New CBA Ignores Core Issues

Jacob Eisenberg explains why the NBA’s new CBA will prove to be ineffective in the long run…

After 149 days of hard bargaining and disagreement, it finally appears as though the National Basketball Association (NBA) lockout is over. With a tentative agreement in place, the players have been invited back to facilities and the owners seem satisfied. While the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will change the landscape of trades and free agency dramatically, will it really do enough?
The short answer is no. This lockout was disputed over the owners’ claims that the players were making too much money and that their teams were bleeding cash. In order to make the league profitable again for all teams, the owners claimed the league needed more parity. In principle, this makes sense; if the rosters are more balanced and each team has an opportunity to win, fans will flock to the stadium and owners will sell tickets.

While the new CBA encourages player movement and gives teams more financial leeway, it fails to account for the primary culprit behind the NBA’s lack of parity: the human element that considers NBA players as ordinary people. When given the opportunity to live in New York or Sacramento, NBA players, like the majority of the population, will choose New York. Some places are simply more attractive to live and work than others.

Since 1980, only nine NBA teams have won championships. In contrast to the MLB (18) and NFL (14), it’s clear the NBA needs to find a way to balance the competitive playing field. Despite the formation of an elite class of teams within the NBA, it wasn’t until recently, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade with the Heat, that the problem became visibly apparent.

Even more distressing than three elite superstars coming together in beautiful South Beach was where the superstars came from. James and Bosh blindsided their former teams, abandoning the smaller markets of Cleveland and Toronto without giving them notice and the leverage to demand worthwhile compensation via trade. The Cavaliers had waited over a decade to come across a player like LeBron James in the draft. When they acquired him in 2003, it was too good to be true. An Akron, Ohio native, James was supposed to bring the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964. Instead, James left the downtrodden city of Cleveland for the beach. If James, an Ohio native, couldn’t spurn the human element for loyalty, no one in the league could. Fans sent him death threats and swore James would pay for his disloyalty.

In reality, though, James just proved he was human. He was offered an opportunity to leave the lowly Midwest franchise for Miami Beach and a super-team. He would have been crazy to not take the deal. It was clear from the first day of free agency that James had every intention of leaving for a big city. The fact is, no team from a small market besides the incumbent Cavaliers was even on James’ radar.

This is why the NBA lockout will not do enough to even parity in the league. The NBA will continue to endure this unfair cycle of small market teams having to overpay their best players with maximum contracts even when they are not deserving of them.

Guess who was the highest paid free agent last year? It wasn’t LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire. It was the Atlanta Hawks’ Joe Johnson. It’s not the Hawks fault; it’s the NBA’s fault. Johnson was going to leave the city of Atlanta for the prestige of playing in New York had the team not completely overpaid to retain him. By overpaying, however, the Hawks have tied their hands financially from acquiring any true superstar in the future. Teams like the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls don’t need to overspend to retain their players because other free agents will always be beckoning for the bright lights of a big city — and the fame and marketability that accompany it.

What needed to be implemented into the new CBA was the franchise tag. Although it creates constant rift between players and management in the NFL, the franchise tag is a necessary evil. The franchise tag enables teams to re-sign players entering the final year of their contract on a one-year basis for either a salary commensurate with the five highest-paid players at his position or for 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, depending on which number is greater. The NFL maintains better parity than the NBA in part because of this franchise tag. In 2011, both Peyton Manning and Michael Vick were tagged by their respective teams while contract extensions were being worked out. Looking around the NFL, ten Pro-Bowlers were tagged by their franchises after the 2010 season.

If the tag were in effect in the NBA, teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers would be able to ensure keeping the rights to LeBron James. At the very least, if James was dissatisfied with the tag and demanded out, the Cavaliers would have an opportunity to seek value for James in a trade. (Not like the last minute sign-and-trade for a couple of late first round draft picks that Cleveland had to settle for with Miami.)

In reality, the human element is hard to defeat in the NBA. When it is defeated and small-market teams build winners, it is done through a consistent blueprint. The Spurs, Grizzlies and Thunder built winners through frugal spending, luck in the lottery and success in the draft.

Unlike the Heat, Knicks and Lakers, who have traditionally established winners largely by attracting players through free agency, these small-market teams’ patience has rewarded them with consistent success. In the case of the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets who struck gold in the draft with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, respectively, but have spent money carelessly in the years since, the human element seems destined to drive these stars from their small-market teams, and further reduce parity in the league. Without a franchise tag to save it, the NBA’s small market franchises — and its new CBA — are sure to eventually fail.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 12/01/2011

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