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The Summer of 2014: An NBA Renaissance

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The NBA is experiencing a popularity surge, a media coverage Renaissance, during the Summer of 2014. We chronicle the events that led to the league suddenly becoming relevant again.

Angelo Merendino

Travel is one of the more difficult parts of my job. I don't jet across the world like a businessman but I put a ton of miles on my car locally. One of the few perks of such a driving schedule is being able to consume copious amounts of sports radio.

Local sports talk isn't big in my area so I listen to major national radio networks. Coverage runs by the mantra, "Football, Football, then more Football". The NFL outweighs basketball by a factor of 100 to 1 with college football taking up most of the space in between. Airtime for NBA topics gets allotted grudgingly, at best.

National media folks don't ignore the NBA entirely. Most years the league gets buzz around Christmas, the "start of the season" for casual viewers. All-Star chatter picks up briefly in February, then it's nearly dead until the Finals. After a champion is decided basketball-savvy commentators might spend some time on the draft, but that's it. Those long car rides don't provide much scenery for the basketball fan.

This summer, though, something has changed. Not only is the NBA being mentioned on the radio in July and August, it's being debated on various networks. For a league that has trouble pulling an honest 12-minute segment for 11 months of the year, the current coverage qualifies as a full-blown Renaissance.

The upswing in attention isn't accidental. From May onward, the NBA has been riding the perfect storm of publicity. Just when a wave recedes, another swells to take its place, pushing The Association near the top of the coverage chart again and again. At this point, the summer is so rich in potential topics as to be embarrassing.

In case you've just been rolling along with each wave as it's come without considering the bird's eye view, here's the list of major events that have kept basketball front and center in 2014.

February--The Commissioner Change

The hand-off between David Stern and Adam Silver was newsworthy in itself. Stern had been the league's Commissioner longer than many of its fans had been alive. The changeover was akin to seeing a new Pope elected. (An event more common in the last two decades than an NBA Commissioner shift, as it turned out.) The "first-time-in-my-memory" occurrence provided the opening salvo in the new barrage of publicity.

Though the spike from the switch receded fairly quickly, the mere existence of new regime laid a foundation for renewed and enduring conversation. The respect accorded Stern during the latter years of his tenure proved a boon and a curse. You knew David Stern's NBA. You could tell what you'd get. Even if you felt you couldn't trust it in the abstract, you could at least trust its consistency. Predictability does not make for inspired, prolonged discussion.

The Silver Era opened up new frontiers by its name alone. Every decision looked fresh, uncertain. Even if no huge changes were forthcoming, people started looking at the league in a new way, feeling a new vibe. "What's going to happen?" became an open question for the first time in forever...not just on the court, but in every aspect of the sport. A league whose most memorable revolution was an ill-fated, new-material ball suddenly seemed dangerous again.

The combination of questionable footing and burgeoning curiosity made each successive wave of the oncoming storm feel bigger. No longer dipping toes in the water while wearing a Stern-approved life jacket, basketball fans found themselves swamped by each turn of the tide.

May--The Playoffs

The first jolt of real momentum for the New NBA came from the thrilling opening rounds of the playoffs. The Western Conference was stacked high with semi-plausible contenders. The looming Heat-Pacers confrontation promised fireworks in the East as well, punctuated by surprisingly strong showings from the Wizards and Hawks. 5 of 8 first-round series went to 7 games. One ended in 6 games like this:

Your standard-issue year leaves casual fans little reason to tune in until the Conference Finals. May, 2014 turned basketball fans and commentators into Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde, entering Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and gorging on the delights of their dreams until they drowned in, or exploded from, all the goodness. Not only was the storm getting big, riding it was fun.

