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ESPN column puts cap in owners’ “competitive balance” argument

Oct 26, 2011, 2:20 PM EDT

59827-lakers-guard-bryant-and-mavericks-forward-nowitzki Reuters

We at PBT have been calling out the owners claim they want “competitive balance” from the start — it’s a more palatable way for small market owners to say they want more money from the players and larger market owners. Phrasing it as an issue of competitive balance is just clever spin, not reality.

But now you don’t have to take my word for it.

In a must read post at ESPN’s TrueHoop, Tom Haberstroh absolutely shreds the idea that how much you spend is what matters when determining who wins in the NBA.

The Magic spent $110 million last season (the same as the Lakers) and the Bulls shelled out a lowly $55 million, or half as much as its Eastern conference foe. And the result? The poor Bulls won more games than any other team and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic? The nine-figure payroll bought them an embarrassing first-round exit.

If you scan through team payrolls, you begin to see that money doesn’t decide games. If cash was king, then the Bulls wouldn’t have a chance against the Magic. If spending power ruled all, how do we explain the Utah Jazz and their $80 million payroll winning 16 fewer games than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who spent just $58 million? The Toronto Raptors boasted a higher payroll than the Miami Heat, so why did the Raps lose 60 games while the Heat came within two games of a title?

What makes this column amazing is Haberstroh goes into detail looking at what it takes to win in the NBA. The answer starts with the draft. He suggests that 34 percent of the variability in a team’s record over the past decade is about the draft. Payroll accounts for just seven percent.

Look at the most recent champions — the Mavericks got Dirk Nowitzki in a draft-day trade, the Lakers built around Kobe Bryant who they got in a draft-day trade.

One of the discoveries during that project was that the Spurs and Lakers were huge winners on draft day. Apparently, finding Tony Parker at No. 28, Manu Ginobili at the end of the second round and plucking Kobe and Andrew Bynum without picking in the single-digits helps lay down a dynasty foundation. But if you look at the list of the most efficient drafting teams (as in, making the most out of where they picked), you’ll notice that the best drafting teams tend to also be the best teams of the past decade. On the flipside, the basement-dwellers of recent times found themselves routinely striking out on the draft….

And the worst drafting teams? Yikes. The Clippers, Timberwolves, Wizards and Bobcats represent the doormats of the NBA and it’s no surprise that they’ve been drafting terribly as well. Many of these teams have been gift-wrapped prime opportunities to draft franchise players, and instead, they selected Adam Morrison and Jonny Flynn. Even drafting an MVP in Rose didn’t completely erase all the misfires the Bulls made in the early 2000s.

Just go read the whole post. It’s the best thing you’ll read today.

And remember, when the owners or David Stern say “competitive balance” what they are really saying is “I want more money.” It’s always about the money.

  1. Fan On Fire_Maurice Barksdale - Oct 26, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    That article can be explained logically. One of the things the NBA did better than the NFL was to have a Rookie pay scale. When teams like the Bulls and Thunder can pay top players Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook at their rookie pay rates, it obviously helps them achieve a lower payroll number. If they had to pay them what they were really worth, their payrolls wouldn’t be so low.

    We’ll see what these team’s payrolls are when those contracts are up though. And give the Raptors, the Heat’s roster, and the Heat the Raptor’s roster, and the Raptors are in the NBA Finals as well. But the reality is LeBron and Wade would never play for Toronto, and Bosh, who was drafted by the Raptors, left when his contract was up. And the Heat’s payroll went almost exclusively to their Big 3. which is one of the reasons they didn’t win the championship, a lack of depth.

    So that article doesn’t blow the competitive balance argument out of the water at all. A lot of teams would win more with Derrick Rose on their roster. The Bulls were just lucky enough to win the lottery to draft him. No skill involved there. All I’m seeing is that some in the media are manipulating and embellishing their arguments as mere propaganda in support of the players. But us fans can see through the non sense and know what the truth is.

    The media tried to do the same thing with the NFL lockout and it didn’t matter. The players were just as wrong in the NFL as they are in the NBA, and no amount of twisted propaganda from the media can change that.

    • dcipher80 - Oct 26, 2011 at 4:06 PM

      Completely agree. Being a mediocre team in the nba is quite possibly the worst purgatory in professional sports. Unless you get super lucky in the middle of the draft you can’t get better. Big markets have huge advantage that allows them to overcome years of bad drafting and poor contracts in record time.

    • ghelton03 - Oct 26, 2011 at 9:39 PM

      The point you made about Miami’s big three not willing to play in Toronto supports the arguement that a hard cap will NOT bring competitive balance. If you could make $15M in Miami or $15M in Toronto, you would go to Miami. In fact you would accept less money to go to Miami. There are some cities that players prefer to play in now and will still want to play there even with a hard cap. No star player will ever want to play in Toronto or Charlotte or Cleveland or Milwakee.

  2. leearmon - Oct 26, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    A few points to make on the article and the above post. Number one, not to pat myself on the back, but I have been saying the same thing as this article for weeks. Im very happy some major outlet finally decided to put out what intelligent basketball fans have known for YEARS. The draft is where your bread is buttered.

    As for FOF. You say “we’ll see what these team’s payrolls are when those contracts are up” Well considering that OKC already paid their big star (Durant) and kept a low salary cap number Im guessing they’ll be ok. Also its not like the young players on OKC are on 2-year rentals. The rookie scale in the NBA is 4 years, then a team restricted option. Meaning you keep your DRAFTED talent for long, for less. Kevin Durant arguably on of the best 3 players in the league, (I don’t care what ESPN tries to feed us) is making roughly $80 million. Jeff Green was probably going to command more money than he was worth, so the savvy front office (funny savvy and NBA front office together in a sentence) traded Green away before his contract is up, for a cheaper, yet more effective player. Its also important to note, that while Westbrook’s deal has another 2 years left, OKC could use the money thats tied up to Nick Collison, who obviously is over-paid, to keep their young PG, or they could do the thing I think they will, and trade Westbrook for picks and role players.

    Finally you bring up the Bulls. Again, not to be a prick, but its important to not be ignorant to the facts. The Bulls weren’t exactly “lucky” to grab D-Rose. They made a trade with another team, that “other” team’s front office didn’t think it was prudent to lottery protect said draft pick with Chicago. Point being, the Bulls’ front office OWNED the opposing team in that trade. Again it all comes down to your front office. Did they “luck” into Joakim Noah? No, the Bulls front office OWNED the Knicks’. Did Chicago “luck” into Luol Deng? nope, they made the right selection. How about Taj Gibson? Nope again, Taj, who I’ll remind people had a defensive rating in the TOP 5 last season, was a mid-first round pick. Once more, great front office work. So I would argue there is tons of “skill” being used by the Bulls. Where Chicago did go wrong, is over-paying Carlos Boozer (in free agency) and Kyle Korver. But even with those two awful contracts, Chicago still was well below the cap.

    And as a throw away the, “LeBron and Wade would never play for Toronto, and Bosh, who was drafted by the Raptors, left when his contract was up” argument, do your homework. Bosh was drafted to Toronto with the 4th overall pick, one slot ahead of Wade. Think the Raptors wouldn’t have wanted D-Wade for 7 years as apposed to Bosh? Hard to excuse front offices for moves like that huh?

    • Fan On Fire_Maurice Barksdale - Oct 26, 2011 at 4:46 PM

      There is still luck involved with the Bulls drafting of Derrick Rose. What if the top pick that year was Andrew Bogut instead of Derrick Rose? Are the Bulls still a contender? No. Take Derrick Rose out of the equation for the Bulls and they are not a contender, regardless if they still had Noah and Gibson.

      But you are just talking about playoff teams here, what about the Champions? The Mavericks, what’s their cap number? What’s the Lakers cap number? What’s the Celtics cap number? You see the trend? You can build a playoff contender with a reasonable cap number, but you can’t win a championship. And thats the point I’m making? Take away the players those teams bought with Luxury tax money and they aren’t champions. It’s that simple.

