Dan Gilbert

The NBA’s Competitive Balance Myth

Please give a warm welcome to new Chasing 23 contributor, Sean Cribben. Sean is a life long Celtics Celtics fan with an extensive knowledge of the history of the NBA.

As you may have heard, the Chris Paul Crisis reached a merciful resolution a couple of weeks ago. Whatever misgivings Clippers management may have had with regards to either Paul’s knees, or dealing Eric Gordon, vanished with tantalizing visions of instant relevance and possible contention. Meanwhile, the Hornets, despite having to surrender the greatest player in team history, miraculously emerged (I can’t place enough emphasis on the following word) relatively unscathed from a fiasco that threatened to permanently damage the franchise. That a situation as bizarre as the one in question concluded with what essentially was a “win-win” is, quite frankly, remarkable.

This doesn’t, however, absolve David Stern or those owners whose heavy-handed interventions threatened to permanently tarnish the league’s reputation. While the commish certainly deserves whatever criticism he receives, the leading antagonists in this absurd drama, chiefly Dan Gilbert and his allies, should inspire the sort of mockery that’s usually reserved for the likes of characters such as Metta World Peace or Stephon Marbury. Indeed, Gilbert’s role is especially hilarious. Instead of emerging as the wise and just protector of the NBA’s 99% (a position he’d no doubt relish), his comically unsubtle sabotage of the Lakers-Hornets trade only reaffirmed what we learned during last summer’s LeBacle: that he’s a bitter malcontent who’s deluded himself into believing that perfectly legitimate transactions (particularly those involving players signing with teams other than his own) are somehow “unfair” to the league’s less-fortunate (i.e. more incompetent) franchises.

Gilbert’s whining (on prominent display in his now-infamous e-mail to Stern) is, however, instructive of the NBA’s Competitive Balance Myth, for it offers a rare glimpse into a world more magical than anything Tolkien or Rowling could’ve ever imagined, a world populated by extremely wealthy men who wholeheartedly believe that they’ve been victimized by a system that is, in large measure, their OWN creation. They believe that “big-market” franchises have unfairly monopolized the league’s top talents at the expense of “small-market” teams, particularly since the Kevin Garnett and Paul Gasol trades of 2007-2008. What other proof, would they argue, does one need when teams like the Heat, Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, Bulls, and now the Clippers habitually pilfer marquee players from their weaker brethren? Or when franchises like L.A., Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philly have enjoyed the most success historically?

Reality is, of course, more complicated than this simplified version of events. Even a superficial examination of league history reveals not some unfair advantage enjoyed by “big-market” teams by virtue of their wealth or location, but rather hard-won advantages born from wise (and, in many instances, lucky) drafting, trades, coaching hires, and free-agent signings.

Small market teams such as the Spurs have earned fourteen (and counting) consecutive playoff berths and four titles not because of their owner’s deep pockets, but because R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have done, and continue to do, everything in their power, to keep their legendary superstar Tim Duncan happy by surrounding his with supporting talent. Likewise, small market teams such as the Pistons, Suns, Pacers, Blazers, Thunder/Sonics, Magic, Bucks, Jazz, and Kings, all of which reside in less-than-glamorous cities (no offense!), have also enjoyed varying degrees of success throughout their respective histories, precisely because of their managerial resourcefulness.

Even the supposed “big market” teams (the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Knicks, Heat, and, perhaps, the Rockets, Mavs, and Sixers, come to mind), have rarely, if ever, “bought” success, as so many believe. The Celtics, who have never signed a marquee free agent despite their storied history, drafted Cousy and Russell, Cowens and Havlicek, Bird and McHale, and Pierce. Meanwhile, trades (which, the last time I checked, require willing partners) to acquire additional stars (like Robert Parish, KG, and Ray Allen) have usually exacted a heavy price. The Lakers, despite their hallowed tradition of raiding other teams of their unhappy big men (i.e. Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, and Gasol), would’ve won far fewer titles if not for Jerry West, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kobe Bryant, all of whom were, again, obtained through the draft, not free agent signings. And despite residing in one of the world’s largest media markets the Knicks, until recently, have been largely unable to attract superstars or even top-flight role players. If location was the most important variable, shouldn’t we have witnessed a parade of high-priced superstars running to the Big Apple over the last couple of decades? Instead we had the joy of watching Isiah Thomas fritter away assets and cash on the likes of Steve Francis and Eddy Curry. It’s no coincidence that Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony made their way to New York not long after Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni arrived.

