Sam Smith: Ideas for change with a lockout looming

Smith offers two proposals--bailout plans, if you will--for the NBA as tougher economic times are certain in the short-term.
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Sam Smith: Ideas for change with a lockout looming

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I'm generally concerned about fixing the problems of the 30 teams, usually around trading deadline. But the issues are becoming far bigger, namely the health of the entire NBA—and all of professional sports, really—given the growing economic problems facing the U.S. and the world. People continue to keep money in their pockets, which isn't good for anyone selling anything.

Around the NBA, the talk mostly has been about the collective bargaining agreement and a potential lockout after the 2010-11 season. Or whether a new agreement is drawn up before then that changes the financial landscape of the league.

Although everyone acknowledges major changes are coming, it's becoming obvious the very health of several franchises is in question. The Indiana Pacers were the first recently to begin raising the issue with owner Herb Simon telling the Indianapolis Star of vast debts for a decade that, if you extrapolate, suggest the equity value of the franchise, especially in this market, is almost worthless compared to the losses. Media frequently quote the Fortune evaluations of franchises. But that's when banks will lend money and investors are interested. Neither situation exists today and though several franchises are said to be available, there apparently hasn't been any interest. And the NBA pretty much has run out of new sources of revenue, which is why so many owners predict a long lockout unless major changes are made in a new agreement.

So I have two solutions, both of which have been kicked around in informal discussions around the league, though not officially:

1. Combine, at least, temporarily, the weakest franchises. No one wants to say contraction. But this isn't. It's a way for communities to retain their teams, for fans to cut the costs of going to so many games and for owners to cut their payrolls. It would be a temporary situation until the economy begins to recover, so the original owners can recover their equity stake. Plus, in the interim, the other markets could share in the increased national TV revenue with fewer teams. It obviously would cost player jobs, so it is another reason for the union to consider major changes in the labor agreement.

You combine Milwaukee and Indiana, Memphis and New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami and Orlando, Sacramento and Golden State and perhaps Houston and San Antonio.

It doesn't have to be all those. But the general plan is the fans in each city get 20 home games, which reduces costs and commitment for season tickets and the owners split the expenses. The NBA has had regional franchises before, the last in Kansas City and Omaha.

Look, these are extraordinary times. And it's clear it's going to get worse first, especially with attendance and lost sponsorships.

The NBA has too many teams, anyway. Have you seen who's on the end of some of these benches? The notion would be you do a dispersal draft. But since the teams eventually will return fulltime, I'd go for combinations. Perhaps combining your top players with the extra role players available to other teams. And still with a cap and luxury tax, so no one can accumulate a so called super team. How about Memphis and New Orleans with Rudy Gay added to Chris Paul and David West? How about Dwight Howard with Dwyane Wade? I'd try to come up with a team for the Warriors and Kings, but it still wouldn't make the playoffs.

It would be exciting. But, more importantly, it would give struggling franchises in harder hit markets a chance to ride out the economic storm. And it would introduce some new interest element to the NBA.

And it is vital to any sports league to avoid the have and have not syndrome, which hurt baseball for a time as small market teams would routinely dump their best players in midseason to make it through the season.

That's not competition.

It's started in the NBA with New Orleans almost giving away Tyson Chandler for little to a franchise with powerful financial backing, Oklahoma City. There was the Suns owner Robert Sarver, who received government money for his troubled banks, almost dealing Amare Stoudemire. There were the Kings moving John Salmons and Brad Miller to the Bulls and buying out Drew Gooden. This could be just the beginning.

2. NBA Europe. This one is more problematic since if people and sponsors may have difficulty committing to pro sports in the U.S., can they do it in international markets? NBA commissioner David Stern long has talked about some form of NBA presence in Europe, but not until there are bigger arenas. Obviously, that is not coming now. And the rumors around the NBA are not only of the shaky health of the WNBA but of the league's ability to continue playing preseason games in Europe.

