Monday Donuts: Is Contraction An NBA Option?
DONUT 1: Today the NBA owners and players are scheduled to meet in what is hoped to be a step in the direction of settling their labor dispute. They will almost certainly avoid discussing the theoretical option of contraction – an idea that is bandied about elsewhere as a possible solution but one that is, and should be, seen by the principals as autocannibalism.
Would the players be for it? Of course not, LeBron James'short-sighted in-season remarks notwithstanding.
"Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall-of-Famers on the same team," James said in December. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is (now)."
Forget the idiocy of James' math; I was there in the ‘80's and I don't recall there being a standard of "four Hall-of-Famers'' on all that many teams.
What the Miami star was really doing, essentially, was trying to defend his decision to be part of a "superteam'' by noting how cool it would be if everyone else did it (thus causing them to help shoulder the blame of selfishness heaped on his shoulders).
LeBron even mentioned specific players and specific teams, like Kevin Love in Minnesota, saying the league would be better off if Love didn't have to toil with the Timberwolves.
What did LeBron miss? Besides the fact that maybe Love likes Minnesota, there is this:
"Oh yeah, (I got a) great amount of joy out of it,'' Love recently said of Miami's Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. "They say nice guys, good guys, finish last. But Dallas, they just had a slew of great guys and veterans on their team that made for just a great team. It wasn't just two, three, four guys on the team, like Miami I kind of felt it was. Around the league, it was kind of a consensus that guys were happy."
DONUT 2: So Love clearly doesn't support the concept of a three-man superstar team. (At least until he's on one.) And maybe he speaks for the rank-and-file of union members who understand that if you contract, say, five teams, you eliminate 75 of the already-most-exclusive jobs in the world. Oh, and hundreds of jobs now filled by coaches, scouts, executives, sales people, secretaries, ushers, parking attendants, waiters … "addition by subtraction'' isn't very appealing when it's my job as stadium vendor that's being subtracted – especially if it's being subtracted in part because somebody like LeBron James thinks it'd be "cool.''
The players' association would not be doing its job properly if it agreed to, in any form, the elimination of one-sixth or even one-thirtieth of its members.
DONUT 3: And what about the owners side?
The NBA commissioner himself, David Stern, actually allowed himself to echo LeBron's illogical words. During the season, Stern forecast that contraction might be "on the table" when we reached our present point in negotiations.
But that wasn't an analysis.
That was a threat, a negotiating ploy, a stagy dark cloud puffed up by Stern.
DONUT 4: Forgetting the players side and the fan base, too (Lord knows the NBA was willing to do just that in Seattle), is there a reason for the owners to be in favor of contraction? And if the NBA is going to eat its own tail, where would it start chomping?
DONUT 5: From an ownership standpoint, the New Orleans Hornets appear vulnerable, as they don't have local leadership (they are presently run by the league) and are in a struggling region after the occurrence of a natural disaster. I would argue that morally and ethically and even fiscally, the last thing a company (the NBA) that is led by almost a dozen billionaires and another dozen almost-billionaires ought to do is pull up stakes because Hurricane Katrina hurt one of its 30 "stores.''
But even if New Orleans is ultimately viewed as being beyond rescue, does contraction make more sense that relocation? Did Seattle support its Sonics? Would Kansas City or Las Vegas support a team? As Stern dreams of franchises in Mexico City and London and Paris, why would he help destroy one when he could relocate it?
Anybody else up for getting blown up?
DONUT 6: I hear people speculate about Memphis and Charlotte. Those are basketball hotbeds; they ought to work better. (Can't Michael Jordan make basketball work in the Carolinas?!) As they are, both cities have long-term leases with their franchises and the cost of breaking those makes contraction virtually impossible.
How about the Timberwolves? There are arguments to be made about available revenues and the lack of more taxpayer funding for arena improvements. But here's where this case hits a road block for me: It's a poorly-run franchise, yes. But it's in the 15th largest market in the U.S. and has the backing of owner Glen Taylor (estimated worth: $2.1 billion) and hey, since when is a losing streak the reason for shutting down a franchise?
The Indiana Pacers? They have a quality fan base, a basketball history and a new area – and their owner, Herb Simon, is worth $3.5 billion. It's frankly laughable to hear the Pacers talk about how they are a money-loser over the years; it's like me saying I only get 1-percent interest from my crummy little bank account without revealing I'm a ground-floor stockholder in Halliburton and Apple.
One of Simon's many pockets might be empty, but the others are overflowing. The Pacers might be the players' Exhibit A for why the owners' argument that teams lost $300 million last season seems such a sleight-of-hand bookkeeping trick.
The Sacramento Kings? They are among the most-often-discussed contraction candidates – maybe because if they don't get a new stadium they seem a possibility to relocate. But here's another bit of funny business from the owners' side: While the Maloof Bros. might be struggling to hold onto to their gambling casinos and their beer distributorships, they were recently offered a chance to get out of the "money-losing'' business of basketball when Sacramento businessman Ron Burkle responded to their threat to move the team to Anaheim by offering to buy the $300-million franchise.
If the Kings are bad business, why do to the near-billionaire Maloofs want to retain them? And why does the billionaire Burkle want to obtain them?
