With it becoming increasingly clear that we’re no longer wondering if Dwight Howard is going to end up getting everything he wants in spite of acting like a petulant, spoiled child whose friend got better Christmas presents, but when, it seems like an appropriate time for a free agency/off-season summary. Assuming Howard ends up going to a respectably competitive team (be it the Lakers or whoever), along with Nash going to the Lakers and Joe Johnson going to the Nets, those comprise, at least in my humble opinion, the three biggest moves from the summer of 2012.
Additionally, Ray Allen & Rashard Lewis went to Miami, Jason Kidd & Marcus Camby went to the Knicks, the Bulls reacquired Hinrich (because you can never have enough middling point guards), Antawn Jamison is high-tailing it to the Lakers, OJ Mayo to Dallas, Grant Hill to the Clippers, and virtually all other restricted free agents are being re-signed with their current teams, whether they want to or not (I’m looking at you, New Orleans and Eric Gordon).
All these transactions pretty much have one thing in common and one thing only: every single player is migrating to one of the NBA’s vaunted “commercial-friendly” markets, which we can’t simply refer to as “bigger” markets because Miami has to complicate everything, while simultaneously turning everyone into an idiot (I’d be interested to see how often the word “star” is used in association with the Heat over a 24 hour period on ESPN). Now we’re not talking about any one specific team or year, we’re talking about a general trend that shows no intentions of slowing.
If you read our posts regularly it might seem that we harp on this with a little too much regularity. And we admittedly do. But these past few weeks have gone so far off the rails that the term “competitive balance” — a term thrown around so liberally during the lockout as a sticking point by the league to reach an agreement — is already a relic of the past, along with short-shorts and high socks. Thus far, the only victims of the new labor agreement have been felt by the smaller market teams who either aren’t the Spurs or don’t already have Kevin Durant and Brian Westbrook. Commercial appeal and a vibrant nightlife are what make your team a viable contender. Being in a state without income tax is occasionally a drawing point, but not regularly. Just ask the Knicks or Lakers if they’ve struggled to work around it.
Essentially, to break it down into layman’s terms (because that’s the only way I can accurately comprehend it), team’s have smaller caps than they did before this new CBA, which means less money for payroll each year before a team must pay a luxury tax. Which is all fine and dandy but now in the aftermath of the Heat getting together, all the top twenty players are scurrying to join ranks with other top twenty players and in many instances even taking pay cuts to do so, leaving the rest of the league in the dust. And since great players who are content playing in smaller markets are nothing more than outliers, even they’re forced into bigger markets to find teammates of a similar caliber.
Even formerly great aging players and glorified role players are doing the same. It’s worth a small pay cut to try and latch onto one of the few teams that can get you a ring. Antawn Jamison averaged just under 18ppg the last two years in Cleveland, he’ll now be the seventh man for the Lakers. And the thing is, for what the Cavs would have to pay him to stick around he’s absolutely not worth. He’d still be the third or fourth best player on their team, but it isn’t like Jamison is the difference between making and not making the playoffs for Cleveland. It’s a wonder Phoenix landed Luis Scola, which we imagine only came to fruition because he’s alarmingly underrated.
Look, I’m not here to judge. There’s an obvious degree of admiration to hold for players willing to sacrifice money for wins and potential championships. If that’s the prerogative of 85% of the league that’s made a first team all-NBA roster, there’s no sense in telling anyone what they should and shouldn’t do. But I can’t help but notice that the majority of league has become fodder for about five teams fortunate enough to have legitimate title hopes for the next several years. Even with the faint glimmer of hope a team like the Cavs might have in Kyrie Irving, I can guarantee they’re scared sh!t-less he isn’t going to re-sign once his rookie contract ends, and for good reason.
There are obvious arguments to be made against this being some radical change in the league. Chief among them seems to be, “there’s never been competitive balance in the league and there never will be, what difference does it make which teams are competitive and which aren’t?” and “The Spurs have won four titles and the Thunder are the second best team in the league who just played in the Finals, obviously small market teams are more than capable of challenging bigger markets.” And I can’t dispute that these are valid points, but they’re both misnomers used to divert from the bigger picture and the shape the league is in the midst of taking.
