Their Time Is Now

by June 12, 2012

Stage II: Anger

“This is total crap! The new CBA was supposed to help make small market teams more competitive!”

Yes and no.

There absolutely was a contingent of small market teams fighting for a larger slice of the revenue pie after many hemorrhaged money for the past several seasons. There was also plenty of talk about competitive balance.

Really, though, that’s all geared toward the bottom line than the standings.

When the NBA throws out the “competitive balance” buzz words, what they really mean is parity – the same kind of parity found in the NFL, and something evidenced by the owners’ vehement push toward a hard salary cap when negotiating the new CBA. But they don’t want that parity because it gives every team a fair chance of winning a title every season; they seek it because the more teams capable of contending each season, the greater amount of fan bases that become invested in the product. That leads to higher attendance, ratings, advertising sales, merchandise sales, and every other form of revenue stream that drastically increases capital.

Everyone focusing on the luxury tax rules as the mechanism for that is looking the wrong way, in no small part due to the fact that if any teams ever muster the courage to actually pay those penalties, the prime candidates are the same cash flush usual suspects who are perennial taxpayers in this system – teams like New York, Dallas, and the L.A. Lakers.

No, the vehicle for actually distributing all of that profit is a revamped revenue sharing agreement that roughly triples the amount of money given to teams in competitively disadvantaged markets. It certainly increases these teams’ financial viability; what it doesn’t do, by virtue of mechanisms like the salary cap and luxury tax, is allow it to be funneled back into the on court product.

So, yes, the NBA wants more teams to be competitive. But that vision isn’t necessarily congruous with a small market team like Oklahoma City rising up to dominate the standings; if anything, Harden or Ibaka leaving for another team would be more in line with the league’s new business model because it offers a chance for another team to procure a star player and possibly rocket up the standings in the process.

Frankly, I’m not sure any of that really helps balm the anger about all of this going down so much as illustrating that while the new system does help teams like the Thunder, it doesn’t in the manner most commonly thought it would.

Let’s move on.

Stage III: Bargaining

“There’s got to be a way out of this, right? Can’t someone take a hometown discount? The ownership has money; just pay the tax!”

Technically, this stage has more to do with the fans themselves desperately offering up solutions to keep this together—vital organs, prayers to voodoo Gods, indentured servitude—and I don’t doubt that some of the more dedicated ones are concocting such scenarios right this minute.

But for the purposes of this piece, it makes more sense to delve into the purported bargains the franchise itself can make to retain all of the team’s core pieces.

By now, you’ve probably realized there aren’t any.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s refreshing to read the flood of stories on how this young Thunder team is more akin to a fraternity than a conglomerate, a group of players who genuinely relish playing together and are cognizant of just how rare this dynamic is.

Yet nowhere in the league can you find a model where a player willingly took substantially less to stay with his current team and in this case, it would require two players to do exactly that. It just doesn’t happen, not only since people in general have a hard time leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table but also because the players union leverages its members into setting the market value bar as high as possible for everyone else while agents push their clients into the cushiest financial situation possible in order to maximize their commissions—and if you underestimate the strength of that last group in particular, you didn’t pay close attention during this past lockout.

Then there’s the feasibility of Clay Bennett and his cohorts actually courting the luxury tax, which sounds easy enough in theory but in practice has scared the hell out of everyone.

Recall those aforementioned big market teams in the previous stage. The Mavericks shed half of last season’s championship roster – including Chandler – because Mark Cuban openly fears the ramifications of that tax, not so much financially as the drastically reduced roster flexibility that comes with it. The Lakers, meanwhile, did everything short of putting a bow on Lamar Odom’s head when they gifted him to Dallas for the pittance of a trade exception because they were perilously close to the tax line, as well as purportedly turning down a midseason deal that would have netted them a desperately needed scorer at the 3 (Michael Beasley) at the cost of a late first round pick for exactly the same reason.

The Knicks might only because the brain trust (read: James Dolan) is reckless and if we’ve learned anything from the meticulous, careful construction of this Thunder team, it’s that Sam Presti’s crew is most decidedly not that.

The takeaway is this: If savvy heavyweights are avoiding these penalties like Westbrook shuns a mirror when putting together his postgame interview wardrobe, there’s no reason to expect a savvy flyweight like OKC to buck that trend—even if it’s for two players as good as Harden and Ibaka.