Mid-June--The San Antonio-Miami Finals

Ask any sports reporter what they want out of the NCAA Tournament and they'll answer simply. "Give us plenty of upsets, Cinderellas, and thrills in the early rounds and then let it come down to the best four teams at the close." That's exactly what the NBA gave its viewers this year. The Spurs and Thunder, Pacers and Heat would have been picked by most serious observers as 2014's Final Four. By the time the Heat and Spurs met in a Finals rematch, their supremacy had become clear. You could not have picked a better matchup.

San Antonio winning the championship provided counterpoint and assurance amid the new revolution. If the league was changing, what would it be about? Big markets? Glitzy superstars? The Spurs allowed reporters and columnists to take up a new, comforting refrain: good basketball still matters. Whatever the upheaval might produce, sustained excellence would show through.

This "Nicklaus Wins the Masters One More Time" tale wasn't just warm and fuzzy. It brought continuity and gravitas to the proceedings. How a team built became as important to the narrative as who they built with. Credit didn't land as hard on Tim Duncan and Tony Parker as the mythical "San Antonio Way". The implication: any franchise can do this if they do it right. By tradition "resigned fatalism" could describe the outlook of 25 out of 30 teams. Suddenly each franchise's moves seemed important again, therefore worth attending to.

Late June--A Super-Deep Draft

As if cued by a master director, right on the heels of San Antonio's triumph came an ultra-deep, much-anticipated draft. Debate surrounding the top three picks spearheaded coverage, but teams were expected to find nuggets--even starters--down the list into the 20's. Joel Embiid's injury dampened the spirit of the evening, but even that fed into speculation about his value and how far he'd slip before someone couldn't resist. Philadelphia picking him up instantly turned one of the worst franchises in the league into one of the most interesting. Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker now. Minnesota is embroiled in the trade talks of the century. Even bad is good--or at least noteworthy--in the new NBA.

Ongoing Interlude--The Donald Sterling Controversy

In between playoff and draft coverage, the national media--even non-sports outlets--turned to the horrific comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling's racist bent was not in question. How the NBA would respond became the topic of the hour.

Player protests, league-wide solidarity, and swift action by the new Commissioner not only ended up effective, they placed the entire NBA brand firmly in the camp of the good guys. Contrast this with the lingering (and also racist) perception of "thuggery" and "gangster lifestyle" among players and the still-enforced dress code response of management. The shift was significant. Sterling could not have looked worse. The league, in opposing him with nearly-united voice, could not have looked better. Victory in court and the sale of the Clippers to a new owner will put the icing on the cake, occasioning a public "well done" for all involved.

Note: In no way am I suggesting that the NBA or its players are taking advantage of this situation in order to look good. Rather I'm pointing out that the wind is blowing so fortuitously that issues which have divided members and followers of the league in the past now unite them. A potential public relations nightmare has turned into a tide of goodwill.. This is not your dad's NBA when it comes to public perception.

Early July--LeBron Comes Home

Incredibly, all of the foregoing was just prelude to the REAL big event of the summer: LeBron James returning to Cleveland.

Four years ago James joined the Miami Heat in one of the bigger public relations disasters imaginable. Not only was LeBron leaving home and the still-dependent team that drafted him, he announced his much-anticipated decision via The Decision on national television, endearing himself to exactly zero people outside of the Greater Miami area. The noise from LeBron's camp during the debacle was deafening, the reaction from everybody else frustrated and negative.

The 2014 scenario proved the exact inverse of 2010. Outside of a few Art-Bell-type conspiracy floaters, nobody thought James would really leave Miami. Then the buzz started. He might be going! Is he going? Could he? Would he? No, seriously. Not after he won titles, right? Whoa...the Cavs appear to be clearing cap space! Hold on a minute...

This time around the response from LeBron's camp was silence. Instead of scripting the drama themselves they let everybody else write it for them. They didn't tip their hand. They didn't even acknowledge they were going to play a hand at all.

