The New NBA: Must-See TV

June 19, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) reacts while speaking to media following the 93-89 loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game seven of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
June 19, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) reacts while speaking to media following the 93-89 loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game seven of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

The current iteration of the NBA is like a reality TV show–and that’s not a good thing.

Fighting over a woman.

Punching out a co-worker in a restaurant.

Passive-aggressive rejection of membership into your secret club.

Rampant misogyny.

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Temper tantrums.

Secretly taping private conversations about infidelity.

Sending pictures of your private parts over the internet.

Getting your boss fired, Machiavelli-style.

Ditching the loyal first wife for the much hotter (and flashier) second wife.

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Are these plotlines:

A. From a Lifetime movie?
B. From a soap opera?
C. From a free porn site?
The answer is D: None of the above.

Welcome to the new NBA.

As a major professional sport in North America (and also the world), the NBA is supposed to represent the best of the best in basketball.

Like any professional sport, many are called, but few are chosen: it is the slimmest of chances to make it to the league, and the 446 players on the official 2015-16 roster usually don’t take that for granted.


What used to be an exemplar of spatial, temporal and linear greatness is devolving into a sideshow where the most attention-grabbing action takes place off the court.

It almost harkens back to the days of the Portland Jail Blazers and the Bad Boy Pistons (co-arbiters of the infamous “Malice in the Palace”)–days that the NBA certainly wants put as far back in the memory banks of fans as possible. Because: image.

From punch-outs to call-outs to being put out (and that’s just in this past season), the NBA is becoming must-see reality TV. And that may not be a good thing.

One could argue that hey, it’s summertime.

Most players are on vacation or at the Olympics; Summer League is done (congrats to the Chicago Bulls squad for winning the 2016 Summer League championship); free agency is practically over (Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder was one of the last major dominos to fall, though not by choice); and it’s a slow news cycle in the league until training camp begins next month.

Anything wonky that a player does at this time is bound to be magnified because reporters need something to do. However, most of the above incidents took place during the 2015-16 regular season.

One could also argue that these mishaps are a direct result of young, professionally clueless one-and-done players entering the league (hi there, Jahlil Okafor, a.k.a. “Rocky Balboa”).

Except most of the aforementioned events involved grown men in their mid-to-late 20s or older, some with wives and/or children, and most of whom have been in the league long enough to know better. But as my grandmother once said, “Common sense ain’t common.”

Player misbehavior is nothing new, but it’s being taken to a different level these days. More than ever it’s personality, not skill, that is driving the league. It’s becoming more about who can sell the most sneakers, than who can put the ball in the basket. More’s the pity.

Granted, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has long reiterated that the NBA is an entertainment product (prior to taking the top chair, he spent more than eight years as the president and COO of NBA Entertainment), but I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind.

Perhaps it’s the influence of social media that has players (and their families and friends) getting even more tripped up by their indiscretions or vocality.

We now live in a 24/7 news cycle that has grown with the proliferation of not only video snippet vehicles such as Snapchat, Periscope, and the new Instagram/Snapchat knockoff, but also the increased quality and function of the cameras in smartphones.

This didn’t happen in the old NBA, where it was incumbent upon traditional news media (newspapers–the ones made of paper–and the Big Three TV outlets: NBC, ABC and CBS) to let the public know what was going on.

Now? Have smartphone, will dish. Anytime, anyplace. In a mall. In a hall. On a boat. In a coat. (shoutout to Dr. Seuss for the poetic inspiration).

Once again, the question remains: what is the league going to do?

It’s a conundrum for Silver and the owners: do they shut down the antics via more intra-team and league disciplines (and thus risk fan backlash, especially when it involves popular players)?

Or do they let things go on the premise that any publicity is good publicity (and fuels ticket and merchandise sales, and social media presence), and pray that the team doesn’t implode in the meantime?

(Let’s ask the Sacramento Kings how the head-in-the-sand approach has worked for them thus far).

Better yet, since the NBA wants fans to be entertained, they should think about turning negatives into positives: they should monetize them.

Maybe a partnership with TMZ Sports and Bravo TV to create a new, true reality show: The Real Ballers franchise.

In the vein of the Real Housewives series that bolsters the Bravo network, it would showcase the current bad boys (relatively speaking) of the NBA and take their antics and appeal to the reality TV-loving fan base.

Or, take the drama and make a drama: a basketball-based soap opera! Think The Young and the Restless, but centered around a basketball city instead of Genoa City, and the league instead of Jabot Cosmetics.

To further international outreach and give another nod to the league’s increasing Hispanic/Latin fan base, do a telenovela as well.

Maybe this way, true hoop fans can enjoy the on-court product without sacrificing it for the off-court product.

There’s a ready-made source that can start it all off: the California teams. The Real Ballers of California could feature certain newsworthy (and attention-hungry) players from the Kings, Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a perfect “Axis of Drama” that is sure to draw ratings. We already know that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, of the Clippers, have acting chops–both separately and as a duo.

The drama would certainly appeal to the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, which is more steeped in reality TV culture, is the most active on social media, and spends money on team merchandise (and is also more reflective of the current age demographic of the league, as a whole).

But is this really the direction in which the NBA wants to go? Not to mention, this demographic includes “cord-cutters,” those who shun traditional (and more expensive) cable TV packages in favor of those media outlets that are not dependent on cable, such as Netflix, Sling, and stand-alone channels such as HBO Now.

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However, since the league signed its lucrative contract with channels that are bundled into traditional cable packages (e.g., NBA TV) and discourage live streaming, this could be problematic.

Social media is proving to the a continuous thorn in the side of the league, because the league can only directly control NBA-owned social media accounts, websites, and the spin thereof.

Per the NBPA’s 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement  (Article 31) and the NBA By-Laws (Article 35), the league can only punish players for court-related infractions (the hardwood court, not the court that requires attorneys); any attempts to police their personal lives is sure to meet push back (hopefully a lesson was learned from the politics surrounding the implementation of the league’s dress code in 2005).

Teams can hand down discipline under the “detrimental to the team” umbrella (and a hit on the team’s image is certainly that), but that usually is limited to more suspensions and fines–which isn’t much of a deterrent for multimillionaires who could rightly consider the amount of a fine as pocket change, and where a replacement player is just a text message away.

The league has been very sensitive with regard to how it is portrayed via social media (remember the officiating drama of the 2016 playoffs?), and it remains to be seen how it will respond going forward as more people voice their opinions on the machinations of the league, on their personal accounts (again, I don’t think this is the type of transparency that Silver, et al. intended).

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Instead of bristling at (sometimes rightly deserved) criticism, the NBA could use legitimate fan feedback as learning tools instead of defense mechanisms. As the Rolling Stones once sang, you can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.