The former is 100% accurate, but when people complain about competitive balance being ripped out of the league, they’re referring to the feeling that their team doesn’t stand a chance of ever, repeat: EVER, playing in a Finals, much less winning a title. And usually they’re right. I mean, is there a Bobcats or Raptors or Warriors or Bucks fan that is delusional enough to think their team is winning a title anytime in the next decade? Why would they think that? Where’s the incentive? In the 90’s, NBA’s elite didn’t seem to mind playing in today’s less desirable markets like Houston, Utah, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Seattle & Milwaukee. Most of those teams never won a title, but there was plenty of reason to think they one day would, or at least could. No such reason is alive today.
Even if one of these teams lucks into a future top-flight talent, like Cleveland last year with Irving or New Orleans this year with Anthony Davis (and potentially Austin Rivers), in this NBA climate the deference a team has to show that player reaches levels of cringe-worthiness that I’m not fully prepared to address in this space, and as evidenced with LeBron James, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and others, it’s typically not enough. It’s a rigged game for a small city or working-class town team, and few franchises are able to effectively work around it.
To that point, the contemporary exceptions to this rule are the aforementioned Spurs and Thunder. They’re used by anyone desperately trying to convince us that nothing is wrong with the current NBA model and nothing has changed over the past five years, and these arguments are the flimsiest talking points that never seem properly refuted in NBA circles. Yes, it’s true, FIFTEEN YEARS AGO the San Antonio Spurs were one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Their best player at the time, David Robinson, missed an entire season of play due to injury and the Spurs won the lottery, landing them Tim Duncan, a mild-mannered senior out of Wake Forest who shied away from the limelight and happened to end up being the greatest power forward who ever lived. Happens to everybody! Apparently!
The other straw-man argument for small-market NBA franchises being as virile as ever, the Oklahoma City Thunder, found themselves in a similar situation but approached it differently, mostly because they had too. Instead of winning a title in Kevin Durant’s first year with Seattle (sorry, pacific Northwest) like the Spurs did with Duncan, the then Sonics gutted their roster before high-tailing to the Great Plains of Oklahoma (again, sorry). The good news is they were still bad enough with rookies Kevin Durant and Jeff Green (their two best players on the roster) that they were able to land Westbrook in the following year’s draft at fourth overall. For whatever reason, both Westbrook and Durant were comfortable enough in Oklahoma City to sign five year extensions, ensuring the team’s immediate and long-term future.
These two teams are, in the best sense of the word, anomalies. For one, these are the two best ran franchises in the NBA by a country mile. Meaning you not only have to be incredibly lucky, you have to be so much better than your competition in LA, New York, Chicago & Miami that to think it’s feasible for every team to possess the same managerial talent is simply unrealistic. The Lakers are ran by a trust fund family and they just landed Steve Nash to compliment their other three all-stars. Having players fall into your lap who are the best point offensive point guards of the last decade doesn’t happen to the Timberwolves. It’s unrealistic to have an infallible front office just like it’s unrealistic to assume any of these teams have any hope of competing on a regular basis. To wit, I can’t imagine San Antonio or Oklahoma City rebuilding all that quickly after their current core group of players retires and/or leaves through free agency.
Let’s look at it from a different angle, that of a poorly ran big market franchise. The Clippers are historically one of the worst ran franchises in all of professional sports, prioritizing their bottom-line over wins has been the MO of their probably unapologetically racist owner. Yet for all these points against LA’s second team, they have free agents clamoring to sign on with them after Chris Paul jumped ship from a small market (New Orleans) that when healthy, they always made the playoffs. This past season was the Clippers first in the playoffs since 2006. There’s also the Knicks, who, while they misstep time and time again, seem to have their pick of the litter when it comes to free agency, assuming they have the cap space (which they usually don’t). But just because you’re mismanagement is exceptional, doesn’t mean you’re without a tremendous competitive advantage.
In short, it’s time we gave up the charade of pretending like the New Orleans’ of the NBA world can compete with the LA’s. To counter this (at least) semi-radical change, one that isn’t even remotely possible given the league’s current popularity but would make the league more honest and spare us three Bobcats-Heat games a year while also making Wizards-Warriors games far more interesting. For the betterment of the league I propose we divvy the teams into appropriate tiers and create an official minor league, as opposed to the unofficial version we have now.
