by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
Conspiracy theories are nothing new to the NBA. From whether the New York Knicks were set-up to select Patrick Ewing first overall in the 1985 Draft to whether the Los Angeles Lakers were aided by help from referees in their seven-game series win over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the League has constantly fended off accusations of shady operations. Now, there might be another conspiracy theory to add to the list.
If you haven’t read enough about the Miami Heat’s free agent collection of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, well, here’s one more story to satisfy your appetite. Many theories have been brought up for how the Heat secured James and Bosh to free agent deals in addition to re-signing Wade. Some folks, including a Knicks-loving filmmaker, have suggested the process was rigged. John Vrooman, a sports economics professor at Vanderbilt University, hinted at a set-up while falling short of calling it a conspiracy.
“The NBA’s overt strategy of preferring dynasties over competitive balance and star players over team production runs through everything they do,” Vrooman wrote in an e-mail message.
Vrooman wrote that in response to a question I had about one of his previous e-mail statements, which included his thoughts about the latest “twisted free agency charade” from this summer and how the events of this past free agent season will be replicated in the future.
The latter point remains to be seen, as the NBA’s current economic structure could drastically change by the ‘11-12 season. For example, a “soft” salary cap may no longer exist past this season if NBA owners have their way. The soft cap, which has been in place since 1984, permits teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their players and to sign reserved contracts which are considered salary cap “exceptions.”
“The reason the salary cap is soft is so that conservative owners could be protected against maverick owners, while at the same time not killing the chicken that laid the golden egg. The Larry Bird exception is a classic example of the NBA’s reasonable desire to preserve existing teams,” Vrooman wrote of the exception that allows a team to exceed the cap in order to re-sign what’s typically a franchise-type player.
There’s no fault in the attempt to keep a valuable player with one team. It’s what has helped the NBA stand apart from other leagues over the years. While Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have worn only one jersey their entire career, greats in other sports will slide from one team to the next because of a “hard” cap (NFL), which makes for tough financial decisions, or no cap (MLB), which gives teams the ability to throw all the money they want at the best available players. (It should be pointed out that Ray Lewis and Derek Jeter are fine examples of how players in the NFL and MLB can still remain with one squad.) Yet what started out as a good intention, to permit teams to keep their players to maintain dynasties, has morphed into the NBA looking the other way at teams trying to recreate those talent-laden teams from the ’80s.
“The NBA has by default reached the reasonable conclusion that familiarity and personal competition between DWade and LBJ and Kobe [Bryant] feed national TV ratings and it does indeed,” Vrooman wrote. “Whether or not [Commissioner David] Stern’s token attempts to preserve the Raptors and Cavs, to fine owners for tampering, and then somehow to stand for the Heat’s free agent bonanza on the heels of the Celtics’ Big Three and the mystery move of Pau Gasol to join Kobe in L.A., is conclusive evidence of this open and overt strategy of dynasties over [competitive] balance is an empirical question that is subject to debate.”
It’s a loaded statement that should be broken down. Stern, or any part of the NBA for that matter, has not appeared to do anything to aid the Raptors and Cavaliers after the departures of their franchise players. In fact, Stern fined Cavs owner Dan Gilbert $100,000 for comments he made about James in a letter to Cavs fans, and in a follow-up phone interview with the Associated Press, after James announced he would sign with the Heat.
The tampering charges Vrooman wrote about were in regards to the $100,000 fine handed to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and $10,000 fine given to then-Suns general manager Steve Kerr for comments made about James prior to the official start of free agency in July.
The references to the formation of the Celtics and Lakers’ cores are self-explanatory. The Big Three coming together in Boston raised some eyebrows after then-Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale and Celtics Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge — Celtics teammates in the ’80s — made a deal to trade Kevin Garnett to Boston. It was a trade that appeared unbalanced at the time.
Gasol’s deal to the Lakers raised suspicion in even more folks, namely Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. He stated the trade was “beyond comprehension” and that there should be “a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense.”
Points that Vrooman raised have been at the core of debates among NBA fans and critics. In his opinion, there isn’t much room for discussion.
“The debate shouldn’t last long, and the empirical question is easy to answer. There have only been six different NBA championship clubs and home markets in the 27-year modern era of the soft salary cap (1984-2010) and we all know who they are, including DWade and the Miami Heat. There is no doubt: This imbalance is by design.”