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Maybe You Need Better Management, Not a New Stadium

April 7, 2011

Earlier this season, I complained to Joyce about the constant argument that small markets can’t compete with larger markets.  It was the fault of the MeloDrama, which saw the revival of, “New York basketball”, whatever that means.  Pundits posited that larger markets could offer more money, more amenities, and a more appealing lifestyle to most NBA players.  This argument always rang a little hollow to me, mostly because I think that an organization’s management is a better, although also not perfect, indicator of the desirability of an organization.

(And really, what are these mystical major markets are people talking about besides New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles?   It’s not clear to me.)

For many years, franchises like the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey Nets, and even the post-Patrick Ewing/pre-Stoudemire Knicks, had trouble recruiting marquee free agents.  After Jordan left Chicago, the Bulls missed out on several high-profile free agents like Kobe, Tim Duncan, and depending on who you ask, Dwyane Wade, because of questions regarding its management.

In contrast, franchises like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and even the Detroit Pistons (pre-Darko) were able to sign or hold onto high-profile free agents because they didn’t have a revolving door of management and did have a stable ownership, a culture of winning, and a reputation for valuing their players.  This past summer, the Miami Heat pulled off a high-profile coup because of the machinations of Pat Riley.

Don't cross Pat Riley. He's the original NBA mafioso. (Photo credit: thesportshernia blog)

All of this is to say that I watched public sniping about the pending expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with a skeptical eye when it came to owners and their argument that basically everyone except the Lakers and the Clippers were losing money.  (I exaggerate but the figures thrown out by the League claim that over half of NBA teams lost money in the past year. )  An argument in favor of greatly revising the CBA is that the small-market teams are at a competitive disadvantage because they tend to be lower revenue markets and high player salaries, especially long and guaranteed contracts, can have greater crippling effects on a franchise.

After watching the mess that will soon be known as the Anaheim Royals, the entire Seattle Supersonics saga, and even the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets move, I find myself thinking that the CBA argument is really a red herring.  Instead, the source of troubles seemed to be poor management, who then pointed to the need for a new publicly-funded stadium as a condition for staying in a city.  These teams all had loyal fan bases that eventually became turned off by management moves:

  • Sacramento Kings – fired Rick Adelman, traded away Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, John Salmons, and Kevin Martin while signing Mikki Moore and Beno Udrih to long-term contracts.  Admittedly, the team was mired in salary cap sadness because of the Chris Webber contract but the Maloofs have also pointed to the stadium issue as a reason why they can’t stay in Sacramento (even though Anaheim’s stadium is better, how?)

    Are we really doing this to another city? (Photo credit: cleveland.com)

  • Seattle Supersonics – pushed out George Karl and Nate McMillan, traded Gary Payton, Ray Allen, and Rashard Lewis, and under new ownership, apparently had every intention of moving the team to Oklahoma City but under the guise of Seattle’s unwillingness to publicly fund a stadium.  (If you’ve never seen the webby-winning documentary, Sonicsgate, it is a must-watch.)

    Especially after we went through all this? Think of the children. (Photo credit: Boston Globe)

  • Charlotte Hornets – traded away Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice, Muggsy Bogues, and the draft rights to some guy named Kobe Bryant.  General fall-from-grace of George Shinn, who also moved the team because of the city’s unwillingness to fund a new stadium.

Even in the case of the Vancouver Grizzlies, the team managed to go through several owners, five head coaches, two general managers, and simultaneously never achieving a season with more than 23 wins (and when there are 82 games in a season…).

This is all to say that while it’s true that long and guaranteed contracts can devastate a franchise, that’s because they’re used poorly.  You want to reward and sign players like Tim Duncan to contracts that will keep him with a franchise as long as possible, not players like Rashard Lewis, Ben Wallace, and practically every contract signed during the Isiah Thomas era at the Knicks.  Shouldn’t a GM’s bonus be tied to the team’s performance, minus poor performance because of injury issues?

Perhaps the new CBA should look at limiting a team’s liability in situations where there are major, season-ending injuries.  Instead, the players will likely get punished for owners and GMs who make poor salary decisions and get seduced by a player’s performance in a contract year.  Then when it comes time to talk about why teams are losing money, these same decisionmakers blame the stadium, say that it doesn’t generate enough revenue even though ticket prices are higher than ever, and threaten to move the team.  This is all to say that if I were a fan in a small-market, I’d be more concerned about the general idiocy of crappy management, who also possess the crafty ability to use the stadium argument and hold a city hostage.

-Jocelyn

[Update 4/8/11:  over at ESPN, J.A. Adande wrote a lengthy piece about the small vs. large market issue and echoes some similar sentiments regarding why some small market teams are successful.  He also goes into more details about potential items that might come up in the negotiations of the collective bargaining agreement, including some ideas borrowed from other sports.]

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