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Posted: Friday March 20, 2009 12:19PM; Updated: Friday March 20, 2009 1:20PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >

Weekly Countdown: Criticisms of the NBA -- which ones are valid?

Story Highlights

Sifting through complaints heard about the NBA in relation to college basketball

Mailbag question: Will LeBron's free agency play out like Tim Duncan's did?

More topics: Dwyane Wade's MVP case; two prospects on the spot in NCAAs

5 Annual criticisms of the NBA

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Mario Chalmers (left), guarding fellow rookie D.J. Augustin, has more to worry about on defense in the NBA than he did in college.
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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.

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