When it comes to sports the first thing you need to realize is competitive balance is a fallacy, because you can’t balance competitive nature. Some are willing to do more to win, whether it means spending more money or playing for less.
Mikhail Prokhorov didn’t mind paying Joe Johnson’s exorbitant contract. Ray Allen was cool with half the annual salary in Miami that he could have made in Boston. Steve Nash turned down more money and his native country to join his divisional rival in L.A. As a result the Nets, Heat and Lakers all have better rosters than when the season ended. The only way to legislate against that is to legislate against free will, and I doubt that would hold up in arbitration.
Dispense with the “what was the point of the lockout?” queries. The lockout was about giving the owners the best shot at profitability for their franchises, and little else. It was about transferring a greater share of revenues from the players to the owners, which is why the biggest fight during collective bargaining was over the split of basketball related income. The owners’ share went from 43 percent to about 50 percent and could result in an additional $300 million a year coming their way over the life of the agreement. Mission accomplished. For the league to put the Minnesota Timberwolves on equal footing with the Miami Heat to boot would require using that windfall to build a dome over Minneapolis and control the climate.
The only way to approach competitive balance through equal financial footing is via a league revenue sharing plan, which has nothing to do with the players. As long as there is free agency – or, in the cases of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony the past couple of years, the threat of free agency – you can’t stop player movement. And since superstars mean everything in the NBA and history shows it takes multiple superstars to win a championship and we’re constantly reinforcing the idea that you’re nothing without a ring, how do you keep stars from clustering for a shot at a title?
What I don’t understand is why an owner would want to aid the process through trades. We keep hearing about teams afraid of losing their star and getting nothing in return. In the NBA system, nothing is something. “Nothing” can amount to room under the salary cap. Didn’t the Atlanta Hawks garner praise for accumulating expiring contracts for Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams?
Why not simply think of a disgruntled or non-committal superstar, like a Dwight Howard, who wants out as an expiring contract, rather than a grenade that needs to be tossed as far away as possible? Since you’re starting over anyway, might as well do it with a clean salary sheet. Or you can put the player's pursuit of liberty to the test and dare him to turn down the additional year and higher annual raises he could get by re-signing at home.
The only problem is cap space doesn’t always ensure you can get the right players to use it. Witness the Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban decided against bringing his entire core group back to defend their 2011 championship with an eye on free agent spending in 2012 and 2013, while hoping to avoid the looming severe luxury tax penalties.
Except the only way to get cap space is by stripping down the roster. With Jason Terry departing for Boston, Deron Williams was looking at him and Dirk Nowitzki if he signed with Dallas. Deron stayed with the Nets, and later articulated the reasons he did so: more players who gave him a better shot at winning long-term.
Cuban tried to be practical by going with finances over sentiment. Except it backfired because emotions do play a role in this. Things like a yearning to win, or a desire to be in a certain region. Remember, when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade came together in Miami they didn’t do so for the maximum amount of money. And for those who think the Heat “bought” this year’s championship through artificial means, keep in mind that the Mavericks squad that beat them last year had a higher payroll and technically didn’t use any players that came to them via the draft (they acquired Dirk and Rodrique Beaubois through draft-day trades and had re-acquired Jason Kidd through a trade more than a decade after they first drafted him).
Cuban’s usually the smartest guy in the room, so maybe he’ll get the last laugh down the road when the current star-laden teams face crushing tax bills and are prohibited from offering the full mid-level exception or using sign-and-trades to acquire players. Right now his team has negative momentum, rocketing away from its championship and facing a long voyage to get back to one.
The Miami Heat’s payroll is about to get really expensive as we head to the harsher luxury tax. But as long as it’s perceived as a championship environment, they’ll be able to add good players, like Ray Allen, on the cheap. There’s nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that can stop it.