Competitive balance: It’s not the market, it’s the owners

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The NBA lockout is no longer a financial fight. With both sides firmly (for now) at the 50/50 split everyone predicted at the beginning of the summer, perhaps it never really was.

Players were always going to have to concede on the financial aspects of this fight. That this has dragged out so long is because the union is trying to get the most value for their lost money. For each percentage point of BRI they “spend” in these negotiations, they are hoping to maintain some control over the system they work under.

Unfortunately for the players, we are only a year removed from “The Decision”, an hour long spectacle that was the culmination of one player forcing owners to get on their knees and kowtow to the self-proclaimed King’s every demand. And while this lockout goes back years before LeBron James became everyone’s favorite villain, the timing and collective wound to ownership’s egos has certainly played its part in strengthening their resolve.

With every BRI percentage point now played, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver finally laid the owners’ cards on the table.

“In order for us to have the competitive balance we want, it restricts player movement to a certain degree.”

The simple narrative is that years ago the NBA entered an arms race with the creation of the current incarnations of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. This proliferation has been escalated by teams like the Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, and Orlando Magic—enough so that even the San Antonio Spurs dipped their toe in the waters. If the NBA’s largest markets are nuclear powers, the rest of the league, comparatively, are third world countries with no chance of competing under such a system.

This being the case, most fans can get behind the idea of creating an equally competitive system. To reach that mythical and coveted parity the NFL seems to enjoy so much—because it would be nice to have a successful NBA team in cities like Green Bay, or New Orleans.

NBA owners are counting on fans buying this dreck. They need you to. Because the only other reason to pin this competitive imbalance on is the owners gross, incompetent mismanagement of their NBA team.

In keeping with the arms race theme, you cannot hand the Lakers a nuclear missile and then cry about them having nuclear missiles. In reality, the Los Angeles market size did not create the current Lakers superpower. Michael Heisley and Chris Wallace of the Memphis Grizzlies did.

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you cannot hand the Lakers a nuclear missile and then cry about them having nuclear missiles. In reality, the Los Angeles market size did not create the current Lakers superpower. Michael Heisley and Chris Wallace of the Memphis Grizzlies did.

[/pullquote]Rewind to the months before the Pau Gasol trade and you will find a Lakers team on the brink of collapse. Kobe Bryant was pushing for a Bynum-Kidd trade, and when he did not get his way, a petulant push for a Bryant trade. The Lakers were capped and had few assets to bring in talent. Check the landscape of the Western Conference that year and realize that the Spurs, Hornets, and Suns were all very prominent and viable championship contenders.

There were many markets that would have absorbed Pau Gasol’s contract while returning better financial and talent assets. Wallace and Heisley chose to send him to Los Angeles. The rest of the Lakers were built on a tough decision to let go of an aging Shaq.

While the trade did eventually work out for the Grizzlies with Marc Gasol in the same fluke-ish way that Manu Ginobili worked out for the Spurs, and the Grizzlies are now competitive, the trade also set the championship bar so high that even at their best the Grizzlies cannot financially hope to compete for an NBA title.

Market size did not dictate the Toronto Raptors overpay for Hedo Turkoglu. Or that the Suns acquire him a year later. It did not make the Cavs burn their last lottery pick on Luke Jackson, overpay Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, pin your expiring contracts on Atawn Jamison, and deem JJ Hickson untouchable.

Market size does not employ David Khan or force him to draft Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn back-to-back in the same draft. It doesn’t create secret under the table deals with Joe Smith, trade your second best player and draft picks for Marko Jaric, and extend Troy Hudson to a long term deal.

Market size did not lure LeBron James to the Knicks. Nor did it prevent other owners from having the same foresight as Miami. It did not take the max deal that Amare Stoudemire was seeking and spend it on Hedo, Josh Childress, and Hakim Warrick. It did not max out Joe Johnson.

Restricting player movement does not create competitive balance if the player you pin all your hopes and dreams on in the first place is a guy like Joe Johnson. Or David Lee. Or Vince Carter. Or Eddy Curry.

The system is not even the reason for the San Antonio Spurs financial and playoff losses. Age is. Like any aging person trying to stay fit, staying healthy is more expensive the older you get.

The truth is, if you want to compete for an NBA championship, bottom out. Land a franchise player and an All-Star player or two through the draft, and then don’t screw up. No system change is going to change that.

If the owners truly want to create competitive balance in this league, they should hire better people. Or fire themselves.

  • JustinFL

    So true.  Great points.  I have scratched my head over the years at so many of these moves.  It’s not the players fault that these idiots will pay them that kind of money.   

  • Shifty

    Excellent post.

  • Sarge

    I both agree and disagree.  Making terrible draft choices and terrible free agent signings certainly impacts the ability to win, but at the same time, it’s harder to hang on to those superstar players if you can’t afford to keep them.  So I can see both sides of this argument, to be honest.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    So then your argument is that superstars should not have any right to leave their team under any circumstances whatsover (unless a team decides to trade them)?

