Doug Robinson: Is something missing in today's NBA?

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 7:10 p.m. MST

Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) drives to the basket past Indiana Pacers' Paul George (24) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Pacers 97-94.  (Lynne Sladky, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) drives to the basket past Indiana Pacers' Paul George (24) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Pacers 97-94. (Lynne Sladky, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Something seems to be missing in the NBA these days.

But what?

Helmets and shoulder pads?

Great teams?

Transcendent players?

Richard Sherman?

Madmen who wear $8 khakis and throw sideline tantrums?

Some mix of all of the above?

Kobe Bryant is injured and aging, and LeBron James, although plenty talented, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi as the face of the NBA. Whatever Jordan, Magic, Bird and Barkley had — some combination of talent, charisma and tenaciousness — he doesn’t have. There are no players — with the exception of Bryant and James, who have been pushed on us by Madison Avenue — who have transcended the game so that even non-fans know who they are.

Maybe it’s because they play only one season of college ball before jumping to the NBA. Fans don’t have a history with them at that point, nor have the players served a full apprenticeship and developed their games.

Yes, football players often play only one more year of college ball than their basketball counterpart, but one basketball player makes a much bigger impact in the NBA than one football player in the NFL.

Maybe what the NBA lacks are characters and drama. Football is full of them. The NFL has Coach Hoodie, the Ryan brothers and crazy Jim Harbaugh. The NBA has great-but-grumpy Gregg Popovich and the pleasant-but-bland Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers, and who can name the rest of them? Where is Pat Riley and his pomade and Phil Jackson speaking from the mount and Jerry Sloan raging on the bench when you need them?

There are no storylines in the NBA, especially now that James has hand-picked a team with which he could finally win a championship. There is no Peyton Manning trying to seal his legacy. No Aaron Rodgers coming back from injury at the end of the season to put his team in the playoffs. No Tony Romo heartbreaks, no Alex Smith getting dumped, no Sean Payton banishment, no Mike Shanahan benching one of the game’s marquee players.

Is this what’s missing (just spitballing here)?

Maybe James himself answered the question last month when the Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman asked him if the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers constituted a rivalry. After all, those teams had met in the last two postseasons, going seven games in last spring’s East Conference finals, and they seem headed for another playoff showdown.

“What is a rivalry these days?” James said. “A rivalry is the Celtics and Lakers. … Those are rivalries, man. We’ve played these guys two straight years in the playoffs and guys automatically make it a rivalry. It’s not a rivalry.”

James concluded his commentary by stating, “There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days … there are no more rivalries. There isn’t. It’s the truth. No rivalries.”

He might be onto something.

The NBA has pretty much always had a rivalry, but not now. Try to name just one. The Lakers and Celtics filled the bill on and off since the league opened its doors, but both of those teams are reloading. The Bulls and Pistons had a nice rivalry in the late ’80s, and there were others along the way — Knicks-Heat, Celtics-Heat, Spurs-Suns, Pacers-Knicks, 76ers-Celtics. This is to say nothing of the dearth of personal rivalries that have marked the game — Barkley-Shaq, Bird-Johnson, Russell-Chamberlain, etc.

Casting about for answers, James says maybe a rivalry is missing because teams don’t play each other that frequently — there being 30 teams and 82 games — but that makes no sense; the NBA has played 82 games for decades and managed to produce rivalries.

Attempting to define a rivalry, James said, “It’s two really, really good teams that are striving to win a championship.”

All this talk about the dearth of rivalries is a little ironic coming from James, because his leap from the Cavaliers to the Heat to form a super team helped kill rivalries. The Cavaliers built a good team around James, but when he didn’t have the patience to build his own championship club as Jordan did (he waited seven years), he formed his own all-star team in Miami.

He wasn’t the first to do this, just the most visible and most controversial. In an attempt to manufacture a championship team, players are creating their own clubs rather than the other way around, and this affects the natural order of things. It creates imbalances. It creates teams that win 29 straight games and two straight championships and three straight appearances in the NBA Finals. It destroys identities, one of the ingredients of a rivalry.

Contrast the NBA with the NFL, which always has intense rivalries. Colts-Giants. Bears-Packers. Cowboys-Redskins. Cowboys-Packers. Cowboys-49ers. Broncos-Raiders. Steelers-Raiders. Seahawks-49ers.

More than any league, the NBA always thrived on rivalries, and now they’re gone.

Maybe that's what is missing in the NBA these days.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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