LAS VEGAS -- First came the backlash. Next, backlash to the backlash.
By Tuesday, much of the whipsawing over competitive balance -- or more accurately, imbalance -- as an NBA problem rising to the level of crisis had calmed down. Yet powerful voices from the league’s summer nerve center could not dismiss it entirely as an issue meriting closer inspection.
“I'm not here to say we have a problem,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday after the Board of Governors meeting. “And I love where the league is right now. [But] I think we can create a better system.”
Neither Silver nor Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, sounded an alarm in their separate news conferences about what many see as a widening gap between the league’s haves and have-nots. Roberts, in fact, seemed to feel that all is well and that talent inequality is in the eye of the beholder.
“Competitive balance, it almost depends on what your favorite team is,” said Roberts, who was rehired as head of the players union in another four-year contract announced Tuesday. “I don’t hear anybody in the Bay Area worrying about competitive balance. I also don’t hear the people in Philadelphia worrying about competitive balance, or Houston.
“We’ve got great teams. And it’s never been the case, as far as I’m concerned, where I was not able most of the time to predict what teams were going to be in the Finals.”
The topic came up in precisely that context before the Finals last month when Silver was asked about Golden State and Cleveland meeting in the championship series for the fourth consecutive year, a first in any of the major professional sports leagues.
It reared its head again this month soon after free agency opened on July 1, with events conspiring to make insiders wonder about a growing disparity among teams. LeBron James’ signing with the Los Angeles Lakers was the biggest move in what appeared to be a continuing shift of strength into the league’s Western Conference.
That was followed by the news that DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans’ All-Star center, had joined the champion Warriors.
That signing sparked the initial backlash, a rich-getting-richer cry that pointed not to Cousins’ one-year deal for $5.3 million in 2018-19 salary but the fact that the Warriors will spend in excess of $20 million for it when luxury taxes are counted. Golden State had the NBA’s fattest payroll in 2017-18 of $137.5 million, despite a $99 million salary cap, thanks to various exceptions in the prevailing “soft cap” system.
“I don't necessarily think it's per se bad that the Warriors are so dominant,” Silver told reporters, not long after discussing the “competitive landscape” with the owners. “As I've said before, we're not trying to create some sort of forced parity. What we really focus on is parity of opportunity. And a fair point could be made in the tax system, when certain teams are spending significantly more than others, that that's not parity of opportunity.”
The counter-backlash came from folks who rushed to the Warriors’ and Cousins’ defense, correctly noting that neither did anything wrong, conducting their business within the rules as specified by the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players.
That CBA is the object of endless study and imagined revision, with amendments possible if negotiated prior to the end of the current deal after the 2023-24 season. Shooting for a “hard cap” likely would be a tough sell to players accustomed to the freedom of movement they currently enjoy.
“It's not necessarily [Roberts’] issue,” Silver said in response to the union director’s characterization. “I think it's on me and our Labor Relations Committee, ultimately, to sit with the players and their committee and convince them that there may be a better way of doing things.”
Silver mentioned Charlotte owner and legendary NBA superstar Michael Jordan, chairman of that Labor Relations Committee, as a valuable resource in addressing owners’ and players’ competition concerns.
Both sides have valid arguments. Interest in the NBA never has been higher by almost any metric chosen, from selected TV ratings and licensing revenues to the game’s growth globally. Attendance at the MGM Resorts Las Vegas Summer League keeps pushing higher, with fans eager to see top rookies, second-year players and relative free-agent unknowns chasing their pro hoops’ dreams.
The valuations of the 30 NBA franchises, of course, all have soared beyond $1 billion, according to Forbes.com, with the Knicks, the Lakers and the Warriors all estimated to be worth more than $3 billion.
Longtime NBA observers such as TNT’s David Aldridge wrote a column this week that argued on behalf of dominant teams, anyway, saying that they actually drive rather than depress fan interest.
As for any inability to win games or titles, he laid the blame for that on poor franchise management. The Knicks and the Clippers have all sorts of big-market advantages but haven’t won any championships lately (or at all in the Clippers' case).
For Roberts, whose players reap 51 percent of NBA basketball-related income that tops $7 billion annually, business is good, period.
“I’m excited about this new season,” she said Tuesday. “This free agency, there’s been a lot to write about so we’re all, I think, looking forward to what’s going to happen come October.
“To the extent that people are predicting the end of the game, I just don’t think so. I would be surprised if Adam called me to say, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’ I think he’s as happy as I am. ... I think we’re in good shape.”
Critics note Golden State’s on-court dominance in winning the last two championships. It only took nine NBA Finals games --one over the minimum -- while facing arguably the league’s best player in LeBron James. But those same critics seem to foget that the Warriors were pushed to the full seven games in the conference finals, and actually faced elimination twice before beating the Rockets.
“I recognize what Michele's saying,” Silver said. “But at the same time, if you talk to players in the league, and I've talked to plenty of individual players as well, they want to be in the most competitive league possible too.”
I think he’s [Adam Silver] as happy as I am. ... I think we’re in good shape.”
For every player on the Warriors' roster -- or the Rockets, the Thunder, the Celtics or the Sixers -- there are five or six on teams that realistically have no chance of chasing a ring or the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Cleveland went to four straight Finals thanks to James; no one envisions the Cavaliers getting back any time soon.
“Maybe there are some players who think they’re on a second-class team,” said Sacramento wing Garrett Temple, one of the NBPA vice presidents. “But most players I’ve played with or been around, their thought process is, ‘We’re gonna get our team to become one of those first-class teams.’ It’s more of a challenge. More so than, ‘We need them to disband so we can make everybody equal.’ Because we’re competitors.”
That really is the crux of the issue. Silver and some franchises want most of the competition to come on the floor, in games, in full view of fans who believe their teams can sufficiently compete. The league’s current title contenders are fine with a system that allows them to compete all the way to the top, with an owner stroking gargantuan checks to crowd out rivals.
“Let me make clear that under the current system we want teams to compete like crazy,” Silver said. “So I think the Warriors within the framework of this deal should be doing everything they can to increase their dominance. That's what you want to see in a league.
“You want teams to compete in every way they can within the rules.”
Silver addressed a variety of topics that were came from the BOG agenda, including:
-- Change is coming on multiple fronts, most notably in the league’s age limit. That seems likely to be re-set back to 18 years old from 19, permitting players to enter the league from high school. It’s a move that the NBA should be better equipped to handle with a near 30-for-30 farm-system affiliation with its G League. It also fits with the findings of an NCAA task force that cites dissatisfaction with “one-and-done” college players. Said Silver: “My personal view is that we’re ready to make that change.”
-- The start of free agency, annually triggered at midnight ET on July 1, will be moved to a daytime or prime time opening bell. It’s one of those traditions that no one thought to change, Silver said.
-- The league’s investigation into the Dallas Mavericks’ sexual harassment issues should be completed by the end of the month.
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