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The NBA’s Small Market Graveyard
Posted By Travis Heath On July 19, 2013 @ 12:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
A little over a week ago, all of the focus in the NBA was on Dwight Howard. He was yet another big name free agent choosing between a few select large-market suitors.
Utah? You’re cute, but no.
Denver? I’ll make my decision just west of you, but who could live in a dusty ole’ cow town full-time?
Sacramento? How close are you to San Francisco again?
The NBA has a major problem. Even someone who has loved the league all of his life, covered it and worked in it can see it plain as day. Small-market teams have no chance for sustained success. The NBA model is broken.
It has become increasingly popular to cite the fact that only eight teams in the last three decades have won championships. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily bother me. In fact, I happen to be a fan of dynasties. I like the idea of a team being assembled over a period of years through excellent drafting and key free agent acquisitions rising to prominence. What bothers me is how these teams are being built.
Not long after Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in favor of the Houston Rockets (another large market), the focus of the hype machine instantly turned to LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony signing in Tinseltown in the summer of 2014. Even if neither player opts for the Lakers, I can make one guarantee: neither will sign with a small-market team, either.
One school of thought would suggest that the players have earned the right to do as they wish by reaching free agent status. While that is true, it is only true under the current system the NBA has operated under as dictated by the last several CBA’s. This “right” of the players is only a right under a broken system where the players wield far too much power.
If owners operated in a similar fashion to the way some star players have in free agency, they would risk being sued for collusion. Should it really be the “right” of star players to get together and decide, in some cases while they are still playing for different teams, where they wish to play together in the future?
Fans of large-market teams will too frequently accuse small-market supporters of “crying” and often offer such sage words of advice as “get over it.” Unfortunately, small-market teams can do no such thing. They simply cannot acquire and keep the talent necessary for sustained excellence.
The more sophisticated fan may offer up two case examples: San Antonio and Oklahoma City. These are, of course, two small-market teams who compete for titles. Both teams have one variable in common in the form of once in a generation talents who decided to stay in the markets in which they were drafted. Both Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant are rare, humble superstars who represent the exception and not the rule in the NBA. The harsh reality is that most players are going to run from a small market given the first opportunity, and recent history fully supports that assertion.
People rail on LeBron for how he handled “The Decision” for reasons that should be obvious. Howard has gone from media darling to easy fodder for a hatchet job in sports media in just a couple of year’s time. Carmelo created his own three-ring trade request circus that lasted for months in Denver. Folks remember these examples.
How about someone like Chris Paul, though? People still largely revere him and say he’s an all around swell guy. He did the very same thing as LeBron, Howard and Carmelo, but he just accomplished it using a savvy and well thought out PR strategy. Even so, the orchestration of his exit set back the small-market Hornets just as much as any of the other aforementioned players who left their former franchises high and dry.
The counter to this is often if a team can’t sign free agents than it should just build through the draft. I hope you’re chuckling aloud, too. Let’s not forget that LeBron, Howard, Carmelo and Paul were all drafted by small-market teams. What exactly is the point of drafting such players in the lottery knowing they will bail as soon as the CBA will allow?
And for those who say that these players left because they couldn’t win, there are two thoughts worth considering:
1) Howard and LeBron qualified for the NBA Finals with their original teams and Carmelo made it to the Conference Finals.
2) If these guys really are the best players in the league shouldn’t they be able to lead a team to the Promised Land in any state or province?
Who decided the rights of individual players in the NBA supersede the rights of small-market franchises? At the very least, the two should be on equal footing and they haven’t been for years.
The idea of a franchise tag similar to what the NFL uses is desperately needed in the NBA. The way the tag works in the NFL is the player is retained on a one-year deal that guarantees that player no less than the average of the top-five salaries of the other players at his position. The NFL limits the number of successive franchise tags on a single player to three years. This is something the NBA would have to consider changing because implementing it as currently constituted would simply delay the inevitable.
The National Basketball Players Association whines that a “restriction” such as the franchise tag infringes on the rights of the players. Someone cue the violin. A player making top-five money at his position equals tens of millions of dollars. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone in that situation.
All great empires crumble when greed and power continue to rise unchallenged. Complacency and entitlement eventually set in as the Romans found out in the fourth century when the Visigoths eviscerated life as they knew it. Of course, the NBA is not life and death so the analogy eventually breaks down as all do, but should the rights of the players continue to be larger than the league they are a part of eventually they will have no league to play in.
Why should anyone in these small markets waste a dime of their money on season tickets? If the goal is to be entertained, perhaps buying a single game ticket here or there might suffice. If the goal is to watch a team legitimately compete for a championship, well, sorry but you’re out of luck. And it appears the league and the players union couldn’t care less.
But the good news is Lakers’ fans can begin pre-ordering their LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony jerseys soon.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.
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