Blog Entry

Does the league care about competitive balance?

Posted on: October 24, 2011 12:26 pm
Posted by Royce Young

The NBA wants you to believe something. We’re fighting for the little man. We’re sticking up for the small market team that can’t fend for itself.

That’s what Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver hammered home this week while basically announcing that the league is screwed right now.

“I know we’ve had lots of back and forth with people in this room, but we think that a team that spends $100 million on its payroll versus a team that spends $50 million is at a huge competitive advantage. It’s not a perfect one-to-one correlation, but there’s a huge competitive advantage that comes from the ability to spend more time. And there’s a reason we believe why the NFL has been so successful from a competitive standpoint with a hard cap and a reason that the NHL has been so successful from a competitive standpoint with their flex cap type system which has a hard, absolute cap at the top of the band.”

Before that, David Stern went on and on during his media blitz about how the Sacramento Kings are trying to live in a world where they spend $45 million to the Lakers $100 million. It isn’t fair. No way around it. It’s not. Historically, the trophies live in the big markets. Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles — over the past 60 years, 36 championships were won by those cities (40 if you count the four won by the Minneapolis Lakers). Four cities accounted for 60 percent of the NBA’s champions since 1950. There’s never, ever been a precedent for competitive balance in the NBA. Never has the playing field been level.

And has the league grown? Has it succeeded? Yes and yes. Most would say the top of the mountain for the NBA was the 1990s with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Or if not that, the 1980s with Magic’s Lakers battling Bird’s Celtics. Or if not that, maybe right now with the plethora of talent littered throughout the league.

This isn’t to say small markets haven’t ever won. There’s the Spurs, who have served as the beacon of hope for little guys. Except remember: When those boring Spurs were winning, that was kind of a dark time for the league. Scoring was down, ratings slipped and interest waned. That could’ve been because of a post-Jordan hangover, but the 2000s weren’t great for the league.

LaMarcus Aldridge, who plays in a small market, wouldn't speculate on what the league's real intentions are.

"If they're saying it, then hopefully they're trying to do it," he said after Sunday's charity game in Oklahoma City.

Which is kind of what you have to think with it. If they're saying it, then hopefully they really mean it.

But even with the league preaching that, I get the feeling it’s a red herring to divert attention away from the fact the owners are trying to squeeze the players out of a 20 percent (or so) paycut. It’s the owners’ version of “Let us play!” Preach fairness and tug at the heartstrings of small market fans to win support. All while reaching in the back pocket of the players. Preach parity and win public support. It’s a brilliant move. Maybe they mean it this time, but the league’s never really cared much for competitive balance, so why now? With proper revenue sharing, big market success often leads to more small market money. Or at least, more money and more success for the NBA. Which is what it’s really all about, right?

"I just want the fans to trust us and know that we're far from greedy," Chris Paul said following the charity game. "We just want a fair deal. We want to get out there and play more than anybody. But we understand that at the end of the day, we're the product. We're the reason the fans come and we just want a fair deal.”

The league though, says it wants to make life fair for a team like Paul's Hornets (which it happens to own, but nevermind that). The league wants to give equal opportunity to everybody not in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Boston. Last season's champion Mavericks? They had a payroll upwards of $90 million. That would never happen in Sacramento, Minnesota or Oklahoma City, where all the stars gathered Sunday.

The Thunder have become a poster child for parity, the beacon of hope to every struggling small market franchise. Before them were the Spurs. Even playing against the system, both teams built a perennial contenders. Why? Brilliant management, shrewd financial discipline and a good amount of luck.

Luck? Yeah, don’t deny it. OKC's general manager Sam Presti’s done wonderful work in the draft, but let’s face it: He drafted No. 2, 4 and 3 in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In 2007, he snagged the fifth pick in Jeff Green. Kevin Durant fell in his lap after Portland whiffed on Greg Oden. Now to Presti’s credit — and you won’t find anyone that sings his praises louder and more often than me — he’s three-for-three. Where other general managers pick duds — Hasheem Thabeet, Oden, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo — Presti has taken players that not only fit well into his roster structure, but have develop-able talent.

The Thunder thrive on rookie contracts and high-value veteran. Why? Because it’s the cheapest labor there is. There’s no coincidence that on every “underpaid NBA stars” list the Thunder register three or four players. The question is though: What happens with Serge Ibaka and James Harden? After Durant and Westbrook see their paydays, will Clay Bennett have the pockets to keep Ibaka and Harden too? If the Thunder were in Los Angeles or New York, it would happen. Will it in OKC?

Once upon a time, Geoff Petrie was Mr. Genius in Sacramento when he was rolling with Chris Webber. Kevin McHale drafted Kevin Garnett in for the Wolves and built a playoff contender. Eventually the well runs dry. At some point, Tim Duncan’s going to retire. And the Spurs will either reload or have to go through some small market pains.

(The opposite example has been the Knicks over the past decade though. Tons of money, tons of spending and tons of futility. Money doesn’t always equal wins. Management does. The league is cyclical. Sometimes your team is good, sometimes it’s not. Do the big markets have an advantage? Sure. But does it always matter? Nope. Do I like asking myself questions? Sometimes.)

