SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the biggest story lines from Sunday’s games, including the Celtics’ dominant performance in the first round.
There is something oddly appropriate about knowing, as an NBA playoff game is about to end, that the postgame press conference is going to be must-see television to a degree the game wasn’t.
Make no mistake, what Russell Westbrook has been doing in a very public way during the Oklahoma City Thunder’s series against Portland is a really bad look for the NBA. Even in an environment of general antipathy toward the media, Westbrook’s childish treatment of The Oklahoman newspaper columnist Berry Tramel has become a Twitter meme, a story line big enough to discuss on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” and a curiosity that, in some ways, has really overshadowed the series.
(Westbrook, who has been avoiding Tramel’s questions since January, softened his response Sunday night from “Next question” to “Good question, not sure” and “I really don’t know.” Either way, it’s lame and will mercifully end soon if the Trail Blazers can finish off the series Tuesday.)
MORE COLUMNS: Read more commentary from columnist Dan Wolken
The point in bringing this up isn’t to come to the defense of a fellow media member. Feuds between reporters and athletes or coaches have been going on since time immemorial, and really, who cares?
But at some point, in a season that will be largely remembered for superstars acting bizarrely without consequence, should the NBA start to worry that it’s creating too big of a gulf between its players and its fans?
The NBA right now seems like a league that doesn’t operate out of joy for the game, but rather out of deep discomfort among its multi-millionaire players.
Think about the four biggest NBA story lines of the last calendar year:
— LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Los Angeles.
— Anthony Davis requesting a trade, staying with New Orleans and awkwardly playing out the end of the season in a way that made nobody look good.
— The constant speculation that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are unhappy in their current situations and would like to team up somewhere, perhaps with the New York Knicks.
— Jimmy Butler holding out of Minnesota Timberwolves training camp to engineer a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Everyone knows the NBA is a players’ league, and the superstars are going to wield whatever power they have to put themselves in the situation that they feel best suits them. But you also can’t blame fans, at this point, if the overarching sense of grievance among high-profile players has left them a bit emotionally disconnected from the product.
If the NBA should have one major concern coming out of this year, which saw some fairly mediocre television ratings across the regular season and some troubling small sample size numbers early in the playoffs, it’s whether the connection between fans and the game’s biggest personalities is eroding before our very eyes.
Maybe it’s just Golden State Warriors fatigue. Maybe it’s James moving to the West Coast and missing the playoffs. Maybe once the second round gets going with some juicier matchups, fans will hop back on the bandwagon.
But it’s worth asking whether the NBA is finally paying a public relations price for the actions of its players, who have gotten remarkably little negative feedback from the media as they’ve agitated to blow up franchises.
A lot has changed since 2010 when James endured significant hate and criticism, much of it unfair, for The Decision. Quite simply, the perception of star players being able to engineer their teams has changed, and the NBA media has by and large become player-friendly to the point of cheerleading.
The outgrowth of that, though, is believing there’s no image consequence for pulling a stunt like Butler did in the preseason. He did a sit-down interview with ESPN right after it leaked that he was berating everyone in the Timberwolves organization during a practice for a team he didn’t want to play for anymore. Or when Davis showed up to the Pelicans’ season finale in a T-shirt that read, “That’s All Folks!” after an ill-fated trade request caused chaos for his franchise and the Los Angeles Lakers.
These aren’t necessarily huge things, but there is eventually an inflection point where fans just don’t understand anymore why Davis must go to his preferred team with more than a year left on his contract or why Irving spent much of the season fueling drama about possibly leaving the Celtics with a series of passive-aggressive actions or why Westbrook can’t just answer a reasonable question, even from someone he may not like.
What are these guys so upset about? Nothing is perfect in life, but NBA players have it pretty good — and by and large, they deliver a terrific product.
That’s why it’s weird and concerning that so much negative energy surrounds the league right now. Most of these guys, at their core, are good people who are really easy to root for. But if star players are determined to make fans as cynical as they are, it will eventually hurt the NBA.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken