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Today In Plutocrat Fluffing

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There is a professional sport lockout going on, which means that an owner is engaged in egregious dissembling.    But much of the sports media being what is, he doesn’t even need to try that hard.   For example, Howard Beck will take to page A1 of the Paper of Record to repeat the owner’s farcial rationalizations as if they were fact:

The N.B.A., like the N.F.L. before it, is embroiled in a full-scale labor battle, in part because professional basketball wants what football has: competitive balance, a healthy distribution of talent and a belief that every team, regardless of market size, should have the chance to win a title.

  • The idea that the lockout is about “competitive balance” is ridiculous on its face –how plausible is it that the powerful franchises of the NBA are primarily concerned with giving up their money to other owners?   More to the point, if competitive balance were the key issue the owners’ proposed CBA would be revenue-neutral so far as the distribution between owners and players.   In the actually existing negotiations, of course, the owners want to drastically reduce the revenue that goes to players.   Because the lockout isn’t about “competitive balance”; it’s the owners trying to stuff far more money into their pockets.
  • There is no chance that the NBA will ever have anything like the competitive balance of the NFL, which plays a 16-game schedule and teams have large numbers of key players.   Nor will it have the competitive balance of MLB or NHL, because the game is inherently dominated by front-line talent.    And it’s not self-evident that this is bad thing.   Admittedly, the fact that only a handful of teams have any realistic chance of a championship in the medium term is a major reason why the NBA is by far the least interesting of the four major sports to me, but to NBA fans the star-driven nature of the league is a major virtue.  And it’s the interests of the league’s fans that matters here.
  • As the article actually points out towards the end, even if one believes that more parity is inherently good, it’s far from obvious that a hard salary cap actually helps small markets that much.   James didn’t leave Cleveland because they couldn’t pay him; he left because he and the stars he colluded with wanted to be in a bigger, more attractive market.   A hard cap will just mean that small markets can’t compete on salary, which in some cases makes their job even tougher.    And it should be noted that despite having a salary cap the NBA in the post-merger era has been far more dominated by big markets than MLB or the pre-lockout NHL.    San Antonio — the only professional team in the 28th largest media market — is the one prominent exception in a sport that has been dominated by teams from the top six markets with some seasoning from #11 and #12  (granting that #1 has been uncompetitive for a while.)

For all intents and purposes, the lockout is about the owners making a lot more money.   Competitive balance, desirable or not, is neither here nor there.

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  • NBarnes

    That quote from Beck is pretty classic. If I didn’t know better, I’d ask how he sleeps at night.

  • DocAmazing

    If the sports media consisted of Dave Zirin, Charles Pierce and Phil Liggett, I might actually develop an interest in spectator sports. Reading guys like Beck reassures me that I’m not missing much.

  • Warren Terra

    James didn’t leave Cleveland because they couldn’t pay him; he left because he and the stars he colluded with wanted to be in a bigger, more attractive market.

    I’m not well informed about sports, but I thought there was also an issue that while Cleveland could scrape together the money to match Miami’s salary offer to Mr. James (although his endorsement income might be higher playing in Miami), Cleveland couldn’t pay his salary and pay the salaries of other expensive players, to get together a roster of the sort that might help Mr. James get a championship.

    • Medrawt

      There’s something to this – many owners don’t want to pay the “luxury tax” associated with exceeding the soft cap, while other owners will pay whatever they think they have to to get a winning team. (And then there are people like Robert Sarver, who probably isn’t really rich enough to own a basketball team, which is why so many of the Phoenix Suns’ moves in the past half decade have been about shedding salary. The list of draft picks the Suns have sold for, basically, cash, is staggering.)

      That said, I don’t know how well this inclination tracks with anything inherent about the team and its home market vs. the personality (and size of the fortune of) the owner.

      • Medrawt

        In addition/modification to my post immediately above – patrick II below is also right to point out that Cleveland was willing to spend money, they just spent it poorly. On the one hand, one thing I do think is bad about the current NBA is the way in which teams can handcuff themselves to what turn out to be bad, costly decisions. But too often, that’s a result of owners spending money by bidding against themselves, rather than each other. (Rashard Lewis!)

