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.