DONUT 7: You will note that what all of the supposed contraction candidates have in common is more than just so-called "small-market'' audiences. The real tie is that the Hornets, Bobcats, Grizzlies, Pacers, Timberwolves and Kings are now perennial have-nots.
Using win-loss records and market size as the two-sided measuring stick is dangerous. Everybody can't be the Lakers (huge market and perennial success) or even the Knicks (a market so huge that profit seems inevitable). The challenge for teams like the Spurs and Thunder, to name two, is to be productive enough on the court and off to avoid being tossed onto this contraction pile.
Otherwise, why bother having a team in San Antonio – which in terms of TV market size is ranked No. 37, making it smaller than Sacramento (20) Portland (22), Charlotte (23), Indy (27) and Milwaukee (35)? You think Memphis (No. 48) can't support a team but OKC (No.45) can?
DONUT 8: If contraction is about carving the ownership worms from the apple, that's another debate entirely. In a dream world, wouldn't we like to foreclose on the embarrassing Donald Sterling's Clippers? Shouldn't the clumsy James Dolan be punished for the Knicks' ineptitude? How can Philadelphia – in the fourth-largest market with a passionate fan base, deep-pocketed corporate ownership and a rich tradition – be so perpetually awful?
But the owners will not, cannot, foreclose on themselves.
DONUT 9: The supposedly positive results of contraction are wildly speculative. "The league would be better.'' How? How can that be proven?
In 1959-60, the eight teams in the NBA were the Boston Celtics, the Cincinnati Royals, the Detroit Pistons, the Minneapolis Lakers, the New York Knickerbockers, the Philadelphia Warriors, the St. Louis Hawks and the Syracuse Nationals. No ABA teams, no team in Chicago or LA or Washington or Chicago, no NBA teams in the South, Southwest or West of the U.S. Not much TV, not much revenue, not much of anything except gauzy good-old-days memories.
Was the league "better''? Maybe for the Celtics, as they seemed to win the title every year as the one team that really did have "four Hall-of-Famers.''
DONUT 10: While some proceed with fantasies of how contraction might work, I've got realities:
*What if the some of the 25 or28 remaining teams still lose money? Then what?
*Won't somebody still be seen as a "have-not,'' still have problems gaining taxpayer support, still complain that revenue is too small, still finish last?
*What will Congress say about this? Not that those men and women don't already have their hands full, but you think that between wanting to represent their constituents and wanting to explore antitrust violations, Mr. Stern won't find himself being grilled on Capitol Hill?
*To the argument that contraction will make the league noticeably more "competitive'': Let's say you contract the Bucks. Milwaukee employs two players who we can see as difference-makers and off they go, in some sort of Dispersal Draft (good luck making that fair!). Brandon Jennings goes to Sacramento. Andrew Bogut goes to Toronto. Parades ensue. (Except in Milwaukee-in-Mourning.)
Are Sacramento and Toronto suddenly "more competitive'' with the game's elite? Is the league poised for a new-found high? Is everybody happy? No, I didn't think so.
P.S.: In this Bucks example, Jennings and Bogut each have three years left on their contracts. Depending on the coming CBA, will they opt to remain in Sacramento and Toronto, respectively, for 2014? Or does Jennings go to New York and Bogut to L.A. … and the league seesaws right back into competitive imbalance again?
Does more concentrated talent equal balance? Again, I give you the Boston Celtics, who played in a VERY "concentrated'' NBA from 1957 to 1969 and won 11 championships in those 13 years.
"Concentrated'' and "balanced'' are not the same thing. Whether it's an eight-team league or an 80-team league, there will be winners and there will be losers. Welcome to sports.
*When would the poor sucked-up team – the Kings, say -- be ordered to close up shop? Summer of 2013, maybe? So what happens to their team, their revenue and their fans for the next two years? Who buys a sponsorship, a luxury suite, a season ticket or even a t-shirt from a Sacramento team that is announcing it won't be a Sacramento team? What, the NBA thinks they'll just all comfortable convert into Golden State Warriors fans, credit cards at the ready?
DONUT 11: The argument that the NBA should've never expanded/relocated into Charlotte, Memphis and New Orleans is invalid on two fronts: a) the toothpaste is out of the tube. All the league can do now is to learn from those errors; and b) if that is a platform of your beliefs, should the league pull out of Oklahoma City – while the ink is still wet and the roots aren't too deep -- before it's too late?
Seriously, I should've never married that woman. But we have two children. Nate is 21, Tony is 18. Too big to ask, no matter how politely, to please retreat to the womb.
DONUT 12: Within these negotiations exist ways to split a $9 billion pie in a manner that benefits not just the players and the owners, but also the fans in all 30 NBA cities who are devoted to their teams. Logically, if you narrow the markets you narrow the fan base and you narrow the available revenue. Logically (and my man Rodney Anderson suggests this to our government as well), American endeavors that are also American institutions need to find ways not to shrink, but to grow.
If your leg is atrophied, you don't amputate it. You exercise it. You make it stronger.
Contraction is not "minor surgery.'' Because when it is proposed as a solution that neither side wants and that would harm millions of fans, it's not "minor.''
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