It is in this light that Gilbert’s anger appears especially ludicrous. However “unfair” the recent exodus of superstars may seem to some, the fact remains that “the Decision,” the Carmelo trade, the Chris Paul trade, etc., weren’t motivated by movie deals, marketing campaigns, nice weather, or even greed, but rather by the failings of the owners themselves. That few would or could argue that Cleveland, New Orleans, Denver, Phoenix and Toronto were legitimate contenders before LeBron, Paul, Carmelo, Amare, and Bosh decided to hightail it out of town only proves that most players are a.) motivated by winning and b.) astute observers of history. Having undoubtedly been aware of the parallels between their respective situations and those of Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Allen Iverson in Philly, and, perhaps, of Tracy McGrady in Orlando, these same stars must have come to the perfectly logical conclusion that the difference between winning and losing in the NBA is the difference between working for Pat Riley and Danny Ferry, or Jerry Buss and Chris Wallace.

Of course, Gilbert and his fellow incompetents will probably never admit to themselves (much less to others) that they’re largely responsible for forcing some of the league’s best players to flee to franchises that actually have a clue as to what they’re doing. But this otherwise aggravating lack of self-awareness does have an upside: the very real possibility that Gilbert’s delusions will transform him into the league’s very own Charlie Sheen, whose increasingly bizarre outbursts will eventually force Stern to commit him either to a mental hospital or a nursing home.

And that, my friends, would be a win for all of us.


14 Responses to “The NBA’s Competitive Balance Myth”

  1. Kobe was actually acquired by trade, I believe. The Lakers really had to empty the bank to get Kareem and through the shrewdness of West and the luck of the draw, Magic dropped into their lap. I would say that had the Kansas City Kings had the top pick in 1979, Magic stays at MSU.

    Red actually used a little used clause in the NBA draft rules to take Bird a year earlier in 1978, then traded to get Parish and the draft pick which turned out to be McHale.

    As a lifelong observer of the Detroit Lions, I can attest that you are right when you cite that bad teams are bad because of incompetent upper management.

    The Spurs also had a bout of good “bad” luck when Robinson was out in the Navy and again when the Admiral was injured that allowed them to get Elliot (who didn’t turn out to be the player projected) and Duncan (who is one of the ten best of all time)

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | December 29, 2011, 10:48 am
  2. Guys like Gilbert don’t believe that their wealth was accrued with a certain amount of luck. They are of the belief that they are smarter and shrewder than everyone else. These guys also tend to be spoiled and entitled.

    Typically, they engage in “dick flopping contests” rather than trying to run a business.

    Posted by Paulie Walnuts | December 29, 2011, 10:51 am
  3. A lot of these owners like gilbert also bought their teams at the height of the market and overpaid and now want them to be both profitable and contend. Very few teams can do both…the clippers are an example of a team that makes money and doesn’t contend. I’m not sure if that’s what these childish owners want but not spending money on a good gm is a good way to have neither…think about it, jerry west went to memphis and what happened a few years later, they are surprisingly contending, resigning top players and likely to make money…
    Good point on their egos, these owners were the best at what they did and expect the obrien trophy to be handed to them based on their previous successes…

    Posted by anti bill simmons | December 29, 2011, 12:37 pm
  4. @Paulie

    Thanks for your comments. I completely agree in regards to your remarks about Gilbert. His outbursts last summer and during the Chris Paul fiasco have made him look a spoiled brat which, ironically enough, is how he undoubtedly views LeBron.

    And you’re right, of course, about how Kobe and Bird were acquired. It’s incredible how lucky the Lakers and Celtics were in regards to the quality and competence of their competitors.

