Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Of market size and parity

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tim_duncan_spurs.jpgLet’s face it: there are some topics in basketball that are best
tackled by having two writers talk past each other at gradually
increasing volumes. We’re not making any progress unless we’re yelling
our way through the real issues, and that’s precisely what John Krolik and I hope to accomplish in Pro Basketball Crosstalk.


In each installment, we’ll talk around each other while discussing a choice NBA item. On the docket for today is…

Resolved: That market size is not the root cause of the NBA’s lack of parity. 

John Krolik: To
get some facts out of the way: the current CBA is done after this
season, and things are going to get ugly. The owners say they’re losing
money, the players don’t want their current rights and salaries taken
away from them, and there’s almost certainly going to be a lockout.
Whether or not games will end up getting canceled remained to be seen,
but there’s a very legitimate chance a labor stoppage will happen. 
At some point, this is going to become an argument
about parity. The teams that contend for a championship are the teams
that spend the most, and small-market/small-salary teams are going to
cry foul. Changes will be demanded, and a “hard cap” of some
description may even be considered. 
Here’s my point: I think people saying the NBA’s
current salary structure causes a parity issue are making a classic
causation/correlation error. (My favorite example of this: everyone who
spends two years in the Marine Core is a disciplined soldier. Everyone
who spends two years in the Ford Modeling Agency is physically
attractive.) Teams aren’t good because they spend money.Teams spend money because they’re good. 

More than any other major sport, the NBA is
(to borrow a term from Bethlehem Shoals), a League of Stars. A team
only plays five guys at a time, they get to decide how much their star
player gets the ball, and stars are in the game roughly 80-85% of the
time. Compare that to baseball, football, or hockey, and the
differences are obvious. (The value of basketball stars also tends to
be more “stable” than that of their baseball or football counterparts.) 
To truly be a title contender, it’s almost
imperative to have a superstar. Let’s look at last season’s title
contenders and how they acquired their best players/superstars:
  1. Los Angeles Lakers: Acquired Kobe Bryant on draft day.
  2. Boston Celtics: Acquired Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo on draft day; traded a high-value former lottery pick for Kevin Garnett and the #5
    overall pick for Ray Allen.
  3. Phoenix Suns: Acquired Amar’e Stoudemire on draft day; Steve Nash was a franchise-changing free agency acquisition.
  4. Orlando Magic: Acquired Dwight Howard on draft day.
  5. Cleveland Cavaliers: Acquired LeBron James on draft day.
  6. Dallas Mavericks: Acquired Dirk Nowitzki on draft day.
  7. Denver Nuggets: Acquired Carmelo Anthony on draft day.
  8. San Antonio Spurs: Acquired Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker on draft day.
You
see where I’m going with this. Yes, all of these teams spent a lot more
money than the other franchises, but they did that because their
superstar(s) gave them the chance to win a championship and they wanted
to take advantage of it. Rashard Lewis getting a max contract would
have been a terrible move for the Nets, because he’s not going to take
any team very far by himself, but Dwight Howard’s presence made
overpaying Lewis worth it for the Magic. There’s no way the Cavaliers
would have spent the money they did on top-notch role players if LeBron
wasn’t there.
Even the most extreme examples of team-building
come back to non-salary cap issues. The Heat were able to do what
they did because they had Wade, Pat Riley, and the Miami climate. The
Lakers got Gasol because their best player was Kobe and the Grizzlies’
2nd-best player was a young Rudy Gay. The big-money teams do end up
being the ones competing for championships, but everything starts with
superstars, and most of those are acquired on draft day. More
“glamorous” markets also play a role in free-agency decisions a lot of
the time, but unless the next CBA includes a plan for a weather-control
device, there’s no cap adjustment that will change that. (The 2004
Pistons managed to win a championship without a superduperstar, but I’d
hardly say they bought their championship.)
You could give every team 11 billion dollars to
spend, and 16 teams would make the playoffs, 14 teams would miss them, two teams would make the Finals, and one team would win a championship.
The teams that have success will likely be the ones that have the best
players. That’s just the reality of the situation. Salaries are dished
out on a linear scale, while talent is on an exponential scale. The teams
with the best players are always going to have a huge advantage over
everyone else. If you try to “buy” a championship without the elite
top-line talent to do so, you become the Isiah Knicks. 
Maybe small-market teams that compete for the 7th
or 8th playoff seed in their conference lose their best players due to
fiscal concerns sometimes, but doesn’t the increased chance of landing
a superstar with a high draft pick more than make up for the loss of losing a player incapable of leading
a team to the promised land? 
Most times, “small market” teams that don’t have
success have nobody but themselves to blame. Look at the Hornets. They
have a great player, they’re in a small market, and they may end up
losing him. It’s awful. But who was holding a gun to their head when
they traded for Emeka Okafor’s contract, or signed Peja Stojakovic to
his? Both of those moves essentially crippled their cap flexibility,
and that’s why they’re in the situation they’re in today. If you have
enough money to wildly overpay veterans, you have enough money to field
a competitive team using smarts and patience. Too many teams try to
force the issue and “show they’re competitive” rather than be patient
and wait for the right draft pick or the right deal that will actually
put their team over the top. 
Here’s my second major point — this is not a
league that was designed with parity in mind. I’ve already made my
point about how superstars have far more influence over an NBA game
than they do over a baseball or football game. 
Consider also how a game with so many points scored
keeps random events from deciding a game. If Deron Williams slips on a
wet spot, makes a bad pass, and the opposing team gets a transition
three, that’s a five-point swing in a game that will see 200 points
scored. If Clayton Kershaw fails to snap a curveball correctly with two
outs and Buster Posey hits a three-run home run, that one mistake could
account for 80% of the points scored in the game. The Patriots were one
play — one play! from being the greatest team of all time. Also,
consider that basketball has the most pronounced home-court advantage
in all of major sports, which makes it even harder for the underdog to
win a playoff series, and that every NBA playoff series is
best-of-seven, which greatly increases the chances that the “better”
team (or one with the more favorable match-ups) will win. Fluke
championships or playoff wins happen in the NBA, but they’re far more rare than they are in the other major sports.
Here’s where I’ll sum things up and hand it to you: there isn’t much parity in professional basketball. But to focus
on that fact during the coming CBA negotiations is to ignore the
reality that parity in the NBA is a pipe dream for a number of reasons
that have nothing to do with salary. 
(P.S.: So I can regain some of the points I’ve
almost certainly just lost with Nate Jones — the amount of NBA players
that go broke/the Eddy Curry bankruptcy situation really makes me think
any CBA negotiations are treating the symptoms rather than the disease
here. A little money given to responsible agents and managers who could
get players to invest their money responsibly could prevent a situation
where most owners are losing money because of the exorbitant amounts they’re forced to pay their players. If the NBA’s most overpaid
player is filing for bankruptcy, there are some serious problems
present that a new CBA won’t fix.)

