National / Sports / April 20, 2011

The NBA’s financial skeletons

If there is a common complaint among the countless deriders of the National Basketball Association (NBA), it’s that the players “don’t try until the playoffs.” Effort, of course, is not quantifiable, so the argument pretty much ends here: NBA fan says players try; NBA scorner disagrees.

Once the playoffs begin, however, these doubters will still complain, arguing that the “lack of parity” makes the games less exciting. And it is true, due to a seven-game format in every round, the NBA playoffs usually allow the proverbial cream to rise to the top more than, say, the National Football League and Major League Baseball—two leagues who have had some champions rise from the wild card ranks in recent years.

It is really not until the conference finals that these folks will pay attention, but even then they will moan about the playoffs going on for far too long, dragging from April to June.

I was thrilled to see the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs demolish all of these arguments: the players tried, there was parity, and no one wondered when it would end. The stars—Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, Miami’s LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Indiana’s Tyler Hansborough (wait, what?) and Orlando’s Dwight Howard—all shined brightly. The league, finally, has all its superstars in the playoffs.

But while the playoffs thrill, fans in Sacramento are up in arms about the impending departure of their NBA franchise. The Kings came to Sacramento in 1985 from Kansas City, where they had once split time with Omaha, and before that from Cincinnati and Rochester; so the franchise is by no means a staple of Sacramento; its identity is not forever tied with the city.

The Kings, who last made the postseason in 2006, have struggled in recent years, and their owners, the Maloof family, have struggled in the real estate market. Anxious to make more money, the Maloofs have proposed moving the team to Anaheim, where a newer arena—which will assuredly be outdated within a decade—with more luxury boxes will make breaking even far easier.

Commissioner David Stern, who has made relocation a staple of his tenure, has formed a relocation committee, headed by archenemy of Seattlites everywhere, Oklahoma City owner Clay Bennett, who took Kevin Durant and a storied franchise to tornado alley. (The Thunder are now trendy picks for the NBA finals. It gets better, Seattle fans—you’ll be getting the Bobcats as soon as you build a new arena.) It seems the NBA has no interest in the Kings reconciling with Sacramento—rather, all signs point to the franchise moving to Anaheim.

As the rich—Miami, Boston, New York, the Lakers—get richer, the poor will get poorer. Superstars joining forces will only make the worst teams worse, driving down television ratings, revenue, and fan interest. Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Minnesota were the least-watched teams in the NBA this season (by local ratings); that lack of interest, coupled with half-full arenas and plummeting merchandise sales, will only make the likelihood of further relocation—or even contraction—likely.

But would contraction be so bad? The league is not exactly stretched thin. (Though when I see Rasual Butler on an NBA roster, I can’t help but thin something must be done.) That said, creating a more competitive league, one with, say, six fewer teams, and a smaller gap between the top and bottom might help the NBA.

As for now, talks of putting a franchise in Europe are premature. If the league really wants to make a splash in Europe, they should probably consider the paucity of interest our continental friends might have in Brook Lopez and the New Jersey Nets coming to town.

And of course, the lockout looms. Stern has been stern in his dealings with the players union about a new collective bargaining agreement, insisting that he will not budge. To some extent, Stern has earned this right; he has expanded the league more in his tenure than anyone thought possible; he has taken the game through the tumultuous post-Jordan “Jail-Blazers” era; he has been able to implement rule changes aimed at preventing the Kwame Browns of the world from entering the draft every year. He has been, in most respects, a godsend.

Stern’s legacy in the short term, however, would suffer a deathblow with a lockout. The league is the best its been talent-wise since the early 1990s, and locking the players out would only slow down the growth of the game.

Kevin Morris

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