Time and again during these playoffs we hear about the NBA rebirth or how we are heading into a new generation of NBA greats. While I agree that the new era is here (and only getting better as the high schoolers from the past two drafts start to step up), one has to wonder what in the world happened to the generation between Michael, Hakeem, Robinson and Lebron, Wade, Arenas?
Wallets over Winning
The most obvious change has been the salary cap and I don't think people really acknowledge how important that has been. The leader of the Ego Brigade in the 90's was Derrick Coleman who started acting like a diva almost as soon as he came into the league. The Nets became the poster boys of problem children once they added Kenny Anderson but these guys weren't alone. Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were instant issues for their teams and Glenn Robinson was talking about a hundred million dollar deal before he was even drafted. In the 90's, as soon as players declared for the draft they started angling for more money. Once in the league, their focus was on getting one good season as they were always eyeing their next big payday and trying to get out from under whatever teammate was keeping them from paydirt. It got so bad that in '95, Sports Illustrated ran a cover with Coleman's face and the simple title, "Waaaaaah". The green paper chase fed egos which devoured the idea of team play. While ego has always been a problem, in the past it was usually an issue of guys wanting to get off of losing teams. The 90's generation hated life on winning teams. The Triple J ranch split up, reportedly over Toni Braxton. Kobe and Francis forcing trades on their draft day. Shaq and Kobe's rivalry was greater than their competition against their actual rivals. Stephon Marbury forced his way out of Minny and a pairing with KG. Vince Carter and Baron Davis both tanked so they could get traded, which was odd because it was their own constant injuries that were hampering the teams the most. The Generation X of the NBA missed the spot completely and put off most casual fans with their demands.
Injuries and the Albatross
While the salary cap did help out in curtailing the whining about contracts to some degree, it also created a new beast on the NBA landscape: the cap albatross. While big salary guys were a nuisance before, they became downright deadly in the cap era. Making matters worse, the mid-90's strike spelled doon for franchise guys like Vin Baker and Shawn Kemp as they fell apart completely on the short time off. Those two became infamous for being wastes of cap space but they were hardly alone. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a decade in which more stars collapsed due to injuries: Larry Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Marcus Camby, Alonzo Mourning, Allan Houston, Grant Hill, Tom Gugliotta, Antonio McDyess, Penny Hardaway, Keith Van Horn, Tracy McGrady. It seemed like as soon as a team was about to make the jump to true contender, one of their main players got hurt or weren't resigned in fear that they would become a cap albatross (Penny/LJ/Nash) While the cap helped clean up the aura of greed that had infected the NBA, GM's and owners still weren't very cap savvy and had trouble building consistent teams.
Marketability and The End of the Sneaker Wars
Tim Duncan? Too quiet. Allen Iverson? Too controversial. Shaq? Well, as Wilt said, nobody roots for Goliath. When it came to marketable stars, the 90's didn't have many. Jason Kidd seemed to be constantly surrounded by bad press, be it the messy breakup in Dallas or the spousal abuse charges in New Jersey. Grant Hill wasn't healthy long enough to market. Lamar Odom never seemed to be reliable enough to build a major marketing push around. Either players were too vanilla (Duncan, Ray Allen, Elton Brand), too divisive (AI, Marbury, 'Sheed) or simply weren't winning enough (KG, McGrady). Any way you slice it, the heir apparent to the crown that went from Magic and Larry and then to Jordan never emerged.
But it wasn't all the fault of the players, during the 90's, Nike basically took over the shoe world and as they did the marketing campaigns became weaker and weaker. There really hasn't been a memorable, long term ad campaign since Nike's Fun Police and even that didn't work that well because it introduced too many players and didn't showcase any individuals. Look at the shoe commercials of the early 90's: you had Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood for David Robinson, the Mars Blackmon?Jordan campaign, the Grandmama angle that made Larry Johnson's gold teeth more palatable to the American public (and likely paved the way for Tyler Perry's Madea film series), the Chris Rock Lil' Penny campain. As Nike became a virtual monopoly, the ads have become weaker. Matters weren't helped by the injuries to marquee guys like Larry Johnson and Penny, but Shaq didn't have a solid campaign. His highlight ad is still his first "Don't Fake the Funk on a Nasty Dunk" commercial.
Part of the reason that the NBA was popular was because the shoe companies made the players into stars. You couldn't escape Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Dr. J. They were shilling everything but it all started with their shoe campaigns. Now the shoe companies pay so much that players are too expensive to promote many lesser products while not boosting their personality or public persona to make them more desirable as spokespeople. Since Penny in '94 there hasn't been a Nike/Converse/Adidas developed star. With the game being bogged down on the court by defensive minded teams and off the court by tabloid tales of ego and greed, the NBA needed the shoe companies to help them weather the storm and the shoe companies weren't there to help. (Furthermore, the fall in creativity at Costaco Brothers hurt too. Their old posters helped build character and personality (The X-Man Cometh being perhaps my favorite) while their new ones are just action shots against cheap backgrounds.
The Dropped Baton
Every other decade featured graceful passings of power. Detroit took the baton from Boston, Chicago took it from Detroit. The Rockets borrowed it for a couple of years before Michael Jordan snatched it back. But Michael nor Hakeem never really made the pretty pass to a member of the class of the 90's. The Bulls disbanded without being conquered and laid down the baton. The Spurs pushed it forward a bit, although the focus was more on David Robinson's last hurrah rather than Duncan's first title. The Lakers then took control and continued to kick the baton down the track rather than pick it up and run with it. I can't think of a more dysfunctional dynasty. They lost to a then team of unknowns in Detroit who, when they finally made a name for themselves, lost the title to the boring Spurs squad. This is no offense to San Antonio, but let's be honest, after watching a Spurs game you'd think the biggest name in the game is Eva Longoria. It would be fitting if Cleveland or Miami could take the title so that the Lost Generation could really have the book's closed on them. Shaq would fill his role of most dominant and he could pick up the baton and hand it to Dwyane Wade to carry on.
The Continental Divide
Another issue for the 90's generation was that their NBA Finals was never really the NBA Finals. After Jordan hung it up, the balance of power had shifted completely to the West. Whether it was Lakers/Blazers or Lakers/Kings, the real rivalries were out West. By the time the Finals rolled around, nobody was really interested. The Nets and Pacers were more like afterthoughts when compared to the battles in the Western Conference Playoffs. Even when the Pistons finally beat the Lakers, the initial reaction was based around the implosion of the Lake Show dynasty as opposed to giving the Pistons any credit. However, the class of '00's is much better dispersed which will help the league. Wade, Lebron, Dwight and Darko will battle in the East battle to take on 'Melo, Amare, Brand, Chris Paul in the West. (On a side note, it also shouldn't be seen as a coincidence that the generation that lost the mantle of power in world basketball is being buoyed this year by foreigners Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.)
So here lies the grave of the Lost Generation of the 90's. Whlie they still have a few more years left on their tanks, most of them are heading towards the days of being supporting players to the new era of stars.