Rob Mahoney: If we’re looking to identify the root cause of the NBA’s lack of
parity as the resolution instructs, we’ll be searching for some time.
In truth, there are a number of factors that work to destroy the
overall balance of the league, and I do consider market size to be one
of them. It may not lie at the center of everything, but market size
certainly has traceable influences across the league.

I don’t think there’s a way to argue around market size being an
advantage. Bigger markets mean more industry, which translates to more
corporate suites and sponsorships. Bigger markets also mean more
consumers, which not only means more tickets and concessions sold, but
also more merchandise peddled to the members of a larger in-city fan
base. Bigger markets typically mean more income to spend on coaches,
trainers, various other staff members (director of quantitative
analysis/stat guru, anyone?), facilities, technology, and
accommodations. Depending on the team’s agreement with the arena in
which they play their games, a bigger market could mean less of a
financial burden; bigger cities mean more concerts and attractions to
fill that space in the off-days, which either means less of a financial
commitment from the team’s owners in the initial construction of a new
arena, or possibly a reduced cost to rent that space for all parties, including the team.

In addition, market size provides a case where perception really is
reality. In most cases I think the use of that phrase is tripe, but if
we’re to argue the influence of market on, say, free agency, perception
is king. It doesn’t really matter if a big market is actually
better for an NBA franchise than a small market. It just mattered what
Shaquille O’Neal thought at the time. As long as the players themselves
are sold on the allure of the big city, they’ll continue to flock to
the NBA’s biggest markets.