      A well managed team like the Thunder should be able to win a championship without having to over spend to do it, but they won’t. That happens in the NFL, but not the NBA. Memphis and OKC, they won’t be winning any championships under this current system. Chicago will have a shot because of the greatness of Derrick Rose, but they will have to spend more money to do it, and they shouldn’t have to.

      Put a hard cap in place and you’ll see the Thunders, and Memphis’ in the NBA Finals with regularity. WIthout a hard cap, you’ll never see it.

      • leearmon - Oct 26, 2011 at 5:53 PM

        Well obviously the Spurs have won 4 championships, and the knew how to work the cap. So thats a pretty big example. Im pretty sure the Pistons weren’t over the cap when they won their championship, but im not %100. How are you so positive the Thunder won’t win a title without going over the cap? Also, how can you say for a certainty a hard cap would make a team like Memphis a title contender? I live in Washington D.C., there’s a hard cap in football, however the Redskins haven’t been a title contender since the early 90’s.

      • Fan On Fire_Maurice Barksdale - Oct 26, 2011 at 6:54 PM

        Again more luck and not skill. The Spurs got lucky in the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan. Take Tim Duncan out of the equation and the Spurs have no championships. Tim Duncan may be the most underrated superstar in the history of the NBA. I would venture to say that any team that drafted Duncan would have won multiple championships. He was so good, the Spurs didn’t have to over spend. If they had, they probably would have won even more championships.

        The Thunder have a window of this season to win it. But I look for the Mavericks to get back to the Finals. Too much fire power for the Thunder to overcome. If Dwight Howard goes to the Lakers as many predict, then the window closes for the Thunder for good. That is unless changes are made.

        And I don’t see why the players are against this. Those luxury tax players will be spread out through the rest of the league, and then you will see how true strategy and cap management will come into play. Different teams will win each year and more fan bases will be invigorated. Fans are more apt to spend money on a team that has a chance to win big. If a team is stuck in neutral, fans will spend their money on other things.

        You’re from Washington D.C. At some point, wouldn’t you like to see the Wizards play for the NBA title? If things stay the way they are it will never happen. Deep down you know I’m right.

        And the Redskins have been mismanaged by Daniel Snyder, you know that. Even in the NFL, the franchise has to be competently managed in order to win a championship. But Daniel Snyder would be right at home in the NBA, where it’s still possible to buy a championship. But such tactics don’t work in the NFL, where building through the draft and being fiscally responsible is what wins. If Snyder can stay out of the way, the Redskins might have a chance to rebound at some point.

      • leearmon - Oct 26, 2011 at 7:03 PM

        And one more note, If the Bulls had bad “luck” as you put it, and had the #1 pick the year Andrew Bogut was selected first overall, they would have had a chacne to draft Chris Paul AND/OR Deron Williams! Again, can’t make excuses for a front office who passes on the best point guard of this generation, and arguably the second in the same class. Money nor market size has any impact on bad selections.

      • leearmon - Oct 26, 2011 at 7:19 PM

        Yes the Spurs would have won, A championship on just the “luck” of getting Tim Duncan, however, as the article and others have noted it took SKILL to draft finals MVP Tony Parker #28. It took SKILL to draft Manu Ginobili at the end of the 2nd round. You cannot gloss over these facts as if they are irrelevant or inconsequential.

        Just because you “look to the Mavericks” to get back to the finals does not mean it will happen. The Thunder were 2 forth quarter collapses away from advancing to the finals. Kevin Durant, Ibaka, Harden and company will likely all improve, while Dallas may lose Chandler in free agency. Dont know why you would have Dallas a shoe in for a championship.

