The NBA owners and the myth of competitive balance

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The owners got their money and it was not enough. The players offered to come far enough down on the split of revenue to cover all of the owners claimed losses of $300 million a year.

And it was not enough. The owners demanded changes to the system so that any team can compete for a title if well run. The Bobcats want to compete with the Lakers.

It’s all crap. First off, if you are defining competitive balance as parity like the NFL has, you will never have it in the NBA. If you define competitive balance as the chance for any franchise to win if well managed, it already exists.

Closer games and more teams able to compete for a playoff spot is not going to increase NBA popularity — the NBA is a star-driven league and its popularity will always ebb and flow with those stars, how they do and where they play.

There have been a couple great blog posts on this issue in recent days (by two of the best in the business).

One talks about the importance of the draft, as reported by Henry Abbott at TrueHoop.

Sources say the Bobcats, for instance, feel they lose so many games because they will never be able to afford the Lakers’ payroll. But basketball is not baseball. The Bobcats have not been forced to give up top young talent to basketball’s equivalent of the Yankees. ….

The problem the Bobcats — and most consistently bad teams — have is that they have made bad decisions, which is especially noticeable in the draft. From 2004 to 2008, Charlotte had a top 10 pick — the holy grail of NBA assets — every single year. They picked second, fifth, third, eighth and ninth. Picks like those are the way teams get superstars. They are the way small-market teams like the Thunder (thanks to Kevin Durant) and Spurs (Tim Duncan) have been able to compete with small payrolls.

And out of all that, the Bobcats got Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright and D.J. Augustin. Only one of those players even plays for the Bobcats anymore, and none are centerpieces of any franchise. For the same money they paid their picks, the Bobcats could have employed Rajon Rondo, Joakim Noah and Nicolas Batum. Instead, the Bobcats’ own decisions left better players to other teams.

Once you get that star player via the draft (or stripping your payroll down so far you can attract someone as a free agent), then you spend to win. Which is why you can say teams that spend win in the NBA, but you confuse causation and correlation, as Zach Lowe points out at Sports Illustrated.

The Mavericks, Lakers and Knicks are the prime examples of (big spenders) the last decade. These teams do have an advantage. They can use the mid-level exception every season and re-sign all their own guys via Bird Rights, though that, too, is a function of profitability. They can act as predators, sending unproductive guys on expiring contracts (i.e. Kwame Brown, Erick Dampier) to cheap teams in exchange for productive guys on big contracts (Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler)…

But I don’t see any of these rules tilting the balance in any significant way. Why? Because we’re talking about rules that might limit big spenders from signing expensive fringe starters (Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Trevor Ariza), so-so bench players (Steve Blake, Quentin Richardson, James Posey) and out-and-out busts. We are not discussing solutions that would change the distribution of star players….

Again, I’m open to the idea that putting more Artest-level cogs on the open market might help competitive balance a bit; the Mavericks are proof that if you keep spending to adjust your mix of such players, you might eventually find the right ingredients. But they are also proof that a top-20 Hall of Famer remains the most important cog of a champion.

The owners are fighting for a system that will help save them from bad general managers and poor basketball decisions. That doesn’t exist. The Clippers squandered great picks for years, but a few years back they started to get it right (Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan, etc). And what do you know, the Clippers are on the verge of going from a low payroll to high payroll team. Because you spend when you have the cogs in the NBA.

Nothing in the new CBA is going to change that. This is not worth being still locked out over.