You’re right in saying that superstars are essential, and that the
draft is the easiest way through which to procure one. Unless you’re the
type to subscribe to fairly elaborate conspiracy theories, market size
won’t apply there. That said, having the aforementioned financial
benefits (and then some — I’m sure there are plenty of big market
advantages that I’ve left out) does give teams in bigger markets more
leeway than their small market counterparts. They can afford to
actually use their first rounder every season, rather than pawn them
off, year after year, like Robert Sarver. They can actually pay to keep
their starting point guards, rather than having to watch them sign with
the Knicks. They can absorb long-term salaries via trade that small
market owners may be reluctant to take on.

None of that removes lottery luck from the equation, but it does
give teams in large markets more of a margin for error. The superstars
may provide the foundation, but owners still have to pay for the raw
materials for the team’s overall structure. It’s not impossible to do
so in a small market, but it is a bit more difficult. Finances
make it so. The reason why so many small market teams are compelled to
“show that they’re competitive” is because often their results are
driven by the financial bottom-line rather than long-term basketball interests. Owners dictate the criteria for management’s success, and if
an owner is looking to generate revenue as quickly as possible, a GM,
no matter their savvy, may not have time to wait for the right draft
pick to come along. If a GM’s job hangs in the balance, what exactly
are they to do?

Plus, I have a hard time believing that the same Miami coup could have taken place in Charlotte. Or that the Pau Gasol deal had nothing to do with Memphis as a basketball market. Market size may not be at the root of either of those events, but its influence is fairly evident from where I’m sitting.

The teams with the best players will indeed win championships, but
the San Antonio Spurs are the only small market team to win a title in
the last thirty years. There’s something happening here, and the
results suggest that the best players end up on large market teams a
startlingly disproportionate amount of the time.

Complete parity may indeed be a pipe dream, but that doesn’t mean a
new CBA shouldn’t attempt to limit the impacts of the market
discrepancy. After all, the primary function of bargaining agreements
is to limit, not to solve. They limit how much damage a poor GM
can do to their franchise, how much money can be offered to players,
and how long a player and team are to be wed. Nothing written in the
new CBA is going to put all markets on perfectly equal standing, but
maybe the agreement can at least limit the financial difference in an
attempt to align the primary interests of NBA decision-makers. Fewer financial
concerns for small market clubs allows them to focus fully on building
a winning team, a luxury that, in some cases, the status quo doesn’t
afford them.

JK: I think we’re talking past each other a bit re: large markets. My point
isn’t that Los Angeles/Miami isn’t a more attractive market than, say
Charlotte. It’s that the former two markets are more attractive than
Charlotte for reasons beyond the scope of any CBA. The big, glamorous
cities are the big, glamorous cities, and no cap, hard or soft, will
“fix” that. 

Don’t forget that everything comes back to the
competence of management. Robert Sarver sold his draft picks,
but he also used the money that could have been used to sign Rajon
Rondo on Marcus Banks. That’s just dumb, regardless of financial
situation. And don’t forget that the Cavaliers competed for
championships while the Knicks and Clippers were irrelevant either. And
is the fact that Charlotte didn’t have the fiscal means to overpay
Raymond Felton really supposed to break my heart? If he’d lived up to
his potential or fit in Larry Brown’s system, the Bobcats would have
worked a lot harder to keep him. As it is, the Knicks get to pin their
hopes on him. 
As for the stat guru/assistant thing, I bring you back to the Moneyball A’s
— stat consultants make ludicrously small amounts of money when
compared to overpaid veterans. A good consultant is cost-effective, and
there’s no getting around that. Facilities and accommodations are both
perks that come with having a billionaire owner (both of our favorite
teams have both), but there’s little proof that a Blu-Ray player and
XBOX in a locker can truly help to shift the balance of power. 
I think market size is a factor in the way things
work, but not the impetus. The Cavaliers were accused of bullying other
franchises when they bought back Big Z and thus essentially traded
nobody for Antawn Jamison. Their willingness to take on Mo Williams’
contract and Joe Smith’s desire to re-join the team meant that Mo was
traded straight-up for Damon Jones. Again, this happened in Cleveland.
The greatest post-Russell dynasty played in the same city as a baseball
team that hasn’t won championship in a century. 
To your last point, building a winning team in the NBA is hard. Other
than Phoenix, only one team achieved a winning record without a player
(or players) they acquired on draft day at the helm. Guess who that
outlier team was? The Charlotte Bobcats.

