The NBA does not have a big market problem

It was July 2011. NBA fans were anxious. Will we see any basketball next year? Will we get to enjoy this beautiful sport, this sport that we all wait for every summer.

The answer was obviously no, at least not until Christmas. The NBA locked out, as the owners and players failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement. The league, fresh off LeBron James joining the Miami Heat, sold to fans two primary reasons for which the lockout — and all the resulting lost jobs and lost economic benefits basketball teams provide — was necessary.
Reason #1: the league was not making enough money, and did need players to give a chunk of basketball related income back to rectify this.
Reason #2: the league needed to restore competitive balance so that all 30 teams could compete if well managed.
The reality: reason #2 was nothing more than spin, to convince fans and those whose jobs were lost that the lockout was worth it to them. All the NBA truly cared about was reason #1: the lockout’s purpose was to make more money.
Sadly for NBA fans, the NBA is publicly sewing the seeds to repeat history and justify another lockout to its fans. Except, the NBA is too smart to come out and say, in light of the billions it is receiving in the new TV deal, that a lockout is a financial necessity.
So instead, the NBA wants to pitch a need for “competitive balance,” by getting people to play into their fears that their teams cannot compete due to flaws in the system.

And so Adam Silver spoke this week, addressing Durant to the Warriors, and declaring that the system needs fixing in order for all fans to believe they can compete.

My advice to you: the NBA does not have a “small markets can’t compete” problem warranting a lockout. All markets can compete if well managed.  Do not buy the hype.
The premise that small markets are resigned to losing stars to big markets is nothing but a myth
 
Of late, player movement has created an idea that small markets are doomed to their stars bolting because they want to play in big markets. The premise does not withstand basic scrutiny. Star movement in recent years has occurred for one reason: players want to play with better players and win more. Kevin Durant is no different.
Much of this hand wringing was set into motion by the formation of the 2010 Miami Heat. The irony is that their formation precisely demonstrates that modern day stars, flush with mega million dollar deals and even bigger shoe and clothing deals regardless of market size (Durant had a $300 million Nike deal  from OKC and Lillard’s shoe presence from Portland is huge), simply have not made their free agency decisions on the basis of markets.
LeBron met with New York, New Jersey (then soon to be Brooklyn), Los Angeles, and Chicago in 2010. Miami was the smallest non incumbent (Cleveland) market that he met with. The idea that he left Cleveland for a big market, by picking the smallest market he met with, was truly preposterous at the time, and was later belied by his return home.
Indeed, during the infamous “Decision”, LeBron made his reasoning clear: he went to Miami to play with Wade and Bosh because he respected their games the most of anyone he could play with. Simply, the big 3 wanted to play together because they believed being a triot gave themselves the best shot at winning, and they made that happen. It was not a market size based decision.
 
Nor were the other recent free agent decisions of significance. 
Go on down the line. Chris Paul poured his soul into New Orleans. He became a Clipper because of a tenuous ownership situation, and to play with Blake Griffin.  Dwight Howard?  After foolish beliefs he left Orlando to be in a big market, he literally could not wait to leave the Lakers — the kingpin NBA market — and became a Houston Rocket.  The proof hit a crescendo when  LaMarcus Aldridge fled Portland for San Antonio — so clearly a decision made because of a belief he could win, and not market size.  Kevin Durant’s decision is basically a more surprising version of Aldridge’s.
Carmelo to the Knicks? He was jealous when he saw the Miami 3 form and he responded by trying to form his own big three — the purpose of his move was not to bolt a smaller market. Remember, after LeBron’s decision came the infamous Melo Amare CP3 toast at Melo’s wedding, that they would one day join forces — Melo made two of three occur.  Also, it should be noted — while Melo is the best argument the “stars render small markets hopeless by running toward big markets” crowd has, his move surely has not altered the NBA’s power balance given the Knicks’ struggles the past six seasons — they have had just one relevant team.
If where some players have signed does not convince you that the league does not have a big market dominance probelm, just look at recent big market failures to add talent.  The Knicks could not beg players to take their money in 2015, and the Nets struggled similarly in 2016. The Lakers?  They lost Dwight in 2013, struck out in 2014 and 2015, and then Durant, DeRozan, and Whiteside did not even talk to them in 2016 – let alone sign with them. The Lakers responded how the big market stereotype suggests small markets have to respond — they overpaid lesser, non star talent in Mozgov and Luol Deng just to get someone to take their money.
 
Think about this for a second. The NBA is trying to spin to its fans that a lockout is needed, so that the CBA can be overhauled, because, without an overhaul, small market fans cannot believe that their teams can compete.  This spin is being sold in an era where (1) two of the last three champs, including the defending champs, are from small markets; (2) the Lakers, the league’s #1 prime market franchise, cannot beg good players hand over foot to take their money; (3) the Knicks and Nets have struggled tremendously, and have, in any event, not made a star free agent acquisition in recent memory. How is this still a pitch people believe in?
 
