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Shaun Powell

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Putting a team in Vancouver may have been a questionable move during the height of the NBA's boom.
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As NBA starts anew, its greedy past should provide a lesson


Posted Dec 16 2011 12:01PM

Greedy, self-serving, dictatorial and ruthless. And those were the kind words thrown at NBA owners recently not only by the players, but by a public fed up with all authority figures, be they on Wall Street or Fifth Avenue, home of the NBA headquarters.

The bitter reaction is understandable. In a month where Time Magazine's Person of the Year is The Protester, it's hard being a CEO. People in authority simply cannot win with the rank and file. Joe Boss is being charged with ruining the world, and in the specific case of the NBA, the basketball world. It goes with the territory now, along with stretch limos and power lunches and luxury suites.

NBA owners deserve their share of the blame for the current state of the league. Not for the recent lockout brought on by tough economic times, necessarily. If anything, the headaches felt in the NBA today are a direct result of ownership greed when times were good.

When the owners went for a mad money grab in the Golden Age of the 1980s and '90s and collected hundreds of millions in expansion fees, it led to this, a league with teams in places that maybe shouldn't have teams. The giddy NBA couldn't contain itself or handle the money and popularity. Like millions of homeowners who thought their four-bedroom, 2 -bath investment would never collapse, the league overreached during prosperity and now must deal with the fallout.

The league welcomed bad owners (George Shinn) and questionable markets (Vancouver) and was very generous to the players on the last labor contract (57 percent of the pie). When the money began to dry up and "contraction" became a buzzword, the league found itself in a tough spot. Teams moved, teams lost money, popularity dipped and players drew the line at givebacks.

A 30-team league created more jobs and pushed the NBA brand into new markets. That's the good news. The bad news? It diluted the talent, hiked the going rate for mediocre players and saw the small markets carry a heavier voice in league matters. The league you see now is hardly the same NBA that David Stern knew when he surfed the wave to prominence in the '80s.

How much better would a 26-team league be? Even 28? Make no mistake, the product on the floor would change drastically with a smaller league. The top-level talent would be more evenly spread.

For example, great centers were always tough to come by, even decades ago. But at least an old-school NBA could see semi-regular matchups of Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, etc. With more teams, great centers have become even scarcer. That's why Dwight Howard has all the leverage leading into free agency. Not only is there nobody like him, there aren't many almost like him. Remember, Kwame Brown just signed for $7 million because the league is starved for size.

The reason today's free agents have adopted an AAU mentality -- everyone getting together to stack a team -- is because the typical team has one potential All-Star surrounded by role players. Although the Mavericks beat the odds and won a championship with a team fairly close to that description, they're the exception and not the rule. Even now, owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson are plotting ways to add Howard and/or Deron Williams to the Dirk Nowitzki mix next summer. They're not stupid.

Even though Oklahoma City is an example of a small market team good enough to challenge for a title, you wonder if the economics will keep adding up for the Thunder. Eventually, they'll have to give big money to another player or two (Russell Westbrook for sure). Add raises for coaches and the front office and soon, prosperity will come at a steep price. That's fine in New York and Los Angeles, filled with Fortune 500 companies and millionaires who can fill the house. But there's a ceiling as to how high the Thunder can raise ticket prices in Oklahoma City, a town not exactly bursting with wealthy people. And there's only so much they can generate from TV and radio deals.

Same goes for the Bobcats, for example, if they ever become winners. The city of Charlotte right now is still woozy from the blows to the banking industry. There may be a dozen NBA cities that lack diversified industries and therefore aren't getting customers who are snapping up pricey tickets for basketball games.

There will always be investors shelling out millions to buy teams in large markets (Philadelphia, the Bay Area). Difference is, the new breed of owner in any market wants to make a profit more than ever before, especially if he's losing money in his real business.

When Christmas Day arrives and the ball goes up, all the griping about the NBA will turn into a whisper. Best case scenario for the league? The game prospers, the economy improves, and when the good times return, restraint overtakes greed.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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