Posted: Thursday December 30, 2010 11:49AM ; Updated: Thursday December 30, 2010 5:04PM
Ian Thomsen

Revisit to 1980s NBA proves LeBron's comment wrong

Story Highlights

LeBron James said contraction would help the NBA return to its 1980s form

But the great team rivalries existed because the league was watered-down

More mail: Potential Yao Ming suitors, Baron Davis' future, Bull's hole at SG

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The 1980s were defined by team rivalries -- first among the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers -- which existed because the the league was so top-heavy that the best teams were assured of meeting in the playoffs.
Rich Clarkson/SI

LeBron James made a regrettable stand on behalf of the 1980s NBA, and it has nothing to do with contraction. Follow his argument all the way through and he appears to be suggesting that some of the league's biggest names should accept smaller salaries for the good of pro basketball.

"Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall-of-Famers on the same team," James said. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [today]."

He went onto talk about shifting Kevin Love from the losing Timberwolves to shore up a winning franchise, or transferring Nets stars Brook Lopez and Devin Harris to "a team that could be really good."

The problem with this argument is that most NBA teams nowadays can't afford to pay more than a few highly talented players. The 1985-86 champion Celtics were able to maintain a roster of five Hall of Famers because there was no unrestricted free agency and no such thing as a "max contract" in the collective bargaining agreement of that era.

A cliché of today's NBA is that so many young players who average 20 points for a few years behave as if they're deserving of a "max" deal. The goal of being recognized as a max player -- a bargaining position enhanced by the leverage of unrestricted free agency -- has enabled players like Rashard Lewis, Michael Redd, Andrei Kirilenko, Gilbert Arenas, Zach Randolph, Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand and Peja Stojakovic to each be paid more than $15 million this season.

When players of the modern era began to compete for max contracts -- CBA language that entitles a player with seven or more years of NBA experience to 30 percent of the cap -- it became fiscally unfeasible for all but the richest teams to absorb three max players.

Under the system of today, it is unfathomable that the Celtics of 1985-86 would have been able to keep future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and All-Star Danny Ainge -- all in their career primes -- along with Walton, another future Hall of Famer. Wouldn't Bird, McHale and Parish each have been entitled to 30 percent? How much money would have been left for DJ and Ainge? What about Walton and Scott Wedman, another fine player on that Celtics team? The Celtics would not have had enough money to keep all of them in the same locker room.

As my colleague Zach Lowe pointed out, the '80s NBA wasn't deep with great teams. Look at the Lakers' dominance of their conference and you'll realize what a joke the West was in the '80s. Those Los Angeles teams endured one difficult postseason in the West -- in 1988 the Mavericks and Jazz each pushed the Lakers to a Game 7, mainly because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 41 years old and on his way to a final championship. During their other eight runs to the NBA Finals around Magic Johnson from 1980 to '91, the Lakers went a preposterous 79-14 in the Western playoffs. Talk about a watered-down league: The best teams in the conference were losing to the Lakers at an 85-percent rate.

The league has expanded by six teams since the 1980s, but compensating for that expansion has been the creation of new international markets for NBA imports like Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau and Marc Gasol, Yao Ming, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Nene, Anderson Varejao, Nicolas Batum, Rodrigue Beaubois, Boris Diaw, Luol Deng, Omri Casspi, Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari, Andris Biedrins, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Kirilenko, Stojakovic, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, Mehmet Okur, Hedo Turkoglu and so on. There are more teams but there is also a much larger market for player development -- and many of the players from other countries are actually schooled in the fundamentals.

The 1980s NBA was indeed terrific. The era was defined by team rivalries -- first among the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers, and later introducing the Pistons and emerging Bulls -- which existed because the rest of the league was so uncompetitive that the best teams were assured of meeting in the playoffs year after year. They played a fluid, high-scoring style, and the two biggest stars -- Magic and Larry -- were exquisite passers who could have been selfish scorers but instead were devoted to their teams. Then you had all of the other aspects of that Lakers-Celtics rivalry -- black vs. white, West coast vs. East coast and the timelessness of the NBA's two winningest franchises competing year after year.

If James wants to create his vision of the glorious '80s in which a number of teams each have three or four superstars, he needs to focus less on the number of franchises and more on a new salary system that enables each team to pay a larger number of stars simultaneously. But something tells me neither he nor his union wants to go there.
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