Point of fact: David Stern is a marketing genius. He has expanded popularity of basketball globally, and kept the NBA popular and relevant here in the US. However even the commissioner can’t control everything, and for the L the timing of the pending lockout couldn’t be worse. On the heels of one of the most successful NBA seasons in years (ratings, attendance way up) comes what looks to be a playoff season for the ages. Big market teams like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, New York are loaded with talent and all strong enough to win it all. Upstart teams like New Orleans, Memphis, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Oklahoma City are looking to establish themselves as perineal playoff spoilers. We are only in round one, and this year’s NBA playoffs are already absolutely riveting. What will follow these epic playoff battles, which will surely include record high ratings and ueber-buzz? Don’t be surprised to see the league and its owners claiming poverty and an unsustainable business model. Talk about bad timing.
I’ve argued that the NBA by design cannot deliver parity. Small market teams simply can’t compete without hard caps and real revenue sharing. But this year’s playoffs prove that great management and coaching can over come small market disadvantages. Parity seekers can find comfort in San Antonio, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Portland and Indiana, where savvy basketball decisions have helped these markets build exciting young squads that appear to be in great shape for the foreseeable future. The playoffs prove that the current model works, at least for well managed teams.
Yet the league will soon claim that the model is broken. No doubt there are issues. Teams who get stuck with bad contracts are often hamstrung for years. Small market teams struggle to afford the payroll necessary to compete in the modern NBA. But ultimately the league lives and dies with the strength of its players. The L is now full of exciting, talented and charismatic players. The players are the ones who drive ratings, ticket sales and sponsorship dollars. And players have a very limited window during which they make their money. Yes, I am biased. But this really is billionaires vs. millionaires. Big market teams don’t want to share more revenue, so they want players to make the sacrifice to help failing franchises. I don’t see how forcing players to take massive pay cuts is the fair or correct solution. Teams need to make better decisions, and avoid handing out long term contracts to players who don’t deserve them. Small market teams must get creative (or just copy OKC/IND/MEM/ATL) and build teams good enough to energize their local markets. Better management, more revenue sharing, relocating a few teams and (gasp) shutting down a few teams would fix all of the problems the NBA claims to be facing. Tough decisions, but fair decisions that require sacrifice from all sides.
For those of us in the basketball world, these truly are “the best of times and the worst of times”. The NBA is blazing hot right now. Big markets vs. small, superstar individuals vs. scrappy teams, legends vs. youngsters. This is the kind of playoff season that we all wish for. It’s almost too painful to dwell on the fact that what follows is potential armageddon. Let’s enjoy the playoffs, then we’ll see what happens when the real games begin.
What do you think?