NBA's Millennial Bug
Graham-Wilson-1.png

Like the rest of the world, the NBA has its own version of the Millennial Bug. And it won’t be as easy to solve as Y2K. The fabled generation of yesterday’s youth with their micro attention spans and macro designs on life, has its share of problems, real or otherwise. This isn’t to join Time Magazine by reaffirming them as “lazy, entitled narcissists,” either.

Far from it in fact. This Generation X product born in ’77, married a Millennial and only just escaped this generation branding so keep reading kids, this won’t take long. (It’s a good job the Mrs. doesn’t read these, she’d not be best pleased with that cheap shot.)

As sure as death and taxes, each sport deals with the oncoming rush of the next generation in its own way, with the unique benefits and costs that come with it. Remember the Generation X highs of Shaq and Kobe. The Baby Boomers like Larry, Magic and Kareem who set the table for them as the NBA found its feet. Transcendent cross generational stars like Jordan who bridged the gap between the Boomers and Gen X and Lebron James crossing over between the X and Y generation of today.

However, the trying times of those decades often get lost behind the rose tinted vision of the past. Rudy T and “the punch” from Kermit Washington in my year of birth. Some nine years later, the untimely death of the Celtics’ top pick Len Bias linked to cocaine. Coming closer to view were the Jail Blazers who typified the League’s struggles once the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) had left the building just before the King entered.

Sympathy will be hard to describe for the average NBA Millennials and doubtless even harder to find. Especially among similar aged readers suffering from a crippling average college debt of $33,000 while incomes have remained the same since the dawn of Y2K in 1999. The US Census tells us that 40% of unemployed Americans are Millennials resulting in the highest levels of clinical anxiety, stress, and depression than any other generation at the same age. Obviously joblessness and graduate debt aren’t issues facing your common or garden hoops pro in the Association (insert cynical line about less than a third of NBA players actually graduating despite their full ride scholarships).

Despite this reasoning, Phoenix Owner Robert Sarver laid the blame for his setting Suns squarely at the door of today’s youth. Along with smaller changes to the coaching staff and an admittance by the GM that their anti-Sixer stance of recent years may be open to question, the top boss highlighted his Millennials. Saying their generational issues are league wide and simply pointed out recent battles with Markieff Morris as an example. Once his twin brother was re-signed, then traded in the off season, the remaining Morris ran into trouble away from the arena, threw towels at the coach on the bench and slumped on court. Ironically leading to him spending more time on the bench in possession of those oh so tempting towels. The relating suspension cost Morris $145,455. But one might imagine to a Millennial who is characterized for caring more about his image, friends or social media than income – that’s not the most effective of actions. That two percent of his $8,000,000 salary for the season is the equivalent of taking 15 cents an hour from a Starbucks Barista. Small change indeed.

The issue of a league wide Millennial Bug might hold water given the pampering of players which has seemingly reached new heights. Without even touching on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to come in the next 18 months, owners, coaches and management are cotton balling starlets like never before. Witness Los Angeles Lakers lottery pick, D'Angelo Russell missing a game this month while dealing with a sore throat. All while pocketing $62,231 for the game against the Champs. Still looking for sympathy? Try running that past the cashier while waiting for your half fat, no foam, venti, almond milk, iced mocha with cream while instagramming your self(ie).

But wait! Fans of the League will look back with great fondness on the league’s greatest injuries. Amar'e Stoudemire’s fire extinguisher incident or Monta Ellis on his moped spring to ming. Always good for a hit list of stupidity is Gilbert Arenas, who faked a knee injury in 2010 to get Swaggy P more PT. In need of further convincing, then look outdoors to more worldly ballers like Vlad Radmanovic who injured himself snowboarding in 2008. Only bettered by the image of just why the 7’2” Aussie, Luc Longley hurt his shoulder surfing 1996 and seriously threatening MJ’s title defense. The fact that Kendrick Perkins’ dropping a bed on his foot in the middle of the night is bettered only by Chicago’s Rose requiring stitches after eating an apple in bed. (Insert cynical line about Millennials using the bed for more traditional purposes, like NBA Champ Jason Caffey with his ten kids by eight women)

Fans must wonder if there really is a quantifiable need for handling youthful athletes with kid gloves. Granted, other factors do come into play, as trend setting Baby Boomer, Greg Popovich took the need for resting players further than anyone. He issued the league’s first ever DNP OLD when 38 year old Tim Duncan was moth balled for the night. Coach Pop is renowned for satirically taking aim at the establishment with stunts like this and his distaste for quarter break interviews. Which ironically have become the only interviews worth watching. While the rest of the league has yet to follow suit with is National TV temperament, they have picked up the Hack-A-Whoever strategy and ran with it. Again, much to the befuddlement of fans, this tactic takes elongates games and makes them more unwatchable that ever. But rules are rules. Until they’re changed that is.

