Too bad the NBA’s Board of Governors weren’t meeting Thursday evening. This Dwight Howard-to-the-Lakers deal could have served as Chris Paul Stunner, Part II.
It was only eight months ago that two truly momentous NBA events synched up in a fancy hotel in midtown Manhattan. The governors were huddled in a meeting room to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement that would end the 2011 labor lockout and, allegedly, cause a seismic shift in competitive balance.
New rules and disincentives written into the CBA would limit the ability of a few free-spending teams in glamour markets to control basketball’s most coveted stars, giving all 30 teams a more legitimate chance for a championship. Yada yada yada…
Before the ink was even dry on any of the paperwork that day, word leaked that the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Hornets had worked out a three-way deal that would deliver arguably the NBA’s best point guard (Paul) to the Lakers, a franchise that seemed to enjoy favored-nation status among the 30.
The reaction was predictable: Whoa, whoa, whoa. You mean we just shut down the sport, jeopardized and truncated another season and incurred potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue only to snap back immediately to the business-as-usual of the rich teams getting richer?
The bloom already was off the rose as NBA commissioner David Stern made his way to the news conference announcing the new CBA, which had an expiration date six years into the future but suddenly smelled sour on Day 1.
After some early speculation that several owners balked and considered thwarting any labor deal that would grease such an outcome — or at least would share headlines with that nothing-has-changed transaction — the real surprise came a little later: Stern, donning his ownership hat as trustee of the league-operated Hornets, blocked the deal. He exercised the same rights other owners have over their GMs if they don’t believe a trade improves their team or reaps the best return. Still, it was met with cries of favoritism, meddling and (yikes!) conspiracy. A week later, Paul wound up in L.A., but with the Clippers.
So now Howard is headed to the Lakers, a move that — in the shorthand favored by those who maintain a mild-to-casual interest in the NBA — again will look like everything old is new again. After all, the Lakers get all the NBA’s best centers, don’t they? It was so with Wilt Chamberlain, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with Shaquille O’Neal. And now it’s so with Howard.
They remain the glamour franchise, too, that Stern once joked about when asked what his dream Finals matchup would be. “Lakers vs. Lakers,” the commish said, a nod to market size and TV ratings but a pea that still irritates from under smaller-market mattresses.
The new CBA was supposed to discourage excessive spending by the league’s richest teams by imposing an increasingly harsher luxury tax, appealing to their owners’ sense of true value. If a $6 million player actually was going to cost $18 million in salary plus penalties, surely even the deepest-pocket owners would blink. That would help, too, in the distribution of top talent, spreading it out rather than having it huddle in only a few markets.
Yet when a team such as the Lakers haul in an annual profit of $150 million to $170 million (by some estimates), why should they be worried about spending $95 million (payroll) or even $125 million (taxes added). Besides, with the owners’ new revenue-sharing system, aren’t the Lakers better off spending it on themselves, for their fans, than having it divvied up to lesser teams in smaller markets?
There’s an old-school feel to the return Orlando got in the four-cornered transaction, too. Consider the other NBA teams that have found themselves pressured to trade superstars — Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett — and the packages of players, picks or cash taken back. These days, franchises almost don’t want players, preferring to tear down rather than remodel. That’s the Magic’s prerogative, but one it will live with now for several long seasons.
It never has struck some of us here at the Hang Time hideout that past or current CBAs have done enough to keep stars in the markets that drafted and nurtured them. The salary advantages, in raise percentage and contract years, haven’t exactly been whopping. And conveying full Bird rights of a traded player to teams that are capped out or over the tax threshold seems odd, too.
Ultimately, though, there is nothing that can be done to block a superstar who is determined to leave. Nothing to equalize market differences, such as the Lakers’ climate, diversions and culture of winning (or in other cases a tiny or non-existent state tax). Stern believes in, and always carefully articulates, the freedom NBA players enjoy between contracts to choose their place of employment and residence. That’s what Howard was seeking and there wasn’t anything a new CBA could do about it.
So bottom line: Is this sort of superstar migration good or bad for the league?
It’s bad for Orlando and other teams that can’t keep their stars happy or committed.
It’s good for the Lakers. But then, most things usually are.
It’s bad for the NBA’s image in a general sense, because it fuels the impression that the talent deck is stacked in favor of a few chosen franchises. Like the Lakers, the Heat or, y’know, the Yankees.
But it might be good for business overall. Strong anchor franchises in L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago and a few other markets seem to keep interest, ratings and souvenir sales high.
Also, the NBA is smart not to worry too much about folks with mild-to-casual interest. One rule of industry is that 80 percent of your customers account for 20 percent of your sales, while 20 percent of your customers are good for 80 percent of the business.
That heavy-user theory applies to breweries, to networks and to sports leagues. It’s why the hardcore fans who claimed to be done with Howard, fed up with his indecision and his antics, are abuzz right now. And figure to stay that way into next June.