    The league has been setup so that teams can afford to keep their Superstars. It’s overpaying the wrong ones, and paying guys like Joe Johnson and Hedo Turkoglu that have harmed teams.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lordxar Ray Briggs II

    I think it’s ignorant to think that money doesn’t have something to do with building a contender and that those that have the most money and can spend the most over the cap aren’t in a much better situation to win. It’s not the only problem with the leagues system, and having good people is more important than having money to spend, but it is a significant factor.
    The fact is the teams with money to blow can afford to have a mistake because they can afford to sweep it under the rug. Teams like SA don’t have that leeway. RJ is a bust. But Holt can’t afford to just offload him like the Knicks or Lakers at a lose. He probably doesn’t have the money to just let him sit on the bench and give large contracts out using the MLE every year either. But the Knicks, Lakers, Heat etc sure can afford to do something like that.
    More money/larger market allows you to attract better free agents, swing larger trades and take on bad contracts to get a player that can make a difference on your team. Big time FAs are also more likely to join a team they know can/will spend over the cap to build a winner.
    I think on a more level playing field a team with as smart management as the Spurs has even more titles.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    Here’s the deal: Contending revolves around having an NBA Superstar. Small markets teams like the Chris Webber kings were wildly successful and profitable when they were winning. They won, people showed, the team made money, they were then able to spend more.

    First you have to get the superstar, and those guys often come through the draft or trade. Huge free agents signings are not the norm. And there’s a cap, so to sign one, you have to gut your team first like Miami did. Once you have them, people start showing up, you make money.

    Money is a factory, yes, but it’s not THE factor. The problem is not that they can’t compete in the markets, it’s that they make terrible decisions.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    The Spurs had leeway with Duncan, because they didn’t have to make bad decisions like Richard Jefferson. When Duncan got older, as he declined, they needed to take more and more risks.

  • Bry

    I completely agree with Ray Briggs. The big money teams can afford really stupid deals and still survive economically. The other franchises can’t. Richard Jefferson made 9 million last year, and he’s the starting small forward, but Spurs fans rage about it because the Spurs just can’t afford to overpay a player like the Mavs and Lakers routinely do. Look at the deal the Lakers gave to Lamar Odom. There’s no way a poor franchise does that (and that might not even be allowed under the next collective bargaining agreement. The Mavs gave an awful contract to Brendon Haywood, but they could afford mistakes like that. I mean, Caron Butler (whom they were gifted by the idiots in Washington) blew out his knee and never played in their championship run, but they were so absurdly deep with their massive salaries that it really didn’t even hurt them. There’s no way Milwaukee, Charlotte, San Antonio etc. could ever pull those moves. If they could, then nobody would care about Richard Jefferson’s contract, just like nobody in LA cares about Luke Walton’s. I know you can’t make parity, but the old system wasn’t working. Rich teams were basically unaffected by the old luxury tax. They need a harder cap, but not a hard cap. The league is now trying to go to the opposite extreme. I agree that good and bad management decisions make and break NBA teams, but the rich teams still have big advantages. Too big, in my opinion.

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  • Jovich88

    There must be a way to lover the gap between the smaller and bigger teams. I think that, in that way, we would have more competitive season, more interesting season, and that’s what the fans want, right?

    BTW, if anyone wants to contact me about something related about employment in basketball, you can find me on:
    http://www.itsmyplay.com/staff/activity/26

  • Sarge

    No, I’m definitely not saying that.  I’m just saying that if there isn’t some mechanism in place to limit the amount of “super-teams”, it’s going to end up being one gigantic league of haves and have-nots.  Some markets have inherently more resources to work with than others.

  • Bry

    By the way, I really think the players should take this ‘final offer’ from the owners and quickly counter-offer. They’ve really been getting beaten in the media, rhetorically speaking by the owners. And, now it looks like THEY are the ones rejecting an agreement and jeopordizing the season. They should accept the 50/50 split, and make a couple tweaks to the system issues that the league is demanding, and then quickly send it back to the league, and release it to the media illustrating that they’ve made concessions on basically every single issue and that this agreement is fair. They should also decertify simultaneously. Then it would be the OWNERS who are risking the whole season by rejecting the PLAYERS’ offer of a 50/50 split. That would become clear to the public, and the pressure would be doubled with the addition of the union decertification. It’s either that, or just swallow their pride and take the deal. The players start off with the small stack in this game, and they’ve got to go all in now, while they still have enough to even pressure the owners somewhat. I have no idea why Billy Hunter and company haven’t ever gone public with an offer TO the ownership. Stern has badly outmaneuvered them in the public eye.

  • Bob

    Acquiring RJ was about a change of philosophy from previous Spurs teams. The Spurs decided they needed more firepower over defensive needs. The inability to get more out of RJ is due to them not fully embracing that philosophy.

  • yang ashton

    Don’t like Michael Jordan, at all, as an owner or a player.