NEW YORK -- Danny Granger sat in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden, his feet in a bucket of ice and his hands digging through a Styrofoam tray of chicken tenders. Suffice it to say that Granger's search for postgame junk food was much easier than the Pacers' search for an established All-Star to play with him.
The Pacers, a plucky, athletic little team that let a winnable road game slip away in 98-92 loss to the Knicks on Sunday afternoon, are one of the many teams paralyzed by the NBA's inequitable competitive structure. They have no hope of breaking through the ceiling without a top-notch star to join Granger, and they have no hope of getting one of those stars as long as they play 41 games a year in Indianapolis, where no free agent worth his max contract would dare go. It is the inexorable march of a struggling team in the small-market wilderness of the NBA.
|'It's hard to compete with the big-market teams,' Danny Granger says. (Getty Images)|
"We're not a Chicago or a New York or an L.A., a team that everybody's going to run and go play in that city," said Granger, the Pacers' best player and also the team's player rep with the National Basketball Players Association. "We're in a smaller market and have a smaller fan base than most teams and it's tough to get free agents here. That's why throughout the history of the Indiana Pacers, they've done things through the draft. We had a good system going up until the brawl, but it's tough to lure a free agent here."
Granger didn't arrive in Indianapolis until after the infamous brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004, when the Pacers picked him 17th overall in 2005, but he has a good memory. Go back to the summer of '05, immediately after the current collective bargaining agreement was enacted, and you can't find a single significant free agent who has signed up to play in Indiana. And it's a problem that's hardly unique to the Pacers.
"It's hard to compete with the big-market teams," Granger said. "I remember we played one team, and between their starters they had like 35 years of All-Star Games or something crazy like that. It's hard to compete with teams like that, especially when they have deeper pockets and they can do different things with the salary cap. You just have to play through it and find a way to win."
The team Granger was referring to, clearly, was the Boston Celtics, who along with the Lakers have combined to win 33 of the league's 64 championships -- including three straight and six of 12 since the current financial framework was adopted after the 1998 lockout. The Spurs, Heat and Pistons have interrupted the cycle here and there, but for the most part, teams like the Pacers have to be content posing as trees on the side of the highway while the basketball superpowers speed by, barely acknowledging them with a wave.
"The NBA has progressed so much this year," Granger said. "There's so many things that have drawn interest -- Miami, with everything they've done, Kobe [Bryant] winning another championship, Boston having a great year, San Antonio being old and now playing like they're young again. We've got so many different storylines to draw the fans in and keep everything interesting. And it would be a shame to just see it all go by the wayside if we go to a lockout and lose some fans because of it. It's disappointing, but I think that's what it's going to be."
This is not to take anything away from what the Pacers have done. Since the franchise hit rock bottom at the Palace, team president Larry Bird and general manager David Morway have slowly and carefully built a young team that has a realistic shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The improvement of Roy Hibbert, the potential of Paul George, and the quick learning curve of Darren Collison are all bright spots for a team that is building the right way under the circumstances.
"We will make the playoffs," Granger said.
The success of the supposedly small-market Oklahoma City Thunder is encouraging to teams like the Pacers, but also fool's gold on some level. According to gate receipts data obtained by CBSSports.com, the franchise went from being a low-revenue team in its final season in Seattle to a high-revenue team in its first season in Oklahoma City, with per-game ticket revenue increasing from $457,863 in 2007-08 to $1,122,109 in '08-'09. The Thunder, in fact, are the ideal illustration for the ongoing debate about contracting teams. Oklahoma City is slightly smaller than Seattle, so it's not the size of the market that matters, but the size of the pile of money the team makes in that market.
With every team pricing a bloody lockout into their budgets, the revenue-challenged Pacers won't be a factor at the trade deadline -- just as they haven't been a factor during free agency for years. That's not a knock; it's reality. Indiana has only $37 million in committed payroll for the 2011-12 season, which could translate into $20 million in cap space depending on where the salary cap falls in a new CBA. But until NBA owners figure out how to share more of the revenue being hoarded by the big boys in New York and L.A. -- where the Knicks and Lakers each rake in nearly $2 million a night at the turnstiles compared to the paltry $485,000 or so the Pacers scrape together -- then all that cap space will be worthless.
"It's not fair, honestly," Granger said. "If everyone in the NBA and the owners all commit to this league to keep it going, you've got to share revenue. How can Milwaukee compete with Los Angeles? It just can't. It never will. I don't care if they sell out every game, L.A. is going to get mounds and mounds of more money. That's what I think the big chip should be in the bargaining process."
Unlike the NFL, which splits gate receipts 60-40 in favor of the home team, NBA teams do not share most local revenues. A revamped revenue-sharing plan was a major component of the players' proposal, along with an offer to lower the players' guaranteed share of revenues from its current level of 57 percent.
But that proposal has sat on David Stern's desk in his Fifth Avenue office for more than five months. Why? Well, why let a little labor strife ruin the good story of soaring interest and TV ratings? Plus, if the owners are so hell-bent on getting a work stoppage to force the players' hand, why bend over backwards to negotiate? But more to the point of the Pacers' role as mere deckhands on the Titanic, league owners stubbornly do not want to include the players in the process of devising a new revenue-sharing system -- seeing it as an owner-owner issue as opposed to an owner-player issue. But there could be a way for the players to legally challenge that in a way that would be almost as interesting as the Lakers vs. the Heat in the NBA Finals.
The players could try to set a precedent by becoming the first sports union to push for a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board on the notion that revenue sharing is not a mandatory subject in collective bargaining. I'm not a labor attorney, but it seems obvious to me that if the owners' response to competitive imbalance and financial inequity is to slash player salaries by $800 million, then a sound argument could be made that the flawed revenue-sharing model is affecting the players' pay -- and thus should be required grounds for negotiation with the union.
"You can make the argument that revenue sharing, at least indirectly, has an impact on wages and terms and conditions of employment, and has a direct impact on the ability of smaller market teams to be able to pay player salaries," said Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University Law School.
Like the unions representing Major League Baseball and the NHL, the NBPA may not need to push the issue to the courts, but could attempt to use it as a bargaining chip, Feldman said. Even if the owners refuse to collectively bargain how they divide their profits, the players could at least use the issue to get other concessions and make it "part of the bundle of compromises," Feldman said.
Until then, revenue-starved teams like the Pacers -- and stars like Granger who are stranded on them -- will just have to keep swabbing the decks. They should whistle while they work and enjoy the show, including another championship of the haves vs. the have-mores in June.