Sports

Can the NBA be saved? A modest proposal….

I predicted months ago that there would be no 2011-12 NBA season. I hoped I was wrong (still do), but there were some fundamental structural issues that I felt were going to be hard to address in the collective bargaining process. While all hope isn’t yet completely dead, it looks very, very bad – so bad that at this stage I’m already beginning to wonder if there’s going to be a 2012-13 season. I’m wondering if the NBA as we know it is done.

Actually, the crux of the issue lies with the fact that, unlike most labor cycles, this one doesn’t feature two sides at odds. Instead, there are three distinct constituencies (at least): the players, the large market owners (LMOs), and the small market owners (SMOs). Had all the owners been on the same page as your Bostons and LAs a deal would have been reached a long time ago. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to assert that the LMOs are closer to the player position than they are to the SMOs.

Here are the core structural dynamics:

  • The players want something like fair market value, which is artificially restricted by the salary cap. With no cap your superstars would make considerably more than they do right now (remember that under old rules Michael Jordan made around $36M in a season).
  • They also hate restrictions on player movement. Some of this is about money, obviously, but there’s also a cultural factor in play. To wit, South Beach is cool and Milwaukee ain’t South Beach. During the 2010 free agency period, when the Cavs were desperately trying to attract a supporting cast that would keep LeBron in town, it became clear that top-notch talents like Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer weren’t going to Cleveland for any amount of money.
  • LMOs want to win and put a world-class product on the floor, one that will bring out the city’s bright lights and let them charge top dollar and sign lucrative TV deals. They are willing to invest big dollars to do this.
  • SMOs want to make money and be competitive. (Well, some of them want to be competitive, anyway.) However, they cannot compete with LMOs financially or culturally. So they need severe restraints on expenditures (read, player salaries) and player movement (to keep their stars from moving on as soon as they’re eligible). We can accuse the SMOs of posturing when they claim that they’d be better off financially not playing the season, but I believe they’re telling the truth about losing money. Why do I believe this? Because when push came to shove they were willing to drive the bus off a cliff.
  • The league makes noise about wanting competitive balance, but David Stern wakes up screaming every time he dreams of that Toronto/Memphis Final. The NBA isn’t like the NFL, where it doesn’t matter who is in the Super Bowl. If you don’t have a marquee matchup in a given playoff series your ratings are going to suck. The NBA desperately needs its big markets to be successful (compare it to the NFL which doesn’t even feel a compelling need to have a team in Los Angeles).

If you’re diagraming this as we go, you should have figured out that we’re at an impasse. There’s literally nothing you can recommend that somebody won’t veto. For instance, you want to insure that every franchise competes on a level playing field? That means a hard cap (or something that behaves like one in practice) and restrictions on player movement, and the players won’t sign it. You want to maximize revenue league-wide? That means a structure that makes half the teams in the league the functional equivalent of the Washington Generals. Want to keep the talent happy? Now the SMOs are really screwed.

What, if anything, can be done? Once the union is decertified and anti-trust suits are filed and it gets into the courts all bets are off. There’s no telling what will happen and there’s no predicting when it will happen. The NBA could literally be finished and who knows what will replace it. If the parties get back to the table and get a deal short of going nukular, the owners are going to have to budge off the cap and free agency issues because the players have now demonstrated that they’re willing to drive the bus off that particular cliff.

I have a solution, although it’s one that I’m certain none of the parties would ever entertain. Still, for the sake of entertainment, I propose that the NBA, its players and owners take the radical step of realigning into a European model. Here’s how it would work:

  • Eliminate all restrictions on player movement, including the draft. 100% free agency.
  • Break the league into three divisions of 16 teams each (all current NBA and D-League franchises, plus add one more in some place like Las Vegas).
  • No regional divisions – each team plays every other team five times.
  • Adopt a promotion/relegation system like that used in European soccer leagues. At the end of the season the bottom two or three clubs in division one are kicked down to division two while the top two teams in D2 move up. Same process at the bottom of D2 and the top of D3.

The LMOs are happy because they can spend what they want to win. The players are happy because they can earn what they’re worth in a free market environment and move around according to whatever criteria they like. SMOs and smaller market fans are perhaps less happy in principle because they’re not competing for the NBA title and they never get the top flight superstars. However, they’re not competing for the NBA title now and it can’t be good for your esteem when all the superstars want out of life is to leave.

It’s different. It may look and feel alien. But in Europe, if you want to see passion, watch a second-tier match with promotion implications. The system hasn’t been tried in the US and you can argue that we’re not like Europe all you want, but I wonder. What I’m proposing works all over the world. All Euros aren’t alike, and it works in Latin America and Asia, too. Besides, don’t tell me people won’t support anything except the elite teams. How many minor league baseball and hockey teams are there in the US? How many college and universities draw respectably for hoops and football?

If you adopted this system, here’s how the divisions would look at the beginning of year one.

DIVISION 1/Premiership

  • Atlanta
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Dallas
  • Denver
  • Houston
  • L.A. Lakers
  • Memphis
  • Miami
  • New Orleans
  • New York
  • Oklahoma City
  • Orlando
  • Philadelphia
  • Portland
  • San Antonio

DIVISION 2/Championship

  • Charlotte
  • Cleveland
  • Detroit
  • Golden State
  • Indiana
  • L.A. Clippers
  • Milwaukee
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • Phoenix
  • Sacramento
  • Toronto
  • Utah
  • Washington

DIVISION 3

  • Austin Toros
  • Bakersfield Jam
  • Canton Charge
  • Dakota Wizards
  • Erie BayHawks
  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants
  • Idaho Stampede
  • Iowa Energy
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles D-Fenders
  • Maine Red Claws
  • Reno Bighorns
  • Rio Grande Valley Vipers
  • Sioux Falls Skyforce
  • Springfield Armor
  • Texas Legends
  • Tulsa 66ers

In the end, maybe it doesn’t work. But what we have now is badly broken and we have two groups of heavily armed suicide bombers struggling for the wheel so that they can have the privilege of blowing everybody up.

We’ll see. I’m a huge basketball fan and I’d love to see a miraculous buzzer-beater that solves all the structural problems and gets me a season to watch. But right now that seems less likely than does the idea that the NBA as we have known it is gone for good.

Stay tuned.

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