Maybe it’s more fun to talk about all of these factors for free agency decisions.  But really, Durant’s free agency decision was as simple as those before him: he left the Thunder for the Warriors because he believes the Warriors provide a better chance to win than the Thunder do.  His decision was so based on the need to get himself into a big market that the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, and Bulls never got meetings, while the Clippers were only seen as a darkhorse. Really, were these the (insert or small market here) Warriors, he would be there. Durant’s comments on making the move to grow as a person? That is just spin, because he and his team saw the backlash to LeBron’s “easy way out” move, and sought to craft a narrative to avoid that same backlash. 
In an ironic way, Durant choosing the Warriors vindicates that the NBA is not a league where you must build via free agency — competitive balance exists because teams can be built, regardless of market size, by the draft and by trade.  The Warriors drafted Curry, Draymond, Klay, Barnes, Ezeli, and Kevin Looney to build a title winning core — just like all 30 teams can — and all five players outperformed or reasonably performed to their draft position (aside from Looney who simply has not played much).  When Monta Ellis. another drafted piece who outperformed his draft position, did not fit the core, they shrewdly dealt him for Andrew Bogut, a fantastic fit.  Yes, Andre Iguodala committed to them in 2013 — he came off a playoff loss to the Warriors during which Curry and the core impressed him, and he believed in what that core could do.  That was not a big market balance issue — and the Warriors sacrificed multiple draft picks to get him, in a move that appeared risky at the time.  The other pre Durant free agency acquisitions: Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao, James Michael McAdoo, Ian Clark, and Brandon Rush — no offense to them, but none scream “market size exploitation.”
Durant then, because of how well the homegrown, well built Warriors, played together, wanted to be a part of it.  Good management, and team building all 30 teams could have done, was rewarded — if anything, the Warriors are vindication that all 30 markets can compete by building through the draft and then by shrewdly building around a drafted core — that won the Warriors a title, and nearly a second, before it intrigued Durant.
The NBA will tell you that a lockout is warranted, because the league needs a system where all markets believe they can compete.  It is unwarranted, because all markets can compete as is. Do not buy that pitch.
There is no way to create a system that generates competitive balance in the short term, but competitive balance exists over the long term
 
The NBA has begun its pitch that system changes for competitive balance are imperative.  Check the executive hand wringing here in this very good Howard Beck piece, where executives cite how flawed the system is.
 
Here is the thing: how can the NBA argue that there is a “recent trend” away from competitive balance — there has ALWAYS been a lack of competitive balance — in any given short term period (emphasis on short term).
 
The 1980’s Lakers won five titles and went to three more finals across ten years. Is that the competitive balance we miss today?  The 1990’s Bulls won six of eight titles, and maybe win the other two if Michael Jordan does not try his hand at baseball. Only one franchise, in Houston, filled the two year gap. Is that the yearned for competitive balance we once had?
 
The bottom line is that in basketball, only five players play at once, and only one or two of those players truly dominate the ball. One player, simply, has a gigantic impact upon the outcome of a given game, and thus season. That will always be the case — you can have the world’s most brilliant people construct the most fair CBA possible, and that will never change. The teams who secure the league’s top ten players will dominate, as the rest try to figure out a way to get their hands on such players. No CBA clause will ever change that. In a given season, only several teams can contend for a title — that always was, is, and always will be, the case. 
 
