NBA PM: 2011 Rookies Sabotaged?
During a normal year an NBA rookie class would have already had quite a bit of experience with the life of an NBA player. They would have been through a few summer league games, possibly in multiple cities, and they would have already met and played with some of the other young players on their teams. They would have been interviewed and had a chance to experience the media side of their new jobs, and they would be getting constant feedback from their NBA coaching staff about what they need to work on.
Normally, summer league would be winding down this week and players would be heading back to their NBA cities for a grueling summer of workouts with their teams’ trainers and coaching staffs. They would get a chance to pick the brains of some of the veterans who often hang around the team facilities during the offseason and they would be getting their bodies right thanks to feedback from nutritionists and therapists who would help them get into tip-top condition both physically and emotionally. By the time training camp rolled around they would be ready to fight for their professional lives at the highest level of basketball on the planet.
None of that is likely to be true for the Class of 2011.
The NBA’s Class of 2011 has already missed out on summer league, which was cancelled well before the official lockout began on July 1st. As the NBA’s owner and players continue to bicker over what constitutes losses and who is most to blame, those same young players will miss out on valuable contact time with their teams and teammates. They won’t get much training camp, if any, and they won’t get a single preseason game if things continue along the course they’re on now. The way things are going, this year’s rookie class is going to get thrown into the deep end somewhere around the end of December, and that’s assuming we don’t lose the entire 2011-12 season, as some fear will happen.
The NBA has been here before, but the 1998-99 rookie class was somewhat better prepared for the experience of jumping into the NBA basically mid-season. This year’s top pick, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, played less than a season of college basketball before jumping to the NBA. 1998 top pick Michael Olowokandi played four years of college ball before making the same jump. Mike Bibby was the second overall pick that year, and while he had just one year of college he had a national championship under his belt. Meanwhile, third overall pick Raef LaFrentz was a four-year college player, Antawn Jamison spent three years at the University of North Carolina, as did Vince Carter, rounding out the top five.
The modern NBA draft is not nearly as full of well-developed and experienced basketball players. Derrick Williams is arguably the most NBA-ready player in the rookie class, but he has just two years of college experience. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson played just one year of college, as did Brandon Knight, and you have to go all the way down to Jimmer Fredette, the tenth overall pick, to find a four-year player. In fact, many of the lottery teams in this year’s draft went international to find players with more experience playing professional-level basketball.
At this point, we don’t really know what the fate of the rookie class of 2011 will be. Perhaps cooler, less greedy heads will prevail and all of this talk about missing a season will be for nothing. If that’s not the case, however, they have a bigger challenge ahead than any rookie class has ever faced. It could, in fact, seem as if this class was sabotaged right from the start.
Trimming The Wrong Fat?
Sooner or later we all go through times where we have to trim the fat from our budget; maybe you lose your job, or perhaps you have a major expenditure like a car repair bill or a new addition to the family. From time to time, for whatever reason, you have to take a look at how you spend your money and make some adjustments. This is where the NBA finds itself right now, with a large percentage of its teams looking for ways to trim some fat from their budgets.
To this point, the entire conversation has been about using player salaries to bring the fiscal situation back into focus. After all, it’s the easiest answer, right. The Atlanta Hawks lost money last season and the most obvious problem would seem to be that $100 million they’re going to pay Joe Johnson over the next five seasons. Just ask Joe and his buddies to take a pay cut and everything will be fine, right?
You see, Joe and friends didn’t hold a gun to the Hawks’ owners’ heads and force them to offer up the huge contracts they signed; the contracts were offered in good faith and signed with that same good faith. Last summer the Hawks made a decision that Johnson was worth nearly $120 million over six seasons, and Johnson wasn’t about to disagree. He signed the contract and laughed all the way to the bank. Asking Johnson to take a retroactive pay cut may be the most obvious way for the Hawks to save money, but it isn’t the only way.
I’m not trying to pick on Joe Johnson here, and for the point of this conversation I will now move away from the Hawks and even from specific players and teams. After all, this is a systemic issue we’re talking about, not just an isolated case here and there.
