail locations or in-arena promotions." I understand that the league is "hurting" but what's next, Marlboro Man silhouettes? I really enjoy reading your column, Ian. Great work.-- Kyle Rehder, Camarillo, Calif.

Thank you, Kyle. I agree the hypocrisy is striking. The league stands on principle only when it can afford to do so. I'm sure a lot of people will argue the other side, but I don't view liquor advertising as a big deal. Sports at all levels are already drowning in beer commercials and sponsorships. But maybe you're right and this kind of promotion will turn out to be more damaging than I envision at the moment.

I'm not saying he should beat out LeBron or Kobe, but if Wade is to become the first MVP in 27 years to win fewer than 50 games (dating to Moses Malone in 1981-82 with the 46-36 Houston Rockets), then he'll be chosen on this basis.

3. His team's improvement. After losing 67 games last season, the Heat are on track to win 44 -- a 29-win increase. Wade has everything to do with that, obviously, after missing 31 games last season while recovering from shoulder and knee surgeries.

(Note that James has Cleveland on pace for a 21-win improvement over last season, and even Bryant's Lakers are winning at a rate that projects to an eight-game improvement.)

2. His work rate. The NBA's leading scorer at 29.9 points, the 6-foot-4 Wade is second in steals (2.3), eighth in assists (7.6, ranking him first among non-point guards) and 18th in blocks (1.4, which rates first among guards). Wade is the only player in the top 10 in four major categories (points, steals, assists and minutes), and he is shooting a higher percentage than James or Bryant.

(However, James ranks No. 1 in "efficiency,'' a league-generated stat that accounts for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Chris Paul is No. 2, followed by Wade, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson and Bryant at No. 6.)

1. His inspirational leadership. After missing 62 games over the previous two seasons, Wade has re-emerged as one of the league's hardest-working stars. The Heat are headed back to the playoffs with a young rookie coach in Erik Spoelstra and a rotation that includes five first- or second-year players. Wade's scoring and assisting are responsible for almost half of Miami's field-goal output this season. He seemingly leads the league in game-winning highlights while producing 11 games of 40 points or more, resulting in eight Heat victories.

Before the start of the NCAA tournament, I asked a trusted NBA scout to identify two big names who need to improve their stock.

2. Jrue Holiday, freshman guard, UCLA. "From what I know, his plan was to be one and done -- one year in college and then into the draft. But he has regressed this year to the point you say, 'This is not the guy I know.' He just hasn't made shots and now it's in his head. You know a guy has lost all confidence when they pass him the ball because he's open from 17 feet, but he doesn't shoot it -- he takes one dribble to take a 16-footer that's contested because he thinks the closer he gets the easier the shot will be.

"I have him rated [as a draft pick] in the 20s, where earlier this year I had him going nine to 14."

(Holiday had 13 points and six assists and made 5-of-12 from the field in the Bruins' 65-64 victory against VCU in the first round Thursday night.)

1. Austin Daye, sophomore forward, Gonzaga. "He has had an awful year. Just awful. At the start of the year I had him rated in my top five, and now I don't have him in the first round. He makes some shots, but he doesn't rebound enough, he's not very tough, he doesn't cover. He just hasn't done what we all thought he would do. But he's playing for a high-profile team, they should have a couple of games at least in the tournament, and maybe he can right the ship.''

(Daye finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four blocks in Thursday night's 77-64 victory against Akron.)

1. To Joseph Edward Ford, 49. He was a devout Celtics fan, a believer who always wanted to talk about the promising young players whether they were Delonte West and Al Jefferson or Rajon Rondo and Gabe Pruitt. Rarely does it matter to me which team wins or loses, as I'm always happy for a few people on the winning side and sympathetic to a few others. But today I find myself sadly exultant that the Celtics won their championship last year, because I remember looking up to the balcony throughout Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the dim, distant figure of my brother-in-law Joe standing in the third row with his wife, Lorrie, to celebrate the day he always knew would come. A loss would have changed nothing in his life, so well did he live, and yet no one was happier to see them win. In my heart, they won it for Joe.

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