What the NBA does have — which is all it can ask for — is competitive balance in the long term — over time, history shows that any franchise can eventually build a title contender.  The Cavaliers and Warriors, for all the current concerns about their dominance, were bad teams two and four years ago respectively, and are bad historically — if you are under 40 years old and are reading this column, neither franchise won a title during your life until the past two seasons.  The evidence that all franchises can compete over time goes beyond that.  The Raptors, Celtics, Hornets, Pistons, and Rockets were all playoff teams that missed the playoffs within the past four years. The Clippers, once a late night comedy show laughingstock, are now perennially good. The recently elite Heat, Pacers, and Bulls are retooling or rebuilding.  Routine 55 win periods in Dallas and Phoenix behind Dirk and Nash in recent memory have not been sustained.
If you just look at the playoff picture, almost every team has had some level of success in recent years. Nineteen of the NBA’s thirty teams have won a playoff series since 2011-2012.  Of the eleven who have not, only three (the Wolves Suns and Kings) have not made the playoffs in that period — one of those three has Karl Anthony Towns, one was a perennial 50-60 game winner in recent memory, and while one has stumbled, that stumbling has been due to their own dysfunction, not the CBA and its lack of competitive balance strictures. Nearly every fanbase has gotten a taste of playoff basketball in recent memory.
So, yes. In 2016-2017, as usual, about 24 teams will not have even a title prayer. That is not a function of free agency, or the current CBA, but a function of how basketball has always worked.  But by sound decision making, those 24 teams can position themselves to become contenders in the near future. And history tells us that many will.
Recent small market success, more than anything, should turn the big market hand wringing on its head 
This is where the hand wringing about big market dominance looks most foolish.  The most successful NBA franchise since 1997 is resoundingly the San Antonio Spurs — a small market. The defending NBA champions come from small market Cleveland, the champion prior to that drafted its three best players, and the champion before that was San Antonio. Since 2010-2011 (when the hand wringing over markets really started), the NBA’s six glamour market franchises — the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Celtics, and Bulls — have just two total conference finals trips in 36 collective tries, no finals trips, and twelve lottery appearances.  How can anyone possibly complain about the hopelessness of small markets?  It simply cannot be stated that the scales are tipped in favor of big market success, such that small markets are resigned to being bad.
The retort of some to this is that recent small market success is fluky. After all, there is only one Tim Duncan to buoy the Spurs, and one LeBron James from Akron.  But here’s the thing: that is true of all championship level success, be it in a big or small market.  The Lakers won five recent titles because Shaq and Penny feuded, and because of the fortunately timed Gasol deal.  The Celtics won a title because Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale are former teammates and friends. The Bulls dominated because Michael Jordan became so much better than anyone ever expected.  The Warriors?  Nobody thought Curry or Draymond Green would become anything remotely close to what they are.  All titles require strokes of luck and good fortune — regardless of what market they are won in.
Most “competitive balance” measures are lip service, and while the CBA can use some tinkering, a full bore lockout is not necessary 
 
Remember the 2011 lockout supposedly driven by a need for competitive balance? Nothing happened, really, other than the imposition of a stern luxury tax that made paying multiple big name talents possible, but very expensive.  That did little, as teams will typically pay big bucks to keep their top tier talent. All it really did, in most instances, was lead to teams dealing their lower end reserves to save scratch and duck the tax. Most of those random “team trades no name player for protected second round pick” deals you see — the tax is the rationale there.  Dumping ninth men and worse, however, clearly does not create balance. The Thunder dealt Harden, sure, but did so in a poor attempt of roster balancing; no CBA clause required that, and they were the only franchise to deal a star in the name of saving scratch under the new CBA.  It also should be noted that, while this is not anyone’s fault, the cap spike nuked the luxury tax’s effect, as with a cap this high, the even higher tax is almost a total non factor. Finally, the 2011 CBA gave tax teams a smaller mid level exception (around $3.3 million) than the $5.5 million non tax teams got. Players signing at those levels however — clear bench players — are not swinging competitive balance.
There are imperfections in the CBA that can be addressed. Since teams spend in reliance on the cap, good teams, with a lot of tied up money, should not have a sudden treasure trove of cap space — cap smoothing should occur when TV money influxes in in an aberrational matter.  Perhaps it can be agreed that if the cap is smoothed due to a spike, players receive the non cap allotted money in the form of a end of year check to ensure that they get theirs even during ca smoothing.  And yes, cap smoothing would have avoided Durant to Golden State — not due to market size but due to simple math, as the Warriors would not have been able to open max space without touching their pre Durant big 3.
Another change that is needed?  Max contracts should be eliminated to deter big stars from coming together by increasing the paycut required to do that — this is a problem I discussed on this site, here.  The rookie scale, mid level exception, and D-League salaries should be adjusted, to ensure that the increased money in the system is dispersed more fairly — although that is more of an equity point that will not skew competitive balance.  All of these measures can occur without a protracted lockout, but through a few quick sit downs between the league and union.  And if they cannot, there is no reason for a lockout over them.
Just know this.  If the NBA locks out its players, it won’t be done to “create competitive balance,” despite the recent rhetoric about the ability of all markets to compete.  It will be done because the NBA will look to seize upon increased player salaries and the associated public sticker shock, as well as Durant’s Warriors signing and the perception it creates about “superteams in big markets”.  Owners will look to use these evidence as tipping points, to convince fans that a lockout is necessary to solve these “problems,” and that it is on players to provide them concessions in the name of competitive balance, to resolve these “problems.”  Do not buy it: the purpose behind this lockout would simply be to pressure players into financial concessions, in the form of more BRI going ownership’s way.  That is all it was about in 2011, and that is all it is about now.  No fan deserves that.
History repeats itself. Don’t let the NBA sway your perception of the need for competitive balance, because the NBA appears to be using that perception as leverage to cause its lockout history to repeat.

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