I have a very good friend who is like a brother to me who used to write for HOOPSWORLD and is now an advisor to an NBA general manager. My friend is very down-to-earth, not a greedy or vain bone in his body. He’s not impressed by expensive overtures and even finds them somewhat offensive. As a matter of course, the NBA team in question will call my friend and ask him to make a last-minute trip to attend a meeting or scout a player. The flights are always last-minute and first class and the hotels are always five-star with ridiculous amounts of money spend on food, drinks, and other amenities. My friend once commented that he wished the team would give him the $500 they spent on one night’s hotel stay and let him book his own accommodations. He would spend $75 staying a normal hotel and pocket the difference.
In case you missed it, in the NBA PM yesterday my colleague Alex Raskin pointed out that non-player expenses are now being scrutinized by a number of sources who are taking a close look at the NBA’s books. In 2007, 2008, and 2009, for example, “other expenses” grew faster than did player salaries or revenue. These “other expenses” would include travel, lodging and meals, all of which are generally ridiculously opulent. For example, while we stayed at a very nice Hilton in LA for the All-Star break, most NBA execs stayed at places like the over-the-top Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where rooms start at $500 a night.
Call me crazy, but if NBA teams really want to save money, we may have identified a way to do that which won’t cause the entire league to shut down and alienate its players and fans in the process.
NBA teams overpay their players; there’s no doubt whatsoever about that. At the same time, those players are the ones putting fans in seats in arenas across the country. Fans don’t cough up hundreds of dollars to watch the Dallas Mavericks or Boston Celtics play. They cough up the money to see Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and their local stars play the game at the highest level. The Mavericks may be the defending NBA champs, but if they didn’t bring back Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the players who powered that championship, they would have an awfully hard time selling tickets next season.
Perhaps before NBA teams look to their players to bail them out of whatever financial trouble they’re in they should take a closer look at their own books, their own business practices, and make some practical cuts first. It might just be that the players don’t need to sacrifice nearly as much as owners seem to think they do.
Early Schedule Favors Houston
Don’t read too much into the NBA’s release of the 2011-12 schedule today. The league has to set their schedules with the arenas to make sure those nights are spoken for, even if the first month or so of games don’t actually happen. But let’s assume for a moment that the season will get started as planned and take a look at what would be a very favorable early schedule for the Houston Rockets.
If the Rockets hadn’t lost seven of their first ten games last season they would have made the playoffs, Yao Ming or no Yao Ming. They stumbled out of the block, largely due to the fact that they saw 11 playoffs teams before the end of November. They had some injury issues and new faces, and they didn’t come together quickly enough to lock in those early wins. They eventually got their act together, but by that time they were in a deep hole that they never quite got out of.
If the 2011-12 season goes off as planned, Houston won’t have that issue early on. As they prepare for life without Yao Ming they will have a fairly easy schedule to start the new season. Considering they will have a new coaching staff, several new additions and hopefully a new starting center, that early buffer should serve them well. The Rockets will see just five playoff teams in the month of November, and only one of those – the eventual-champion Dallas Mavericks – made it out of the first round. Houston opens the season with a two game road-trip at Sacramento and Utah, then comes home to host the Jazz before heading out to Indiana and Philadelphia. They then play host to the Clippers and Warriors, play one game New Orleans, then come back home for New Jersey, Minnesota and Dallas. They play one game at Minnesota, then finish off the month with a visit from the San Antonio Spurs.
At the very least the Rockets should be a couple of games over .500 at the end of November, and that’s a far cry better than last season’s dismal start. There are also a couple of really good early tests in the form of the defending champs and big-time rival San Antonio. If the Rockets can get either one or both of those games they could have some real momentum heading into December.
Again, don’t read too much into the release of next season’s schedule. It’s little more than a formality on the part of the NBA, and it seems very unlikely that we actually see NBA games in November. Still, it doesn’t hurt to stay optimistic, and if the NBA gets its issues resolved the Rockets have every reason to be optimistic about returning to the playoffs in 2011-12.