    Posted by Sean Cribben | December 29, 2011, 12:45 pm
  5. Good stuff Sean, and welcome to Chasing 23.

    I disagree with your take though. Duncan is a different personality who chose to stay in San Antonio. However, most of the other players are leaving because of the big markets. Big market teams do have an advantage. Put another way, if Lebron started his career in a big city, I doubt he would have left for Cleveland.

    Posted by Chauncey Gandus | December 29, 2011, 1:32 pm
  6. Sean — welcome to C23! Interesting article and discussion. One comment I would make re: trades that have occurred: would be interesting to see in how many of these trades, the players forced their original small market teams to trade them to larger markets. For example, Kobe definitely had a short list of teams to be traded to that only included the Lakers, and effectively forced the Hornets hand into making a trade they really didn’t want to make. You could also argue the Spurs would have been even better if they had been in a large market (e.g., perhaps they would have been able to pair another superstar, Jason Kidd?, with Tim Duncan during his prime). .finally, do bigger markets attract better GMs and coaches? Not sure, but certainly interesting to think about. .

    Posted by Brown Mamba | December 29, 2011, 10:38 pm
  7. @Chauncey and Brown Mamba

    Thank you both!

    Chauncey: I do agree that Duncan’s personality played a huge factor in determining where or not he stayed in San Antonio. But I also believe that Popovich and Buford were responsible for making it easy for him to do so.

    In regards to LeBron: it’s too bad we didn’t have a “what if?” machine to see what would’ve happened if Memphis had won the lottery back in ’03, a hypothetical Bill Simmons briefly touched upon in his book. Maybe his career plays out differently if he’s working for a good G.M. from the get-go.

    Brown Mamba: There’s definitely something to be said for the role market-size plays in attracting managerial talent. At the same time, the major-market teams (with the major exception of the Lakers) have certainly gone through their dry spells, even as recently as last decade (Chris Wallace in Boston, Isiah in New York, Jerry Krause in Chicago in the early 2000’s).

    Posted by Sean Cribben | December 30, 2011, 11:31 am
  8. Hey Sean,

    Welcome to Chasing23. The article was great, and I love the Sheen-Gilbert reference. As a Timberwolves fan, I have seen a player (KG) stick with his small market team and struggle in the playoffs until management brought in some legitimate supporting cast members (Sprewell and Cassell). KG did all he could for MN and McHale did all he could to get Garnett to a winner while still getting a little something back (if one would call five players and 2 picks little). I have hope for small market teams, and pray that the new “Kevin” in Minny sticks around to help make this franchise relevant again.

    Also, on Gilbert…
    1. He needs to shut his whiney-ass mouth.
    2. Does he forget the luck he got when his franchise got the number 1 and 4 picks in the past summer’s draft? No one called foul when he gave up Mo Williams for a lottery pick and Baron Davis (whose contract was amnestied after the new labor deal).
    3. If I was Lebron, I’d leave a franchise that wouldn’t give up what amounted to JJ Hickson and role players for Amar’e, because JJ was SOOO valuable. Then turns around and trades Hickson for Omri Casspi this summer…

    [End rant]

    Posted by Howlingatthemoon | January 1, 2012, 2:52 pm
    • @Howlingatthemmoon

      Thank you for the kind words.

      I, too, hope K-Love sticks around in Minny. As incomprehensible as some of David Khan’s moves have been, he just may pull of a miracle and surround him with the supporting that would make staying easy. Hopefully Glen Taylor’s learned the mistakes of the KG era, which you enumerated.

      And agreed on Gilbert. He’s either a.) incredibly obtuse or b.) extremely disingenuous. As annoying and insulting as LeBron may have been last summer, the reasons for leaving were pretty apparent.

      Posted by Sean Cribben | January 3, 2012, 11:59 am
  9. can i just say that the chicago bulls drafted jordan, horace grant, toni kukoc, and traded for pippen ON his draft day? also, we drafted drose, luol, noah, taj, and a slew of other players?

    i think the only “big” signing we had recently was boozer (and rip is a player but you cant call his signing a huge contract).

    Posted by bingbong | January 6, 2012, 3:04 pm

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