NBA has a big problem, and they're hoping Zion Williamson can fix it


Miami Heat v New Orleans Pelicans

Miami Heat v New Orleans Pelicans

Adam Silver, and the 30 NBA owners he works for, should be thanking their lucky stars - because finally, they have a star that cares in Zion Williamson.

"Zion has been diligent about taking care of himself," said David Griffin, the Pelicans' executive vice president of basketball operations. "He's in a good space physically and mentally." - Tim Bontemps and Andrew Lopez via ESPN.

That's great news for the NBA, which has become the beacon for apathy, detachment and personal player development in spite of the league's overall brand. Adam Silver hands rest days out like candy, and allows players like Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis to hold their organizations hostage in his unquenched thirst for admiration.

It's worked. The media cheers for Silver the way they've done for no other commissioner in the history of sports.

Has all Silver's pandering been good for the league? Of course not. But at least it felt good.

The NBA's TV ratings were down 15%-20% this year nationally before the pandemic. It has been so liberal in allowing players to float between teams - through free agency or forced trades - it has lost its middle class, and become dependent on "superteams" for viewership. Now, with Golden State taking a year off, the NBA's audience has collapsed - even as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, occupy two mammoths in Los Angeles.

That may be because the casual fan was late to catch on to those mammoths, which were formed just before the 2019-20 season.

LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are all on their third NBA teams, and Anthony Davis is on his second at just 27-years old. For diehard NBA fans, player movement is enticing, but for average fans - which tend to tune in when the NFL season finishes near Christmas - the displacement creates confusion. Not knowing which team LeBron James, or any other superstar, plays for is a bigger problem for the NBA than most leagues, because the NBA is character-driven, not plot-driven. TV ratings illustrate that fans will watch Thursday Night Football, or any other primetime NFL slot, regardless of the team, whereas NBA fans are much more likely to watch star players, regardless of team.

Yet, Adam Silver has encouraged player empowerment, because in part, he yearns for the warmth of Rachel Nichols, Bill Simmons or some other bootlicker to call him "the best commissioner in sports."

I'd call that NBC Sports Boston poll ridiculous, but how can you blame them? It has become a universal "truth" that Silver is the best in the business, and most in media are just happy sheep. Please don't tell these people that Adam Silver has gotten the NBA more entangled with the Chinese Communist Party - an authoritarian United States adversary - even as they hold the NBA hostage over Daryl Morey's support for Hong Kong. That may cause them to think.

If that doesn't, maybe Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley and Kelly Oubre backing out of the NBA's Orlando return will. These aren't role players. Trevor Ariza averages 33 minutes per game, Avery Bradley is the Lakers' best wing defender and Kelly Oubre is the Suns' second-best scorer. I'd be more sympathetic, if the NBA didn't have such a history of coddling.

As the NBA tries to convince its players to play at Walt Disney World - by plying them with weed and luxurious hotel arrangements - the NFL can't keep its players from playing, and they're not even getting paid. Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Kyler Murray and a host of other quarterbacks are organizing full team workouts - for free - three months in advance of the NFL season. Kyler Murray paid $40,000 just to get his guys over to Dallas for a few days.

The NBA couldn't pay its players enough to rough it with Mickey Mouse for 8-12 weeks. The NBA's got a big problem. Its players are spoiled, and everybody knows it.

Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times. - G. Michael Hopf

In the mid-2000s a sports TV bubble was created. Former cable-watchers started "cutting the cord," switching from cable to streaming to save money, and the only thing bringing in new cable buyers was live sports. The four major American leagues, and their players, got even richer. Mediocre players earned astronomical contracts, and some leagues focused their efforts on fringe issues, instead of core issues. Otto Porter Jr., a middling small forward in the NBA, received a guaranteed contract worth $100 million dollars. Adam Silver, the NBA's new progressive commissioner, focused his efforts on social issues and player empowerment, while LeBron James and Steph Curry carried the league for the first four years of his run. Things appeared good in the short term, but quickly fell apart when LeBron moved out West, and Steph Curry took a rest.

Now, Silver's faced with another question: What happens when LeBron James leaves? James is 35, and is certainly in the back end of his prime. Star players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have seemingly lost interest in the league, embracing social justice or television projects instead. Players seem totally disinterested in the NBA's elaborate "bubble" in Orlando. The public knows that the league is distracted, and so are its players.

Insert: Zion Williamson. The ever-smiling, nose-to-the-grindstone, Duke-attending bully who gave the NBA its highest-rated non-Christmas Day game of the season in his January debut against the Spurs. There's a reason we got news today that Williamson is in phenomenal shape. It comes on the heels of three prominent NBA players bailing on the post-season. It's a signal: Our next demigod cares.

It's the same reason the NBA made sure, according to Brian Windhorst, to format its return in a way that would ensure the Pelicans made the cut. It's the same reason the video game, NBA 2k21, featured Zion in Sony's Playstation 5 reveal a few weeks ago. It's the same reason ESPN had something called a "Zion cam" during his inaugural performance.

Zion cares, and fans can feel it. That's something no amount of good PR can achieve.

Fox Sports 910 Phoenix · The Home of the Arizona Coyotes

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