        Also, unless I’m reading something incorrectly, the linked chart of market rankings doesn’t support what Scott wrote about the top six markets – New York was competitive in the early-mid 90s, had a surprising run to the Finals in ’99, and has mostly sucked since then. LA (the Lakers) is, in every measure other than most titles, the most successful franchise in league history. Chicago was dominant in the 90s, not so in the 2000s, and has only emerged as a threat in the past year or two. Every fifteen years the Golden State Warriors make a nice playoff run, and that’s about it. Dallas spent the first half of its existence being terrible, the second half falling short of playoff greatness, and finally won a title this year. Houston has been good off and on for several decades, but only won two titles during the Jordan Interregnum.

        Not to say that the league has good competitive balance – I don’t think it does* – but it’s not quite as top heavy vis-a-vis market size as this post implies.

        * I think that’s a good thing! I’m a Celtics fan, so the last few years have been kind, but they were horrible for pretty much my entire childhood (I started following basketball around when Reggie Lewis died), and I still loved the league, despite being dominated by the Bulls, and then the Lakers/Spurs.

        • Well, there’s only one championship per year, and the vast majority have gone to the top dozen markets.

          • mpowell

            Yeah, but about half of them have gone to two teams. The level of dominance of the Celtics and Lakers is crazy. It would be like if there were another MLB team just as dominant as the Yankees. It’s not market size that explains this, though. It’s primarily the front-line star aspect and the fact that both the Lakers and the Celtics have managed to put together at least 3 (depending on how you count) nuclei of top level league talent. Because a team can easily stay dominant for 5+ years, you are effectively shrinking the sample size of league years that a team has to get lucky over for this kind of result to be possible. I think it is no more likely that either the Lakers or the Celtics will be able to win titles above the league average rate after this crop of players grows old (which may have already happened for both squads), much less at their historic rate.

            • Medrawt

              The dominance of the Celtics and Lakers in titles is extraordinary, but what’s really startling, as I alluded to above, is the uniquely consistent success the Lakers have had. Since 1948 (per Wikipedia) they’ve failed to make the playoffs a mere FIVE times. That’s nuts. The Celtics have missed, by my count, sixteen times.

              This isn’t to dispute that the Ls and Cs have had a disproportionate level of success, or that only a handful of franchises have won the past thirty championships or so. But aside from the Lakers, all these teams go through periods where they’re getting worse and better, just like everyone else. That Chicago is a title contender again, in my opinion, doesn’t speak to competitive imbalance; it’s a result of the Bulls getting lucky in the draft with Derrick Rose, and making better personnel decisions in the last few years than they had in the previous decade; you could say something similar about the OKCity Thunder.

    • Dean

      A fact to note is that James, Wade, and Bosh all agreed to pay cuts of about $3-4 million a year for the Heat to be able to afford them all and fill out the roster. Location and teammates trumped cash.

    • Is ‘collude’ really the right word? They went where they wanted to go because they could. Not everyone in the NBA has that sort of freedom, but not everyone in the labor market at large does either. Sucks to be Cleveland, but being a free agent should mean that players can do this.

  • patrick II

    I think basketball players don’t want to be in the situation football’s Barry Sanders found himself in at Detroit — be a great player but with a losing organization with the only choices to continue losing or retire. Barry had the fortitude to retire.
    Cleveland did not have a winning organization — they constantly misjudged talent and overpayed marginal players. James’ salary alone did not make it impossible to bring some other good players to his team, many other teams have players with max salary. Their bad management did.
    In the end players love money, but also love big cities, winning, championships, and esteem.

    • No doubt, the market inefficiency in the NBA is a general manager who knows what he’s doing.

    • John

      Given that Cleveland had the best regular seasons record for James’s last two seasons there, I’m not sure I grasp the argument that they weren’t good enough to win.

      • Regular season success vs playoff success in the NBA are two different things. Conventional wisdom has it that X and O coaching is much more important in the playoffs and that Mike Brown was hopelessly over-matched against Popovich, Rivers, S van Gundy.

        • markg

          That’s the same Mike Brown the Laker’s just hired, right?

          • Yes. Kobe Bryant, you may recall, expressed “surprise” at the hiring.

      • patrick II

        They had the worst record in the league the moment James left which showed the talent level he carried to the best regular season record. As a comparison when Jordan took his first year off the Chicago Bulls came within one game of winning the East without him. Cleveland’s owner is a jerk and they only fired their GM and coach after James left. They seem to be building a pretty good young team now. Time will tell, but too late to appease James.

        • Charrua

          It’s not a really fair comparison. The Bulls could afford to be patient, draft young players and develop them, since Jordan couldn’t leave. The Cavs HAD to build a championship caliber roster quickly or James would jump ship at the first chance (which he did anyway). And as bad as the Cavs roster was, it was better than Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a bunch of scrubs, if regular season wins mean something.