RM: As I mentioned, the point isn’t to “fix” anything. It’s for documents
like the CBA to do what they can to make things as competitively
equitable as possible for teams that aren’t in those massive
markets. No one said the answer has to be — or even should be — a
modification of the cap. A creatively altered revenue sharing program
could be the answer, or maybe something even better.

You can’t control for poor management or market attractiveness. I get that. What you can
do is make it so owners in small markets worry a bit less about the
team’s finances, and a bit more about being competitive long-term.

A lesser discrepancy
can also make it easier for ownership to fork over the cash for
something with less obvious benefits; stat gurus may not pull in huge
salaries relative to NBA players, but the full value of their
contributions to a franchise isn’t exactly easy to define, either.
Open-minded owners with cash flowing freely might not think twice about
hiring a numbers guy, but if the team is cutting costs, dodging the
luxury tax line like the plague, and really looking to turn a profit?
The benefits are obscured by circumstance. 

There isn’t any emotional grandstanding in
my insistence that we consider the relevance of market size, so forgive
me if that Raymond Felton bit was short on pathos. The point wasn’t
that small market teams are drowning in woe, just that the natural
order of the league has put them a half-step behind big city teams. In
an effort to make things as fair as possible, why not at least try to
compensate for those discrepancies? Sure, it’s possible for teams like
the Spurs and the Cavs to overcome them, just as the Knicks and the
Clippers have squandered their natural advantage. That doesn’t mean
there isn’t room for improvement in the system, or that there’s reason
enough to give up on controlling the market size variable.

Bucks’ Greg Monroe says he’s not thinking of player-option decision

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 19: Greg Monroe #15 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat during a game  at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Bucks reportedly already planned for Greg Monroe to opt in after this season, a reasonable conclusion considering they tried to dump him in a trade all summer and found no takers.

But Monroe has quietly boosted his stock this season. Coming off Milwaukee’s bench, he’s still a skilled interior scorer. But he’s defending and rebounding better, using his quick hands to strip opponents and taking plenty of charges.

Could he even decline his $17,884,176 player option?

Monroe, via Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“I’m not thinking about anything like the off-season right now. There is a time and place for everything. If and when I have to make a decision, that time is not right now.”

The time might approach more quickly than Monroe expects. If the Bucks shop him again, potential trade partners will want to know Monroe’s intention. Some might prefer the flexibility created by him opting out, and others would like the certainty of having a productive player at a reasonable-enough cost next season. But all would want to know where they stand.

That said, it’s hardly a give Milwaukee moves Monroe. Though he has backed up John Henson and Miles Plumlee, Monroe (21.2 minutes per game) plays more than both. He’s a valuable contributor on a team jockeying for playoff position.

Most importantly, Monroe appears to complement Bucks franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo well. Antetokounmpo scores more (23.5 to 26.3 points per 36 minutes) and more efficiently (59.0% to 65.7% true shooting percentage) from when he plays without Monroe to when he plays with Monroe, and Milwaukee’s offense improves accordingly (104.3 to 114.6 points per 100 possessions).

Andre Iguodala: Jealous media tries to make players ‘feel less than what we are’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11:  Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors spwaks in overtime the media after Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 11, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Stephen Curry is having a down year relative to his last two seasons.

That shouldn’t qualify as a controversial statement. Curry won MVP the last two years. There wasn’t much room to go anywhere but down. Adjusting to playing Kevin Durant has taken time, and Curry might have been due for regression to the mean, anyway. It isn’t as if Curry is having a bad season. He remains a superstar, and I haven’t seen anyone credible unfairly admonish Curry for his production slip.

Yet, the slightest sniff of Curry criticism prompted teammate Andre Iguodala to unload on the media.

Iguodala, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I be like, ‘What are y’all even talking about.’ Like, why? That’s just the world we live in,” Iguodala told ESPN. “It’s like, whatever. You can be on the best team and winning the most games and they’ll try to find something. It’s almost sad because they look for things to say negative. They just look [for] something, anything.”