We always hear Kansas City, Anaheim and Las Vegas about potential sites for teams that may want to move. How about putting four teams, hypothetically, the Pacers, Kings, Hornets and Grizzlies, in Europe in a four-team division? I think it would be far more radical than the combination option. But travel to Europe isn't any longer, really, than cross country. How long does it take the Florida teams to get to Portland? You have four teams there in a division playing one another. And then with four teams you can have visiting teams come over once a year to play for two weeks and then return and have a full season with those teams an equal part of the NBA.

Say you go to big markets, like Madrid, London, Berlin and Rome? And bring the best players in the NBA there regularly. With major cities, you have a chance, even in a recession, of attracting major financial players and sponsors compared to small markets like Memphis, Indianapolis and Sacramento. And can the U.S. smaller markets, as the Pacers' recent presentation suggested, continue to support major professional sports teams in these times? Can a community continue to ask an owner to take eight figure annual losses? Yes, these are rich people. And rich people are losing a lot of money as well in real estate and stocks. Where do you think they had their money? Mattresses?

I'm not saying any of this is going to happen. But you better believe as owners discuss the future, everything now is on the table.

Rockets on the Rise

-- And don't think even because a franchise is successful on the basketball court and its stands are filled that it is immune. Take the San Antonio Spurs, perhaps the most successful and stable franchise of the last two decades. The Spurs Sunday fell into second place in the Southwest Division after losing to the Houston Rockets. Houston is now second in the Western Conference to the Lakers. The Rockets won when Luis Scola, who had 19 points and 17 rebounds, scored the last two baskets. How good would he have looked playing with Tim Duncan? The Spurs drafted Scola and he was ready to play for them. But the Spurs, who operate on a thin margin, couldn't afford Scola and had to reduce their payroll. They sent Scola to the Rockets so the Spurs could take Jackie Butler's contract off their books. And now Spurs owner Peter Holt's company recently had to lay off more than 10 percent of his payroll in a one major pro sport market with a declining corporate base. As for happier things, the Rockets are 16-4 since Tracy McGrady checked out for the season.

Allen's advice for the Bucks

-- Ray Allen long has been one of the class guys of the NBA. He won the first ever Magic Johnson award from the basketball writers. The award designates the player best with media and the community. So I loved what Allen had to say when he returned to Milwaukee last week and talked about how he wished he could have stayed with the Bucks because he liked the community and franchise and that then coach George Karl forced management to trade him. "The one thing you do not see is someone wearing a George Karl suit," said Allen. "Truth be told, the fans today come in and wear jerseys. They come in to support their players." Too often we see coaches who decline to play certain players or say they cannot fit. And then management often feels no choice but to make a trade. It is why coaches need to be on shorter contracts and teams need to keep the players and get rid of the coaches. The NBA is a players' game. It is not college. "For the Bucks organization, it's history now, and you've got to learn from your history," said Allen to Milwaukee media. "You can never let a coach get too big. You can never let a coach get too powerful."

Start spreading the news...

-- The Knicks seem to have packed it in for the season with a series of blowout losses, though they at least competed a bit against Orlando Sunday. Rookie Danilo Gallinari went back to Europe to consider back surgery. Media in New York is speculating already that Galinari's career is threatened, the team was dominated by rookies Brook Lopez and Jason Thompson, picked well after Gallinari, and a column in the New York News said coach Mike D'Antoni's locker room is out of control and he needs to gain control. And by the way LeBron, when are you coming? ... One of the quietest Bulls when he was part of the horrible draft of 2000 when the Bulls selected six players in arguably the worst draft in NBA history (I'd be quiet as well) was Jake Voskuhl. So it was interesting to hear the Toronto backup trash talking, though not on the court, of course, as he rarely plays. It's NCAA tournament time and the locker rooms are filled with this stuff. Voskuhl's was one of the best: "Georgia Tech, with Chris Bosh. I don't even know if they have a men's basketball team anymore. UNLV? Those guys are under so many violations that Marcus [Banks] and Shawn [Marion] are not even allowed to watch the games." ... How bad was that with the Raptors bringing in Marc Iavaroni to observe practices and games? GM Bryan Colangelo has a long relationship with Iavaroni, fired by Memphis this season, from their days in Phoenix. It was generally assumed Colangelo wanted to hire Iavaroni or D'Antoni when he got the Toronto job, but Sam Mitchell went and won coach of the year. Darn! Jay Triano remains interim with most expecting Iavaroni to succeed him. Though there also have been rumors Colangelo is being urged to be bold and hire Ettore Messina, now in Moscow, and regarded by many as maybe the world's best coach. Hey, I don't even know what the guy looks like. But it would be a Colangelo type move to try to shake up his disappointing team.