          • “And as bad as the Cavs roster was, it was better than Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a bunch of scrubs, if regular season wins mean something.”

            That you actually wrote that sentence should tell you that they don’t.

            • Charrua

              Well, by that standard, Wade, Bosh and al are about as good as the James-less 06-07 Cavs roster.

              • No, because the East had very poor competition that year. Any number of Western teams would have beaten the Cavs then. Last year’s Heat team beat two very strong teams, the Celtics and the Bulls, both of which were very much better then anything the Cavs faced in 2007 and would easily have won the East over them had they played — in the counterfactual time-machine world in which those games are played. If the argument is that the Gilbert / Ferry / Brown trio vs Arison / Riley / Spoelstra, then only the coaches are at all comparable. The owner / GM matchup is a joke. James made the right choice getting away from that organization.

    • And let’s not forget that James’s refusal to commit to an extension made it hard for Cleveland to attract valuable free agents who didn’t want to sign a 5-year deal if James wasn’t making it clear he wouldn’t be there beyond two years.

      • Meh. I’m much more in the “James left because Dan Gilbert is an asshole as well as a bad chooser of front office talent” school of thought. Why work for a creep in Cleveland who gives us Danny Ferry and Mike Brown as your immediate supervisors, and who surround you with the basketball stylings of Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, the moldering corpse of Antwan Jamison (who wasn’t all that even when he was in his prime), and Mo “he’s an okay player, I’ll give you that” Williams?

      • patrick II

        James played in Cleveland eight years. The first five guaranteed by drafting him, and he stayed around another three after that. If Ferry and Brown were capable of building a good team around James they had the time.
        Compare Cleveland’s last place finish without James to where Oklahoma might finish without Durant. Oklahoma has built a team that would win without Durant and eventually will win a championship with him.

        • Charrua

          Ferry and Brown DID build a good team around James. A very good regular season team, at least. Two consecutive 60 plus win seasons aren’t chopped liver. The roster was old (a bad sign for the next years) and was too dependent on James (bad for that one playoff series when James will play poorly), but it wasn’t bad. True, Lebron was there and that was a big part of their success, but Lebron was in Miami’s roster last year, plus Wade and Bosh, and they still ended just like the Cavs used to.

          • Miami 2010-11 was an excellent if flawed team that wiped the floor with Boston and Chicago and lost in 6 to an excellent team with a great coach / game plan (Dallas’ zone was amazingly effective). The 2007 Cavs were swept, and are widely regarded as one of the worst Finals teams ever, on a par with the 2001 Sixers. There is no way in which they “ended up in the same place .”

            • Also, you can’t really evaluate the Finals without noting how insanely well the Mavs played, especially in Games 5 and 6 when they went on stretches where they couldn’t miss a shot if they tried. Hard to beat a team that’s shooting the ball that well no matter who you are.

              • Charrua

                Sorry, but I fail to see a big difference between all those Cavs teams that won a lot of regular season games but failed to win a title and a Miami team that did the exact same thing. ¿It’s the 08/09 Cavs failing to reach the Finals? Miami would have failed too, if Dallas played in the Eastern Conference.
                ¿It’s the 09/10 Cavs failing to reach the Conference Finals? Miami would have failed too, if Lebron had played as poorly against Boston as he did back then.
                The way I see it, the regular season tell you how good a team is and the playoffs are about matchups, health, luck and coaching. Was Miami very good? Yeah, but those Cavs teams were good too. If the Cavs made a mistake, it was in building a roster for the present; as it was constructed, it had a terrible future and Lebron knew it.

                • The way I see it, the regular season tell you how good a team is and the playoffs are about matchups, health, luck and coaching.

                  This is a baseball mentality mis-applied to basketball. Pro basketball has always been about the playoffs. For a very long time, baseball was about winning the league pennant, and then, sure the WS too, why not. That’s never been the way the NBA ort its fanbase looks at things.

                • patrick II

                  I think we are getting off track here. I don’t think much of the Cleveland team built around James, others do. The question is — what did James think and does he have the right to move on. The hard cap makes it tougher for free agents to move, a la the nfl. The nba players do not want to forced to play for a team they want to leave, regardless of the reason. They do not want to become Barry Sanders.

                  And I will just add that city size makes a difference for many players, but aside from NY and LA it doesn’t make much difference. Lebron has national and international ad campaigns — it makes little difference to him if he can do an ad campaign for a local car dealership.