This relative quiet, plus the ubiquity of social media, allowed for raucous and unbridled speculation from all corners, ranging from ultra-elite media personalities to your local plumber. Folks who hadn't watched a second of the NBA Finals were checking in to see where LeBron would end up. Media personalities who couldn't get access or solid info started taking guesses...multiple guesses, every day, changing with the wind. A brand which had trouble generating conversation, let alone positive conversation, now couldn't stop it. The LeBron story turned into a frenzy.

When James finally announced that he was returning to Cleveland, when he did so via a touching letter explaining his connection to his home area and roots, the best player in the NBA suddenly turned from heel to babyface. Nearly every ounce of that spent energy turned towards goodwill for the league. The Eastern Conference became even more interesting, with multiple storylines weaving around multiple teams instead of focus falling on a single, largely unlikable, Miami juggernaut. It was Christmas in July. The summer could not get any better.

Mid-July--The Secondary Free Agent Market Explodes

In a normal year the free agencies of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and a handful of other franchise leaders would have been Storyline A throughout July. In the Summer of 2014 A-list players became dominoes dropping behind LeBron. But plentiful talent combined with copious and wide-spread cap space kept the echoes of those dominoes reverberating.

GM's who lost out on LeBron were rumored to be chasing Anthony or Bosh. Mid-level guys--Vince Carter, Darren Collison--carried their own weight. Gordon Hayward went through a contract rush. In late July Jameer Nelson and Shawn Marion, former All-Stars, tried to find landing spots. Marion, Emeka Okafor, and Andre Blatche remain without homes to this day. Everywhere you turn big names--past, present, and even a couple future--are settling into new perches. As soon as one guy comes to rest, another starts descending from the holding pattern.

Many of these moves ended up being non-moves. The high-priced, super-talented crop of free agents tended to remain with their teams. But the buzz and speculation of the early free-agent period made anything seem possible. More names got connected with more potential destinations in more reputable corners of the NBA universe than seemed possible in the past, when people just assumed that the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, or other super-teams would vacuum up the prized catches. A league with 30 teams and maybe a dozen difference-making superstars runs on hope and promise as much as anything. Those attributes got distributed father, faster, and louder this July than we're used to seeing...another bit of good fortune for the NBA.

August and Beyond--The Kevin Love Saga

If you're not overwhelmed yet then clear your mind, sit back, and imagine the typical NBA summer.

Now imagine that during your imaginary summer, the league's top power forward (by statistics, anyway) was getting traded for the #1 overall pick in that year's draft. How absolutely, monstrously HUGE would that blockbuster be?

In the Summer of 2014 that very trade is almost an, "Oh yeah, and that's going to happen too..." afterthought...the dried-out chicken breast at the end of a colorful buffet line. We're already so stuffed we barely have room for it on our plate. Still, the Kevin Love deal is generating headlines and will continue to do so through August, when Andrew Wiggins is available to trade. Will this summer swell ever end?

The short answer to that question is, "No. Not this year." By the time the final contracts are inked and the final deals consummated--all somehow seeming more significant than usual--we'll be staring at September and pre-season.

Every element described here has happened before at one time or another. Summers past have brought glittering draft classes, astonishing signings, momentous deals, and plenty of off-court drama. But I'm struggling to remember a summer like this where story after story built upon one another, each seemingly in time and harmony, each providing an opportunity for conversation and an open door for the next. You might have to travel back to the 90's before finding a time when the NBA was this far into the casual sports fan's consciousness in a positive, accessible way.

Every time I turn on the radio I get reminded of this 2014 Renaissance. I also wonder if the league is poised to capitalize on it or whether basketball will drift back out of the limelight once the balls hit the floor. The competition for July headlines isn't stiff. October through February are a tougher test. Lasting for the long run is the hardest challenge of all. I wonder what national radio hosts will be discussing in January, 2015.

For now, at least we can say that the NBA has a pretty good start, a better leg up on the 2014-15 season than they've had in ages. Through fortune or fate or skillful manipulation they've been given quite the gift here.

Let's see what they do with it.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard