Wednesday, March 04, 2009

ATH: Folding the NBA early

The Year NBA Teams Quit Early
Why Revenue Concerns, Bloated Contracts and Dreams of LeBron Are Quashing Competition
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, Associated Press

This season in the NBA, there are five teams who can still be considered legitimate title contenders. The other 25 are a mix of the unproven, the banged-up, the raw, the disappointing, the apathetic and the catastrophically bad.

More than 80% of the league's 30 teams have no realistic shot at winning the championship, even with more than a quarter of the season left to play. Beyond the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic -- all of whom have won at least 70% of their games -- only the San Antonio Spurs have better than a 10% chance to win the NBA title, according to lines offered by Las Vegas oddsmakers. Four teams are on track to lose at least 75% of their games, which hasn't happened in 11 years.

For the first time in NBA history, team owners, executives, and fans in numerous markets say they have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season and that, given the state of the economy, they could not make the sorts of expensive moves that would help them improve. "We all want to win, but we have to be aware of the uncertainty of our future revenue," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Beyond the obvious disappointment for fans, what's most troubling about this situation is that for the first time in the long history of North American professional sports, the majority of the teams in one league have no financial incentive to improve. Most will be better off financially if they do nothing, and in many cases, will fare even better if they make personnel moves that are certain to make them worse.

Adding to the trouble is the fact that next year, an unprecedented number of the league's best and most desirable players will become free agents -- a group that includes young superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudamire.

Last month, Rod Thorn, the president of the New Jersey Nets, called around the league looking for a team that wanted to acquire Vince Carter, one of the NBA's bona fide stars. The result was clear and decisive. Most teams had no interest in adding any player if it meant taking on an expensive contract. "I'd say there are 25 teams in that category," Mr. Thorn said.

NBA commissioner David Stern insists the league is still enjoying one of its most competitive seasons. He says he's encouraged by the addition of the Orlando Magic to the NBA's group of elite teams and by the improvement of the young and talented Portland Trail Blazers. Still, he acknowledges that owners are rightfully hesitant to make "moves whose outcome is uncertain, other than that it costs them a lot more."
More Sports

* More from The Journal's expanded sports page
* More NBA news, scores and stats

In the last two decades, the NBA has exploded in size, popularity and profitability. Revenues have risen to $4 billion from about $400 million in 1989. The value of a top-end NBA franchise grew over that span from less than $100 million to more than $400 million. The average player salary also jumped from $275,000 in 1982-83 to $5.6 million today.

In boom times, the league liked to hold up these figures as points of pride. Teams that wanted to build themselves into contenders generally did so by spending large sums of money to acquire a few great players. Orlando, the newest of the league's elite teams, has earned this position largely by committing more than $40 million, about two-thirds of the team's entire payroll, to its four top players.

But as the economy sours, NBA teams are increasingly concerned about their ability to raise sponsorship revenue and to sell expensive premium seats and skyboxes. Last week the league secured an additional $200 million credit facility to lend money to teams. Suddenly, the magnitude of the dollars in play has induced a wave of moves that don't seem to be aimed at winning games.

In November, the Detroit Pistons, who were second in the Eastern Conference in wins last season, traded arguably their best player, Chauncey Billups, to Denver for the oft-injured guard Allen Iverson. The Pistons started the year 21-12 but did not acquire any of the available top-tier players at last month's trade deadline.
[Vince Carter] Getty Images

For the first time in major pro sports, the vast majority of the teams in one league have no incentive to improve. Above, the New Jersey Nets' Vince Carter.

The Pistons have won only eight of their last 25 games and are now a .500 team. The Billups trade was an economic coup: when Mr. Iverson's contract expires at the end of this season, the Pistons can lop off $21 million from their payroll. If they hadn't traded Mr. Billups, the team would have owed him the final three years of his four-year $46 million contract.

Competitively, the move has been less successful. In a game last week, after Mr. Iverson left with an injury, Pistons fans were treated to this spectacle: the honor of taking a game-tying three-point shot landed in the hands of guard Walter Hermann, whose 33% success rate from beyond the arc doesn't crack the league's top 100. Joe Dumars, the team's president, declined to comment.

The New York Knicks, who have won just over 40% of their games, say they are not as concerned with winning this year or next as they are with clearing payroll room to make a run at some premium free agents in 2010.

"It's what you have to do if you want to be a contending team," said New York team president Donnie Walsh, who recently saw Mr. James score 52 points with 11 assists and nine rebounds against his team at Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Walsh estimated that rebuilding through trades and draft picks would take him seven years, but signing stars like Mr. James could cut the process at least in half. For now, his sense is that fans are willing to put up with the pain. "There are a lot of people who come up to me and say, 'All right, that's where we are,'" he said.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home