In 2014 three of the NBA’s most storied franchises — the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, with their combined 37 NBA titles — all missed the playoffs.
That was the first time in NBA history that at least one of those three teams was not in the postseason.
If you want to write that off as just a statistical fluke, you could. But you’d be wrong.
This is exactly what the NBA owners wanted.
It’s what they fought for in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Those three major market teams having to do a slow rebuild and not just being able to reload with free agents was the goal of the league and mid-to-small market owners in the last negotiations. They wanted to flatten out the talent pool, to try and have more parity. Here is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaking to GQ:
“From a league-office standpoint, the ideal league would be for all thirty teams to compete based on the skill of their management and players, as opposed to one team paying more to get better talent.”
We can debate whether the NBA can really ever have NFL style parity (it can’t) or if not having a super-team is really good for the league (I don’t think it is, personally). But those were the express goals of some owners. Part of this was a direct reaction to LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade to form a “super-team” in Miami. This new CBA put in a luxury tax with more severe penalties and limits on spending for teams over the cap and tax lines, steps that would make it hard to put enough quality players around multiple stars, or keep the team together. It ultimately worked in breaking up Miami.
All that made things more difficult for the big markets — they still have advantages, but the CBA and the changing media landscape have diluted them.
There has been a sense among some parts of the fan bases in Los Angeles and New York (less so with Boston) that they can just go out and get free agents like it was 1995. This new CBA makes that harder. Kevin Love is a fantastic example. As he and his agent worked to force his exit from Minnesota, he could have tried to get to (or waited to be a free agent and chosen) the Lakers or the Knicks. He would have been the face of those franchises. Instead he forced his way to Cleveland, a much smaller market where he would be the third most popular player. Why? Because the things Love wants off the court — endorsements, opportunities — come with exposure, and exposure means winning, going deep in the playoffs (and playing next to LeBron). Social media helps democratize the exposure of players as well, somewhat lessening the draw of big markets.
The Lakers, Knicks and Celtics will all turn it around at some point. The process is just going to be more like every other team now — hoarding cap space, acquiring assets, turning those into the players they need, plus getting a little bit of luck. It’s an adjustment.
It’s also what the owners wanted.
And they are going to get it again in 2015 as all three of those franchises will be home again for the postseason.