  • ADM

    Don’t forget this!

    It’s an article about how the owners know where the money comes from, and it ain’t on the court, from stuff like competitive balance and hard caps and whatnot.

    And the NFL makes for bad comparisons to the NBA. If the NBA wants a profit model from its games, it should look to March Madness instead of the NFL.

    • I don’t think they’re looking to copy the NFL’s finances so much as Stern knows the way to the media’s heart is to bow down and fellate the idea that the NFL=parity, every team can win any year, and it’s a state of sports fandom nirvana for the all-important Real ‘Murican small market fans.

      It’s bullshit, of course, but reporters lap it up and it helped solidify the idea that your sport was borderline illegitimate without a hard cap, so it’s a required play sooner or later.

    • mpowell

      Kind of ironic that Bill Simmons just recently spent an entire article explaining in detail all the reasons the players are at fault for this one (with a last few lines: oh yeah, that owners are at fault, too) on the same site.

      • Scott Lemieux

        In particular on the Simmons column, I still fail to see how the owners winning will stop GMs from signing dumb contracts even if we assume that this is the players’ problem.

        • Charrua

          It’s basically impossible to stop owners from signing “dumb” contracts. You can change the amount of money or the number of years all you want, but nothing will stop an owner from overrating players (or their own skill in rating players correctly).

  • c u n d gulag

    And this shows exactly how atrocious the stewardship of Lil’ Dolan is – my NY Knicks, in a league and market that’s basically gamed for them, last year had their first winning record in a decade, and still haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years.
    10 YEARS! IN NY CITY!!! 10 YEARS!!!!!!!!!!

    If Lil’ Dolan didn’t run a monopoly that his Daddy started, he couldn’t get a job stocking shelves at night at a Wawa.

    • Walt

      I love Wawa. Why can’t we have Wawas worldwide? I would support a program of American Wawa imperialism.

      • c u n d gulag

        Believe me, I’m not putting down Wawa.

        Im just pointing out that Wawa’s have minimum standards, unlike the Dolan family.

        • Walt

          Sorry, you just sent me off on a tangent. We should have less threads about politics, and more threads about Wawa.

    • They’ve screwed all NYC fans, from the Yankees to the Islanders, at some point.

      Just look at the Rangers, who had the makings of a dynasty in the mid 90s, yet somehow couldn’t develop the support talent to produce one. The Dolans would insist on top drawer marquee free agents at the expense of the grind-and-go muckers who support a playoff contender.

      • c u n d gulag

        Please, don’t get me started on the Rangers.

        Glenn Sather seems to have a job for life.

        Even Isaih Thomas, as horrible as any GM in BB history, at least lost his job (though he may get it back any day now, knowing Lil’ Dolan) for being an inept schmuck. Maybe if he wore skates, he’d still have a job.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Now, now, no knocking Glen Sather. He’s clearly demonstrated he’s capable of building a championship team, if you start him with Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Anderson…

          • In fairness, he was coach during the merger and managed to make it into the NHL playoffs the first two seasons despite being stripped of all his WHA players except two skaters and two minders. When he was named GM in 1980, he landed Coffey, Kurri and Moog in the first four rounds.

            And his recent drafts for the Rangers have been pretty good: Lundquist, Dubinsky, Callahan, Staal.

            Of course, they’ve been better for other teams in the NHL. It always depresses me to watch the league semis and the Cup finals and hear names like Dominic Moore and Peter Pruka…

            *shudder* Bobby Holik…WTF was he thinking????

            • efgoldman

              I think Sather has a lot in common with Harry Sinden (for whom he played). A terrific coach and GM in his own time, but that time has come, passed him by, and gone.

              Millbury, too, although now that he’s on the TeeVee, it doesn’t show as much.

  • wsn

    San Antonio — the only professional team in the 28th largest media market — is the one prominent exception

    And this is basically because Tim Duncan in his prime just wanted to play in San Antonio, probably in part because it was a small market and he could stay relatively off the radar.

    Not sure how much of this is myth-versus-truth, but we might see something similar with Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City.

    Which is to say, the owners are full of it.

    • Well, there’s also the fact that the NBA has structured contracts and teams are allowed to offer slightly larger max contracts to their own free agents. So it’s not as though Duncan just stayed in San Antonio because he loved it or felt some overpowering sense of loyalty, he also made more money than he would have elsewhere in the bargain. Add in that the Spurs are a quality organization and have consistently put good talent around Duncan, and what sense would going somewhere else make?