One of Pop’s favorite targets is DeAndre Jordan. Owner of the NBA’s highest FG% and its' second best rebounder, the 41% free throw shooter leads the list of victimized. Without trying, Jordan’s currently ninth in the NBA in FTs attempted at over seven per game, while making just around three a night. But that’s not the worst of it. 22 year old Millennial Andre Drummond suffers a similar fate boasting the league’s worst FT mark at 36 percent. Those that way inclined might point to his generation’s short attention span is limiting his ability to master a very learnable but practice-heavy skill.

Traditionalists would be forgiven for thinking that wear and tear on the body would be the result of being hacked and hit that many times by huge humans. It would seem not. As despite the unworldly foul shot numbers and his paint dominated game, Jordan currently leads the NBA with 300 current straight games played. Quite the feat for any would-be Iron Man, let alone one who operates solely in the lane and won’t shoot outside of four feet, unless forced. But where does that feat stack up in comparison?

The NBA’s most marvelous Iron Man, Baby Boomer A.C Green clocked up 1,192 straight games and all told for his career, played 1,278 of a possible 1,281 (99.8%). His run began in 1986 with a game against the Spurs of all people, two years before Pop’s tenure began. But when the former Laker champion passed Randy Smith’s 906 game record, his streak almost ended at the hands of J.R. Reid when he was intentionally elbowed in the face. Despite losing two teeth, he played on throughout 1995 with a protective mask and possibly a sore throat as well, D’Angelo?

Green also suffered from chronic hiccups throughout his career which reportedly only stopped during exercise and limited him to two hours sleep at any one time. That Thatcher-like sleep pattern would make it a challenge to run a country or win a title for anyone. But as the London Times’ Matthew Parris commented on Britain's only female Prime Minister to date, "She understood that this was war when others didn't. And in war you need a warrior." That very same cliché of sporting stars needing to be warriors is over used and seemingly never less apt that with Generation Y.

The Iron Lady’s Silent Generation may well have been made of sterner stuff but Millennials are not being given the chance by their superiors. Tony Parker often, albeit jokingly nudged his Coach about only being thirty years old and not needing rest, a comment that often fell on deaf ears. But the Spurs’ restful strategy may have some backing in fact, given their standing as the least injured team this season. However, the league leading Warriors have missed the seventh most games to injury this term to date with 81 games missed due to injury.

Looking to the other end of the table in search of conclusive facts sees the under performing Wizards (148 games) and Nets (124) along with the inexucsable 76ers (121) are the most injured teams. However, A.C Green’s LA Lakers have missed only 17 games to injury (28th in the league) yet find themselves rock bottom of the west.

So with inconclusive evidence and risk averse executives and coaches seemingly with an eye on tomorrow rather than tonight, Millennials have found a sympathetic ear in the NBA workplace. Just like their pampering parents, their every whim is pandered to, seemingly without the need for bizarre self-inflicted injuries of the past. They will tell you it’s a smarter long term way of thinking. But the same could be said of their career prospects and job security. Fans on the other hand will say otherwise. Their dollars are the same spent today on the NBA as they are tomorrow, only inflation adjusted.

Front offices must decide whether to continue to short change fans by coddling budding stars or begin to take a stronger stance on performance related pay. My first NBA disappointment was back on February 12th 1993. An avid Warriors fan, I tuned into Screensport back in the UK for the game of the week from the Boston Garden, recorded some five days earlier. The wide eyed teen was expecting to witness fast paced Chris Mullin run laps round the aging Celtics. But without Mullin, due to a torn collateral ligament in his right thumb which forced him to miss 36 games and five other rotation players, the Warriors decided to change tactics. The took turns to hold the ball on offense for 18 seconds at the half way line, before isolating to play one on one.

Taking the air out of the ball also deflated the game for the only time this Warrior fan would get to see the team on TV. The looks of confusion stretched from the sofa to the Celtics Coaches who took the best part of four quarters to figure it out. Sarunas Marciulionis and Latrell Sprewell played all 48 minutes in the five point loss that went down to the wire. Tim Hardaway and journeyman Jeff Grayer played 47 in a risky attempt to get the win at any cost. And speaking of cost, the four players in question earned $40,1222... combined, for that game. Last men standing indeed given it was their third game in four nights. Can you imagine twitter's take on that work load?

Obviously times have changed since then and will continue to do so. Even if the personnel on the sidelines haven't. You guessed it, Coach Pop was an assistant with the Warriors in 1993 and yes of course he has some sharp words for players that night who broke from the game plan, regardless of their fatigue. It must have been a sleepy flight back to the Bay on their way to losing ten of eleven games in that stretch.

One man who knows more than most about dollars, winning, sharp words and risk taking is legendary light sleeper Donald Trump. The business magnate apparently needs only three hours sleep nightly, is playing his part in America’s next big decision. Will Millennials think his hard driving, fast talking style is right? Another option is a man leading a counter culture revolution from the left, the Silent Generation’s Bernie Sanders. The 74 year old from Vermont is busy convincing us, there is a better way to what has gone before.

Coincidentally NBA teams find themselves at the same tipping point. One thing’s for sure. This isn’t your father’s NBA – but that doesn’t seem to bug Millennials.