Something just didn’t feel right when David Stern emerged from the negotiating room claiming that systemic issues were the major impediment to getting a deal. Clearly the players were willing to move on economic issues to preserve the system, something the league didn’t anticipate. So in a move that would make Eric Cantor proud, the owners did a bait and switch and claimed nirvana on the economic issue and too-big-to-bridge on the systemic issues. To summarize Stern, he claims that a tougher luxury tax/hard cap, shorter contracts, and higher max contracts will keep the NBA competitive, or as Adam Silver put it, give all 30 teams a chance to win a championship.
The crux of the argument is that small market teams are incapable of spending over the luxury tax in the same way as large market teams, which results in lower competitive balance and less ability to win a ring. I won’t go too far into the absurdity of those economics (you can read all about that in The New York Times). One part of the story is somewhat true. Here’s a look at the teams over the luxury tax threshold ($70 million) the past three seasons (all info from The Hoop Doctors):
While I do see the perennial offenders on the list (Lakers, Celtics, Mavs and Knicks), what I also see are the Jazz on the list twice, with the Nuggets, Pacers, Cavs, and Magic also making appearances. Small market teams are able to spend money, its just that some teams spend it poorly, and it has nothing to do with the size of the market. For instance, the Knicks and the Cavs blew a combined 190 million dollars on largely terrible contracts (except Lebron and Amare), while the Celtics and Lakers spent a combined 40 million dollars less and ended up battling in the NBA finals. So yes money CAN help, but its not an indicator of success, its more an indicator of bad management.
But David Stern disagrees (or so he says); he believes that because the last 5 championship teams have come from large markets or teams that have spent over the luxury tax threshold that the system is keeping small market or more savings conscious teams from winning rings. Here is a list of the last ten NBA finals matchups:
2000: Lakers vs. Pacers (9.85)
2001: Lakers vs. 76ers (12.12)
2002: Lakers vs. Nets (10.12)
2003: Spurs vs. Nets (6.48)
2004: Lakers vs. Pistons (11.5)
2005: Spurs v. Cavs (8.22)
2006: Mavs v. Heat (8.45)
2007: Spurs v. Pistons (3.23)
2008: Lakers v. Celtics (9.33)
2009: Lakers v. Magic (8.4)
2010: Lakers v. Celtics (10.58)
2011: Mavs v. Heat (10.18)
Of the 20 teams participating, only four can be considered “large market” (Lakers, 76ers, Mavs, Celtics). Everyone else comes from the so called “small market,” and only the Spurs of 2007 had to spend over the luxury tax to get there. What more can a system offer for competitive balance than the ability for a small market team to make it to the Finals. Why does the system have to be turned on its head to get those teams over the hump? Once you’re in the Finals payroll doesn’t matter. You got there now you have to close the deal.
Oh by the way, those numbers in parenthesis? Those are the average tv viewership for all of the finals. Notice anything? People don’t CARE about small market teams. The lowest rated finals by far was between two relatively small market teams. And hell, the most talked about NBA finals in the last 20 years (Mavs v. Heat) was still beaten in the ratings by Game 7 of the 2010 finals (15.6 vs. 13.6 for Game 6 of 2011) and in overall average (10.5 vs. 10.2). Large markets drive viewership and the NBA. In the NFL you can count on every American wanting to watch football. In the NBA you can’t do that, so you have to make sure your large market teams are doing well and winning, to get as many eyeballs as possible in front of the television. What do you think ESPN thinks about taking viewers away from Los Angeles and putting them in Sacramento? It makes no fiscal sense.
So the players ceded on the question of money, and the owners pulled the rug from under the NBPA and said that it was never about money, it was about competitive balance. But things like revenue sharing and total league revenues get dumped on if small market teams keep on showing up in the NBA finals. The NBA’s worst nightmare is another 2007, where the finals only drew an average of 3.22 million viewers.
Obviously the owners are not serious about the system issue, or the economic issue, or any issue really. What they really want to do is break the union. So Billy Hunter should do the one thing that the owners don’t really want: accept the deal. If the owners have any type of self-preservation they would have to reject it, and would look like complete tools doing so. This is all really about revenue sharing, and the system that Stern and Silver are proposing actually hurts future revenue sharing by making the league less valuable. The owners would have to reject their own deal, and the players would finally have buried their own body in the NBA: David Stern’s.