Playoff Positioning

-- Jarrett Jack replaced T.J. Ford as the Pacers broke a losing streak Sunday. I know. Who cares? They'd been playing together and had a dispute on the court last week, seemingly over Ford shooting too much. In addition to the health concerns with his spinal problems, Milwaukee and Toronto both felt his shoot first game was a problem, and you figure he'll be on the market again. ... Interesting game for the Bulls Tuesday against Detroit, which is seventh in the East and fading. Richard Hamilton is hurt, but could return while Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson may have checked out for the season. Wallace seems to be enjoying himself, though, as he walked into Aaron Afflalo's postgame media session postgame Sunday and taunted him about UCLA's NCAA loss though the Pistons had just blown a big lead and lost to Miami at home. ... So how good should the Bulls want to be? It seems Boston and Orlando have about given up trying to catch Cleveland with the Celtics 4.5 games back and Orlando 5.5. "It will be very, very hard to catch them," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "We're not going to catch Cleveland," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. You figure the Bulls would have the most trouble with Boston given its huge dominance when Kevin Garnett plays and the Bulls relative inability to play a slower paced, defensive game, Boston's specialty. Can the Bulls get to sixth? No chance. Hey, eighth remains uncertain. But if Boston is second, eighth would be the place. Unless Orlando gets to second since they are the most vulnerable of the top three with an unpredictable, three-point shooting game.

Landry's scare in Houston

-- In case you missed it, there was a frightening moment last week for Purdue's and Milwaukee native Carl Landry. Here's his account of being shot driving from the team plane after arriving back in Houston. To the Houston Chronicle: "I was side-swiped once and turned around. Hit me again on the other side. I ran into a big street light. The car was totaled at the time and I knew something was going on, like they were looking for somebody. Both of the guys got out of the car. I tried to plead my case, saying I'm not the guy they were looking for. But immediately they start shooting. The second shot hit me in the left calf. I ran about six blocks. After they fired two shots, one of the guys chased me for about a block. I was able to outrun the shooter and I hid in between a house and a fence. I was so frightened so I started to knock, I was ringing doorbells like crazy. One person came down and said he was going to call the police. He said he was going to call 911. I saw a cop car drive by about 20 minutes after he said that. I went up to the cop car and they helped me. I feel good just to be alive, blessed at the same time. The situation that happened was really scary. It could have happened to anybody. I'm just happy to be here. I could have been dead. The shooter was 10 yards or less away. I'm 6-9 and I had a bright shirt on. I don't know how he missed, but thank God he did and he hit the lower part of my leg. Yeah, definitely, I could have been dead. And you guys would be talking about the funeral that you were probably going to go to in a couple of days." ... The Rockets, meanwhile, have been under the radar most of the season despite McGrady's injuries, trading starting point guard Rafer Alston and wondering whether Ron Artest would blow. So now they're second and their biggest issue, they agree, is they cannot get Yao to shoot often enough. It is perhaps more a cultural issue since we don't see that often in the NBA. But Yao grew up in a team oriented basketball culture and nation with the whole celebrated beyond the individual, essentially the opposite of the star oriented NBA. So it was interesting to hear Shane Battier telling Houston media how he almost begs Yao to shoot. Said Battier: "I've talked to him and said, 'What set do you like, your favorite set? Where do you like the ball? If you could have any play in the world, what would it be?' Even getting him to answer that was like trying to get him to pull teeth. He doesn't want to make any waves. He wants to be a good team player. It's a continual project to try to get him to tell us where he wants the ball and where he can do the most damage. It is so out of Yao's demeanor and character to do that. When Yao has a foot in the paint when he catches the ball, he's pretty much unstoppable. That's the key to our success." Though Houston is now second, they have just one fewer loss than Utah in seventh. The second and seventh place teams are separated by just two and a half games. Now that's what I call real excitement.


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