Commentary

Is there a way to balance things out?

Updated: December 12, 2013, 3:47 PM ET
By J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

Israel Gutierrez and J.A. Adande discuss a few ways to correct the competitive imbalance in the league.

J.A.: Hey, Izzy, welcome to the ESPN broadcast sidelines, where I'm sure the biggest perk is getting a chance to escape the Eastern Conference and see some real ball out West. Can't stay on the road forever, though, so eventually you'll have to return to that quagmire in the East.

The competitive imbalance has gotten so bad that incoming commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA will consider altering or abandoning the divisional format. But the problem isn't in the geographic groupings; it's in the core of the collective bargaining agreement.

In its current form, the CBA discourages teams from lavishly spending to build a winner yet does nothing to make the playoffs more appealing than the draft lottery for teams that reside on the border. The cost of adding a useful veteran doesn't outweigh the risk of missing out on a talented rookie.

The new CBA was supposedly going to give more teams a chance to compete ... so why aren't there more competitive teams?

Israel: There are much better perks than escaping Eastern Conference basketball. I mean, in the last six days I've had lunch with Hubie Brown and Doug Collins. I mean, come on!

But let's start here with the competitive balance issue: The NBA, more than any of the other big four pro sports, is driven by an elite handful of stars. You can reference our conversation from last week and realize that even if you have a star like James Harden, it doesn't automatically make you a real contender. And the only way for some teams to become a real contender is to be bad enough to get a franchise changer in the draft. There is little benefit to just making the playoffs.

So when it comes to the collective bargaining agreement, unless there's a clause in there that requires LeBron James to play for multiple teams in one season, there are going to be times like this. And even this season is affected by injuries (Derrick Rose), horrible front-office decisions (Nets, Knicks) and dominance atop the conference. And that's not even getting into the more progressive thinking front-office people that tend to be out West.

But I'm guessing you have some solutions in mind for this, don't you?

J.A.: You know me too well. Here's one: If there's a "repeater tax" that financially penalizes teams that spend money in an attempt to get better, why not a repeater lottery penalty for teams that don't strive to get better no matter how many high draft picks they collect? After three consecutive trips to the lottery, teams would be ineligible for the top three spots in that draft if they miss the playoffs again. That way there would be a reason for teams to make moves to push them into the playoffs.

You're right, there are only a handful of players who make teams championship contenders. But there are guys who can get you into the playoffs -- and maybe into the second round. Reward them and the teams that pay them and you'll reward the fans with more regular-season games worth watching.

"

After three consecutive trips to the lottery, teams would be ineligible for the top three spots in that draft if they miss the playoffs again.

" - J.A. Adande

Israel: Wait, wait, wait. So how do you determine whether they're not "trying" to win? What if the people running a franchise are simply incapable of making smart personnel moves? What if guys get hurt regularly? And even if you still justify penalizing them, how do you expect that team to ever become competitive if you're taking away one of their best chances at improving in the long term? I mean, you can find quality players by accident at the top of most drafts.

I'll wait for you to answer these questions before I come up with a wacky solution.

J.A.: It's not about measuring who's trying, it's about measuring results. Players get traded and coaches get fired when they don't produce. How about putting some pressure on front offices as well? And yes, injuries happen. But teams don't get their luxury-tax payments refunded if their high-priced stars get hurt and miss games. (Although I'd be in favor of doing that if it reduced financial risk and encouraged teams to upgrade their rosters.)

OK, if you think the draft penalty is too harsh, how about we offer a carrot instead: In order for the "have-not" teams to receive their cut of revenue sharing, they need to qualify for the playoffs.

Israel: That's more like it. I'd prefer to have incentives for winning than punish losing. And yeah, a little extra cash in an owner's pocket will motivate an organization to make the playoffs while still not giving the winning teams a competitive advantage in terms of acquiring players. But two of the larger problems I don't think can really be fixed.

One is, there are more big markets in the Eastern Conference that seem to require big, splashy names in order to sell tickets, putting pressure on those teams to acquire big names rather than make smart basketball decisions and patiently build a winner (New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, even Philadelphia over the years). How in the world do you convince the Knicks to go the route of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Portland Trail Blazers?

Then there's the small-market team that can't lure free agents and is required to hit draft picks in order to succeed. How do we fix those issues? Because when the Spurs, for example, lose Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and eventually Gregg Popovich, even their situation could be dire for years. So bad that even R.C. Buford couldn't fix it.

"

I'd prefer to have incentives for winning than punish losing.

" - Israel Gutierrez

So if geography is part of the problem, isn't the division and conference and scheduling system more of an issue? I mean, there are 13 playoff caliber teams out West and roughly three in the East. That would make up 16 playoff teams, wouldn't it?

J.A.: Geography is an excuse, not a problem. Geography hasn't kept Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City and San Antonio from posting the four best records in the league so far this season, even though none is a dream destination for free agents. Big-market pressure is not a problem, either. Teams that charge the highest ticket prices and pocket the most local TV money should feel obligated to spend lavishly on their roster.

What hurts the teams in the smaller markets is that they can't overpay players even if they wanted to. If a mega-billionaire bought a team in Milwaukee, he couldn't stock it with stars by outbidding everyone else, because the cap and max salary rules won't let him. So if the money is going to be equal, there's nothing to lure players away from California, Florida or Texas. You'll notice that owners don't play by those rules themselves. The Vivek Ranadive group was willing to overpay with a record $535 million to keep the Kings in Sacramento, but now that group can't similarly splurge to get players there. The CBA that was supposed to help small markets actually hurts small markets.

Israel: Small markets have won championships, though. The Spurs, Pacers and Thunder have played within the rules and remain on top of the league. It's difficult to recover from bad luck and bad decisions. If DeMarcus Cousins had a personality and approach like Tim Duncan, we'd be envious of Sacramento's situation.

But back to the division and conference issue. All the divisions do is give a team a reason to celebrate when it actually means nothing. Division-champion banners are embarrassing. If the NBA followed the old Indiana high school one-class system (it's the only reason Hoosiers happened, right?), you wouldn't be concentrating on how many bad teams there were because there would still be 16 teams worthy of a playoff spot. But that darn geography problem doesn't make that feasible in terms of scheduling.

But how's this for an idea that will never fly: shortening the first two rounds of the playoffs to best-of-five series. There'd be revenue lost, of course, but there'd be more upsets and more Cinderella teams in the conference finals.

J.A.: If you're going to dream of never-gonna-happen scenarios, you should propose a shorter regular season, not shorter playoffs. Besides, a shorter postseason would reduce the home-game revenue that's another bonus for teams that make the playoffs. The current playoff structure is fine; it's the system that doesn't enable or encourage teams to make the playoffs that's broken. This season's West-East discrepancy doesn't bother me so much because those things are cyclical. It's the all-or-nothing, NBA Finals-or-lottery approach that has diminished the field of winning teams and needs to be addressed.

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Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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