      • wsn

        He made slightly more, but I suspect that a superstar going to a big market could make much more in endorsement deals than whatever money is left on the table because of the permitted contracts. (See, James, Wade, & Bosh)

        Also, “quality organization” and “consistently put good talent around [superstar]” is largely measured by (1) drafting underrated prospects and (2) signing competent veterans willing to play for below-market wages in order to compete for a championship.

        (1) does take a good scouting department, but the kind of money that takes is peanuts and there’s no reason every team shouldn’t be as good as every other team at it. (See, MLB & sabermetrics)

        (2) I would argue is largely based on having a superstar to play around. Which, of course, depends on where the superstar wants to play.

  • Charrua

    The idea that the lockout is mainly about parity is, of course, absurd. If it were, players and owners would not be arguing about 53 % vs 50%, right?
    But there IS a parity angle; since the late eighties, the league has added 7 teams, most of them in small to mid markets, often in the South (Charlotte, New Orleans, Memphis). That was not only a recipe for unprofitable teams, it altered the balance of power in the league. Stern works for the owners and right now, he works for the small market owners, since they have become the majority of owners.
    Hence, all the interest in “financial parity”.

  • BradP

    When you look at the overwhelmingly strategic nature of the salary cap in the NBA, such an argument is ludicrous. Teams compete less over revenue than they do over their management of their cap room and exemptions.

    Look at Keith van Horn’s final years, and it is immediately obvious that the cap has no business being as low as it is.

  • norbizness

    Lionel Hutz: “Exhibit A: Donald Sterling. I rest my case.”

    Judge Schneider: “You rest your case?”

    Lionel Hutz: “What? Oh no, I thought that was just a figure of speech. Case closed.”

    Judge Schneider: “Good enough. Summary judgment for whoever is not on the same side as Donald Sterling.”

    • It’s a measure of how bad that man is (I can’t bring myself to type his name) that he makes Dan Gilbert look good in comparison.

  • skidmarx

    Nor will it have the competitive balance of the NBA or NHL
    MLB?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Corrected.

  • One of the players involved…I can’t remember who…threatened last week to form a player-run league.

    The NBAPA is perhaps the only league that could conceivably do this. It must have shattered the ownership’s closet facade of bravado to hear that.

    After all, there are minor arenas in every NBA city that would lick their lips to host a major league quality sports franchise without the monopolistic restrictions of the CBA and the right of franchises to refuse a regional competitor.

    In NYC alone, you could conceivably use the Izod Center and the Nassau Colliseum (or soon, the Pru in Newark) to host teams, but you wouldn’t even have to go that far if you’re willing to adapt to a large theatre in Manhattan as so many early NBA teams had to in their cities.

  • howard

    i admit that it’s a pretty weak reed when you rely upon george will as your expert witness, but even george will is on record as noting that owners don’t produce the revenues: players do.

    you’re on pretty safe ground when you assume that the ownership position in any sports league is entirely a bunch of self-serving hooey; while there are some owners who actually fit the kid’s book platonic model of enlightened management, they are the minority.

    owners are, by definition, 1 percenters….

  • JPO

    How plausible is it that the powerful franchises of the NBA are primarily concerned with giving up their money to other owners?

    They are probably not. But the owners of the Knicks, Lakers, Bulls, Rockets, Heat, Mavericks, Raptors, Warriors, & Celtics do not comprise a majority of the 30 owners.

    If competitive balance were the key issue the owners’ proposed CBA would be revenue-neutral so far as the distribution between owners and players.

    Well, no. The 30 teams in aggregate lost money last season (at least according to the NBA’s financial statements), so it’s not possible to make each team profitable merely by shifting money around from the currently-profitable to the currently-unprofitable. They need to cut aggregate costs.

    • Except that local television revenue is not upstreamed, so a team like the Knicks (which is owned by or owns, depending on your point of view, the network its local games appear on) could easily be taxed on that to make up the shortfall, I’d wager.

    • They lost money…so long as you count “money used to buy things for the owner and paid out to the owner and his family/friends” as costs. And also if you don’t account for franchise appreciation whatsoever. Otherwise, the idea that they’re losing money is ridiculous.

    • jpo, as brien says, the first issue is how valid those losses are?

      and the second issue is whether those losses are in any sense harming underlying franchise values, of which there isn’t much evidence to see.

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