        I do live in Washington, I will remind everyone D.C. is a top market. And although I am not a Wizard fan, I have no sympathy for the situation the Wizards are in. Other than John Wall name me a good draft pick that club has had in a decade. Not enough, how about this, after 3, I repeat, 3 knee surgeries Ernie Grunfeld and company still decided to offer Gilbert Arenas a large contract, so large that Washington’s initial offer of $140 million was rejected by “Agent Zero”. He actually took less money, so Washington could make another idiotic decision in re-signing Antawn Jamison to a ridiculously large contract. Add to that the signing of Andray Blatche and the fact that they traded the 5th overall pick 3 years ago for perinnial All-Stars Mike Miller & Randy Foye (who both by the way no longer play for the Wiz). They had an opportunity to draft Stephen Curry, Jru Holiday, Ty Lawson etc but chose MIKE MILLER and RANDY FOYE!

        Why is it so hard for people to place blame on NBA front offices? Again I have outlined at least 5 different reasons why the Wizards are in a bad situation. It has nothing to do with a hard cap. It has nothing to do with the market size of our nation’s capital. And most importantly it has nothing to do with “luck” or the player’s. The reason the Wizads are bad is because of management. Point blank. Bad drafting + Poor contracts = a bad front office.

        Everyone likes to use the NFL as the model, so again I’ll use my football reference. You said it yourself,

        “the Redskins have been mismanaged by Daniel Snyder, you know that. Even in the NFL, the franchise has to be competently managed in order to win a championship”

        Why then is it too much to ask for a NBA team to be run correctly to win a championship? I live in D.C. however I am a Knick fan. You can’t get a bigger market than New York, however for years the Knicks lead the league in payroll, ALWAYS over the cap. Yet when we finally got success it was because we were, and still are UNDER THE CAP.

    • Fan On Fire_Maurice Barksdale - Oct 26, 2011 at 7:51 PM

      In the NFL, even with a salary cap, it still comes down to the teams that are properly managed to win a championship, but even teams that are poorly managed can turn a profit in the NFL, and a sizeable one, like the Cincinnati Bengals. So, I never said every team in the NFL is well managed, but unlike the NBA, every team in the NFL is making a profit well managed or not. And the NFL has added a rule that all teams, even ones like the Bengals, have to spend 90% of their cap money instead of pinching pennies.

      This puts more money in the players bank accounts, and automatically makes more teams competitive. But that’s in the NFL. The NBA doesn’t seem to want to make changes for the good of the game. It’s players are showing they want things to stay as they always have been. But in order to stay competitive you have to change with the times. And the NFL is the top dog for a reason, just as the NBA is falling behind them for a reason. The NFL’s product is better than the NBA’s, and that’s an undeniable fact. It’s not even close.

      And I like Tony Parker and Ginobili, but they would have zero titles without Tim Duncan. Plain and simple. And yes Wahsington D.C. is a big market, but even if they are well managed, what big time free agent is going to come and play there? None. The same as in Atlanta, which is a great place to live, but given a choice for whatever reason the big time players will not come here. At least not in this current system.

      The Knicks organization has been toxic for years. Another problem in the NBA is former players are running teams, and don’t know what they are doing, like Isaiah Thomas was running the Knicks. With a hard cap teams will be forced to be fiscally responsible, and you will see less and less teams like the Knicks. With a hard cap you can’t spend over the cap, so that solves that problem. And guarnateed contracts are stupid, and are a cancer of the NBA. I would never be an NBA owner. In this current system there’s no logic to it.

      And I acknowledge you are making some good points, and I’ve enjoyed this debate. But you have to agree the NBA system needs some improvements. For without them, the NBA will become less and less relevant as time passes on.

      • leearmon - Oct 27, 2011 at 11:40 AM

        I have enjoyed our debate as well, and hope you know that in no means do I try to be rude or anything close. Very rarely do you come across intelligent discussion regarding items like this. And while I agree the NBA players do need to make changes, such as a decrease in their BRI intake, I do however disagree with a few of the points you made.