He blames the media for reaching for a narrative.

“I think they’re just looking for something,” Iguodala continued. “It’s not just that he set the bar so high. I don’t think it’s that. It’s just the hate. That’s just how they’ve been since the beginning of time. And you’re not going to write that, but that’s just how they are. Since the beginning of time, it’s some things that we can do that they can’t do. And they’ve been trying ever since to either try to do it, which they can’t, and they figure that out, and to make us feel less than what we are.”

There is some truth to that. Most media members at one point dreamed of playing in the NBA, and none of us can do it. Otherwise, we would be doing it.

Nearly all of us learned long ago we’d fall far short of playing in the NBA, so I don’t think there’s such a direct jealousy as Iguodala paints. It’s just not something most of us are dealing with.

That said, some reporters can be overly negative for varying reasons. I caution against speaking as broadly as he does, but Iguodala certainly has a right to express his opinion.

Perhaps, Haynes negating Iguodala’s prediction that his comments won’t be written up shows that we’re not all so bad?

Carmelo Anthony: I’d consider waiving no-trade clause if Knicks want to rebuild

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 13:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks reacts during the second half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 13, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Suns defeated the Knicks 113-111 in overtime. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Carmelo Anthony told Phil Jackson he wanted to remain with the Knicks.

Case closed?

Anthony holds a no-trade clause and, therefore, all the leverage. He has repeatedly publicly stated his desire to remain in New York, and this was just the latest example of that commitment.

But apparently he’s open to being dealt under the right circumstances.

Anthony, via Al Iannazzone of Newsday:

“I think it will be more on the front office,” Anthony told Newsday this week. “I have the power, but still I would talk to them. We would be in communication if they feel like they want to go in a different direction, they want to start rebuilding for the future. If they tell me they want to scrap this whole thing, yeah, I have to consider it.”

Anthony, 32, made it clear he isn’t thinking about going anywhere, nor does he allow himself at this point. He and his family love it in New York, and his son is in school here.

The Knicks’ fundamental issue: Anthony is 32, and Kristaps Porzingis is 21. Their timelines just offer little to no overlap. New York might be better off building around Porzingis.

But the Knicks have already given lucrative long-term contracts to 31-year-olds Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. Noah’s deal – worth more than $72 million over four years – is particularly onerous. It would be difficult for New York to pivot into rebuilding – and that starts with Anthony.

He’d like be choosy about where he’d go in a trade, and contenders will be reluctant to part with significant pieces for an aging scorer with few complementary skills. And it’s hard to fit Anthony’s salary, either into cap space or through salary matching, without surrendering key players.

So, there are significant roadblocks to the Knicks ever actually trading Anthony. But that he acknowledges hypothetically accepting a deal means something.

Report: Danny Ferry not expected to supplant Dell Demps as Pelicans GM

CLEVELAND - JUNE 02:  General Manager Danny Ferry of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after the Cavs won 98-82 to win the Detroit Pistons in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2007 NBA Playoffs on June 2, 2007 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Pelicans general manager Dell Demps has repeatedly failed to build an adequate supporting cast around Anthony Davis, keeping Demps on the hot seat.

Meanwhile, former Hawks and Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry – still respected in many circles, despite using “African” pejoratively to describe Luol Deng – is working in New Orleans’ front office.

You can see where this is going…

Or not.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Don’t look for Danny Ferry, currently an advisor to the front office, to take over in any shakeup, sources say.

I’m skeptical. Nobody wants to acknowledge an internal coup before it’s executed. Doing so would create a terrible workplace environment until it happens or if it doesn’t.

The Pelicans’ ownership situation makes this a little more tricky. There’s an apparent desire in New Orleans to win quickly for an aging Benson, and that directive has limited Demps’ flexibility.

Still, Demps’ plans have mostly busted. Eventually, he’ll run out of chances to try new ones.

If that happens soon, when the Pelicans search for a replacement, Ferry will be right there with an impressive record building up Atlanta and no stains that make him unhirable to New Orleans. Would the Pelicans, who thought enough of him to hire him once already, really not consider promoting him?