But it’s worked so far in Oklahoma City. It worked in San Antonio. Which is why some are quick to wonder why it can’t work in Sacramento, Minnesota or Milwaukee. Why? Because there aren’t 10 Tim Duncans. There aren’t 10 Kevin Durants. And there sure as hell aren’t 10 Sam Prestis or R.C. Bufords. It’s the world we live in — some people are better at things than others. And when you’re better, you see success. Are organizations like the Thunder, Spurs, Wolves and Bucks at a competitive disadvantage? Sure they are. But is it a death sentence for mediocrity? Absolutely not. History says it’s harder to win, but it’s not impossible.

History also says the league doesn't really care. The league always has and always will look to do what's best for it, and its owners as a collective whole. Henry Abbott of TrueHoop put it well: “Instead, the league asks us all to celebrate competitive balance—so long as the pain of creating it is felt primarily by the players. When owners could do something real to make the league more competitive, like change the playoff format or pay Chris Paul far more on the open market, they lose interest.”

What does the league want this upcoming season? An NBA Finals featuring the Celtics and Lakers or a competitively balanced Finals with the Bucks and Kings. I think we all know the answer to that. Don't sell me on looking on for the little man, because we all know what you're really after -- getting your checkbooks competitively balanced.


Since: Mar 30, 2010
Posted on: October 25, 2011 1:18 am

See Also: 2002 Western Conference Playoffs

If that doesn't make it clear how the NBA has screwed small market teams, nothing will. That's why nobody cares if the league ever recovers.

Since: Jun 25, 2009
Posted on: October 25, 2011 1:16 am

Does the league care about competitive balance?

Sure the League has grown and been successful without the competitive balance that the league is trying to establish with this CBA, but why wouldn't it be more successful with increased competitive balance? Forget about fairness, am I the only one who gets bored watching the same handful of big market teams compete for a championship every year? More than that, what about the regular season? The same handful of teams play in different combinations every night on ESPN and TNT because most of the other teams are terrible, and it's SO BORING! The league needs a hard cap not only for more equal distribution of champtionships, but it needs it to legitimize its 82 game season that no one pays much attention to. A hard cap would make the league better and more interesting every night. Period.

Since: Apr 2, 2009
Posted on: October 24, 2011 9:50 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

who cares about basketball anyway, i'm tired of hearing all these sports players complaining about " they just want there fair share " go get a real job making 50 thousand a year working 350 days or so a year and then you would appreciate the huge salaries, medical and retirement pay after a few short years you get. The one who always get screwed in the end is the consumer "fans" who have to shell out rediculous prices for tickets, as for me , i refuse to pay them prices and support there lavish lifestyles.

Since: May 17, 2007
Posted on: October 24, 2011 9:33 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

Competitive what? Hell, half the teams make the playoffs. The ones with the good coaches are the ones that win.

Since: Sep 23, 2006
Posted on: October 24, 2011 8:19 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

Using television market size as the meter for determining the 'market' for an NBA team is hilarious and stupid.  I would think they'd be more concerned about the ability of the population to purchase tickets, in other words, total population.  The NBA is a joke anyway.  They develop a product that appeals to urban populations, then fill it with thugs that carry concealed weapons around with them at the strip clubs.  I was a fan in the 70's and 80's, but today's NBA is worthless.  I haven't bought a ticket in 15 years, and have no plans to ever go to a game again.

Since: Dec 5, 2006
Posted on: October 24, 2011 8:10 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

There are two major issues in this CBA negotiation. One is to bring labor costs down to stop the string of consecutive $300M per year losses. That break-even point calculates to 49% of BRI to players but the players are holding firm at 53% (a $150M loss to owners). Second is the salary cap system which is intended to bring salary equity to the teams but contains so many exceptions teams like Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago are immune.

Both issues must be resolved by both sides. The owners have given up hard-nosed positions on the salary cap in hopes of changing the exceptions and getting the BRI under control. The players have sought to continue the myriad of exceptions to enrich the best players at the expense of the role players. If the union represented the majority of players it would seek higher minimums and endorse exception roll-backs. It does seem that the union answers to a half-dozen powerful agents who together control nearly all the stars. The dual issues must be addressed with more than ego and rhetoric. It appears the players are the ones who are holding up the process.

Since: Aug 11, 2008
Posted on: October 24, 2011 8:04 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

What's a check book?

Since: Jan 20, 2007
Posted on: October 24, 2011 8:04 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

It should be up to the team owner on how much the spend to field a team. the NBA should institute a minumum salary cap so teams can't bitch and complain about competitive balance.

Since: Mar 2, 2008
Posted on: October 24, 2011 7:32 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

It is simply the NBA trolling the media world with lies about the current state of markets.  For a league that wants this to happen in the last 10 yeras, players have constantly fled to more popular markets.  Sign & trades became a norm due to a flawed system created by ownership's inability to understand what can happen.  This is the same lague that alloiwed ownership to run away from the secure & grown Seattle market, just to go after the red herring that is Oklahoma City.  Get a team back to Seattle instead of constantly talking smack as a result of such terrible decisions.

Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: October 24, 2011 5:22 pm

Does the league care about competitive balance?

Way to go Matt. Now this nutjob from L.A. is going to start shooting up the other nutjobs from L.A. Well, on second thought, maybe that is not such a bad thing. If there was ever a herd that needed a good ole' fashioned thinning...

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