This can go one of two ways. The NBA can adopt a sort of modified EPL format but with three tiers of teams instead of two, in which there’s a series of title-contending teams in the top-tier, another series in the second-tier who made the playoffs but weren’t terribly competitive along with those who just missed the post-season, and a lower-tier of teams that were never in contention. But you aren’t relegated to whatever tier you’re first assigned too. You can move up or down based on where you finished the year before. It provides incentive for all teams, regardless of standing, to stay competitive year-round. If this were the case heading into next year, it would look something like this:
First Tier: Miami, Los Angeles Lakers & Clippers, Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Denver & Indiana
Second Tier: Atlanta, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Utah, Houston, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Dallas & Minnesota
Third Tier: Portland, Toronto, Detroit, Charlotte, Golden State, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Sacramento, Washington & New Orleans
The tiers don’t always need to be evenly distributed with ten teams a piece, if you noticed, we only took second round playoff teams and better in the first-tier, but made exceptions for the Nuggets and Grizzlies for going seven games in their losing first round effort. There would still be sixteen teams in the post-season, and it would be strictly record-based, but the majority of games would be played within your tier, with interleague play in the same vein as the MLB. Also, if you will notice, nine of the ten third-tier teams are small markets (Washington being the lone exception) and five of the seven teams located in destination cities are in the first tier, with the two NYC teams in second and third.
Even just from that, based on this summer’s draft, free agency and trades, you can probably accurately guess which teams are moving where and which teams would stay put in the 2012-2013 season. Most notably, Brooklyn is going to sky-rocket into the first tier (probably not coincidentally in their first year in Brooklyn as opposed to Newark) and all will be right with the world.
The other option, one I’m less open too, is a permanent minor league. In short, you would split the league into two, 15 NBA teams and 15 farm teams. It’s the cynic’s approach and believe it or not, I’d rather not be so cynical with my sports entertainment. These teams would be divided by market size and desirability. For instance, Miami is smaller than several of the teams in the farm league, but since they have a stretch of good clubs along a waterfront, an abundance of lingerie models, good weather and no income tax, they get the bump to The Show, as they might say in Bull Durham. This is how it would break down:
NBA: New York, both LA’s, Boston, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando & Denver
NBA-Farm League: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Orlando, Indiana, Utah, Houston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Sacramento, Charlotte, Detroit, Toronto, Golden State
In this hypothetical scenario, it obviously gets dicey with those last six teams that would make the cut. There’s obviously a clear difference from a team in Chicago than a team in Phoenix, but this is only a suggestion. You arguably only need eight teams in the NBA then cut seven of the teams I have listed in the aforementioned Farm League. Because hey, why only be casually cutthroat when we can really decimate cities already struggling to stay afloat? Who really gives a sh!t about New Orleans, Sacramento, Charlotte, Detroit, Golden State, Milwaukee & Cleveland anyways? None of these teams have complained because, really, what good would it do? All it would do is alienate the few players they might be able to attract and/or the players already on their roster. They have no recourse, no leverage, and with the league as currently constructed, none of that is going to change. The hope of being San Antonio or Oklahoma City one day is at best a distant, mostly unattainable goal (land Kevin Durant or Tim Duncan) and at worst a pipe dream (see: Every team recently dropped by All-NBAers).
Either way you choose, a large-scale recalibration of the entire league is about the only way to achieve any sort of competitive balance the NBA allegedly pines for. I don’t want to see this happen but with the NBA’s current trajectory as much is already in place, even if the Spurs and Thunder make it possible for us to pretend it isn’t. Teams and players alike want to make the most money and win as many titles as is humanly possible, and the idea isn’t to hamstring anyone from accomplishing these goals, but promote some sort of equal opportunity. Even a hard NFL-like cap won’t remedy this problem because unlike the NFL, your three best players are so disproportionately important compared to everyone else on your roster. The only solution that seems fair – to fans, at least — is to create a literal caste-system, separate the haves from the have-nots and let them rotate and advance when they’re actually ready.
I imagine this would lead to even more of a pseudo-monopoly because what would be the incentive for any of the players in the second paragraph to jump ship for a lesser league, but so long as the right teams are in the right place, competing against balanced competition, it wouldn’t seem so galling. Whatever faults this may bring along, it just seems like being experimental might be worthwhile. The idea seems like a reasonable compromise because the only other alternative would be an Orwellian overhaul that decimates union and player leverage by way of abolishing free agency. At the very least we fans of small market basketball can start forgoing the notion that the NBA our team operates in is capable of, on a regular basis, challenging cities that have long since already buried ours in commercialization.