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 yesterday 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.
Now, that new team everyone points to in order to say, “See, they’re doing it! It’s possible!” is the Thunder. In TV terms, the league’s smallest market has churned out one of the most promising basketball franchises in the league. And not just one that’s a flash in the pan. One that has the chance to succeed over a sustained period of time.
That competitive balance Stern and Silver speak of? It hasn’t meant squat to Oklahoma City. Even playing against the system, the Thunder have built a perennial contender. Why? Brilliant management, shrewd financial discipline and a good amount of luck.
Luck? Yeah, don’t deny it. 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?
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.
And honestly, I don’t know about you but I sort of take pride in the Thunder winning despite the system working against them. I love the fact that Clay Bennett and Sam Presti just do it better than everyone else. Winning is fun, but winning with the odds against you is kind of sweet. Knowing your organization is a step ahead of the game, playing chess while everyone else plays checkers is something to be proud of. It’s a little extra feather in the cap of Thunder fans. “Our front office is smarter than your front office” is the new “My dad can beat up your dad.”
But once upon a time, Geoff Petrie was Boy 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.)
Stern and Silver are absolutely correct — the Thunder don’t have equal opportunity to win. The Lakers, Knicks, Bulls, Mavericks and Celtics have a larger margin for error. It isn’t fair. Never has been.
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?
Bossman 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.”
This issue directly affects the Thunder. Not now, but it will eventually. Should we care? Sure. But it’s kind of hard to right now. Especially when there’s a certain amount of pride in the fact OKC wins even without the league’s small market handouts.