Friday, February 26, 2016

NBA Metamorphosis: Changing of the Guards..and Wings...

Nicolas Batum is the type of midlevel star that can make a huge impact Credit:Kent Smith Getty Images

There are evolutions consistently in the NBA. For years the adage of “a good big man beating a good little man” dominated as sage advice for any executive with personnel power. Then Michael Jordan happened and Sam Bowie became a cautionary tale. As the Lakers won, the Kobe/Shaq feud escalated to an existential battle for the future of the league; with the wing player eventually wrestling the Most Important Position Award from the Bigs.  With the Celtics and then Heat forming not through the draft but through Free Agency/trades the age of the Super Team had begun.  Now with Golden State’s dominance, teams are looking to go small and shoot three at ever exorbitant rates.

The salary cap will increase around $20 million for next year. And will do the same the next NBA season after that. For many, this has filled their minds with what the top players stand to make.  Players like LeBron James have decided to shorten their contracts to maximize earning potential. But what about those teams that failed to land the big stars? Perhaps now would be a good time for yet another evolution of the sport—deeper teams with a less significant drop-off in talent between the starters and reserves.

An interesting thing happened during the last bit of labor strife in the NBA. In addition to the established adversarial relationship between management and labor, there was an additional friction amongst the owners. Essentially, the large market owners and small-market owners had a schism because small market teams were concerned about holding onto their stars and competing with Super Teams (eventually the problem was alleviated as luxury tax penalties increased and teams were able to hold onto their players with longer, more lucrative contracts).  But with approximately $40 million more to spend, the era of the Super Team may have received an injection of vitality.

So what are teams that have failed to show any real chance (either because of inability to pay steep luxury tax penalties or location) supposed to do? Perhaps they can begin to play a different game, a game defined by the totality of talent on the team, and not just that of the starting five. Instead of overpaying for a middling star, what if those teams invested in the bench? Imagine being able to legitimately play 10 quality players and wearing down the opposition which has the bulk of its salary (and talent) starting.

For the longest time in basketball, dynasties have ruled. The NBA’s history is written by star players and the franchises that hosted their greatness.  Perhaps as the tools available to teams increase, the product cultivated can remarkably change. Given that only 9 franchises have won a championship since 1980, parity has never been a realistic NBA quality. With less of a reliance on superstar players, perhaps smaller/less attractive markets like Charlotte have an opportunity to get in the jewelry game come this June.

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