        I whole heartedly disagree with your assessment in regards to players wanting to play in D.C. Yearly D.C. is among the highest ranking cities players love to play in. Its a huge attraction, and considering the demographics of the area, and the make-up of the league I think players would absolutely love to live in the nation’s capital. As evident, Gilbert Arenas after his first contract was up in Oakland, chose to sign as a free-agent in D.C. Its proof, it can be done. However, more than anything else, players want to win. And with the decisions Ernie Grunfeld made, which I posted earlier, its hard to see this franchise winning with him running the show. Atlanta signed Joe Johnson as a free agent, Shaq’s shortlist included Atlanta as well. In regards to small markets not being able to sign marquee players, the poster child of whats wrong with NBA contracts, Rashard Lewis left Seattle for Orlando, remember Seattle is a larger market than Orlando. Steve Nash left Dallas for Phoenix, Carlos Boozer first left Cleveland for Utah, Richard Jefferson took less money and re-signed in San Antonio and LaMarcus Aldridge re-signed with the Blazers before his rookie contract was up, just to name a few examples.

        Yes Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili wouldn’t have won a championship without Tim Duncan, but Duncan wouldn’t have won 4 without them. You say it was “luck” that the Spurs drafted Duncan, we obviously respectfully disagree on that, but even if “luck” does / did play a part in that, the same can be said in ALL sports. The Patriots are “lucky” Tom Brady fell to the 7th round. The Colts were “lucky” they took Manning over Leaf. The Packers are “lucky” Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the 1st overall pick and fell down to them. See where Im going? If luck plays a part in the NBA draft, it does in every other draft, but a championship isn’t built with one player, you need a team. It takes skill to build a team, Dallas showed us all that this past year.

        Finally you say the NBA’s product isnt as good as the NFL, I think we can all agree on that. However, the NBA hasn’t “fallen behind” the NFL. The NFL is this country’s sports leader, and has been for quite awhile. Also, another league that has a hard cap, the NHL, wishes it had the NBA’s ratings, ticket sales, T.V. deals and marketability, so the idea that the NBA is not popular because of “competitive balance” or a lack of a hard cap is just false. . The Bengals can turn a profit, with a poor front office, partly because of the NFL’s tv deal. Thats where the money is. The Bengals, Jaguars and Rams all have problems selling our their stadiums, yet still can see a profit because ESPN, Fox and NBC turn out BILLIONS of dollars to broadcast the games. Don’t be mistaken and think fans in Jacksonville follow their team because they think they can win a championship. Truth is they can’t. Its also worth pointing out, NFL teams such as the Bills aren’t turing out the profit you may think.

        With the Knicks, you seem to understand the effect a poor front office can have on a team. You also seem to understand that logic when it comes to the Redskins, so why is it hard for you to see that in any sport, no matter the market size or a hard or soft cap, a well run front office can always contend for a championship, while poorly run ones will never? It seems pretty simple to me. I used this example before, never heard your thoughts on it, the Lions were awful under Matt Millen. Bad picks, bad coaching hires, bad signings etc. He goes, the Lions start to turn it around. Coincidence? I don’t believe so. The same rules apply in the NBA.

        Bottom line, a hard cap won’t make GM’s draft better i.e. Milwaukee picking Bogut over Chris Paul, and Deron Williams. A hard cap won’t make small market GM / front offices trade for guys like Amar’e Stoudemire over Antawn Jamison. or trade for Vince Carter and Gilbert Arenas. A hard cap won’t make Ernie Grunfeld draft Stephen Curry over trading a top 5 pick for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. And a hard cap won’t help small markets such as Oklahoma City keep their stars like Kevin Durant in place, he stayed in OKC without one.

  3. aqzi - Oct 26, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    I didn’t read the article, but the excerpts picked didn’t really sway my opinion on the matter one way or another.

    Money matters in the NBA. There is a positive (and strong) correlation between money and wins in EVERY season since at least 2002 (source at the bottom of the post). Clearly, money is just one factor out of many such as draft picks, coaching, development, luck, etc.

    But to pick and choose the Lakers, Magic, and Bulls from one season is misleading. As people in the comments have already mentioned, the Bulls did so well on a small salary because Derrick Rose was on a rookie scale. The Lakers and Magic both did extremely well this season.

    The bottom line is that money is clearly correlated with wins in the NBA, and it is probably one of many important factors in determining how many wins a team will get in a season.

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