Phil Sheridan | Retooling tough in stagnant NBA

Posted: July 13, 2007

This column comes not to defend Billy King, merely to make a point in defense of the man charged with fixing the Sixers.

Over the last three weeks, much has been written and said about the contrast between King's efforts and those of Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. That makes sense. They work for the same company, Comcast-Spectacor, and they have similar tasks, rebuilding their teams after disastrous seasons and the departure of great players.

Holmgren gets the edge in all of these comparisons.

He got more in return for Peter Forsberg, whose career may be over, than King got for Allen Iverson, who remains an elite player.

He made a deal for a solid goaltender, shoring up an area of serious concern.

He took advantage of a salary dump by the Nashville Predators to acquire Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell for draft picks.

The moment free agency opened, Holmgren landed Danny Briere, one of the top players on the market and a key contributor on the defending conference champion Buffalo Sabres.

King, meanwhile, drafted a 19-year-old small forward to add to the Sixers' collection of similar-sized and skilled players.

Advantage Holmgren, obviously.

But it's worth pointing out that Holmgren works in the National Hockey League, which allows open trading and real free agency. Compare the opening days of the NHL market, when a number of stars moved all over the country, to the opening days in the NBA, when most of the big names re-upped with their former teams.

You have to be David Stern or someone on his payroll not to see that the NBA's system renders it the most stagnant of the major North American sports leagues.

In the last two decades, a total of six franchises have won NBA championships. Six: The Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs and Heat. That's stagnation.

The Michael Jordan Bulls won six titles. They probably would have won eight if Jordan hadn't taken his two-year break to play baseball. The Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets won both titles while Jordan was with the White Sox organization.

The Tim Duncan Spurs have won four. Shaquille O'Neal has won four, three with the Lakers and one with the Heat. The Lakers and Pistons won a couple of titles each in the late 1980s, then made a resurgence to win a few in this decade.

In the same time frame, 12 teams have won the Stanley Cup, 12 teams have won the Super Bowl, and 13 teams have won the World Series.

By that measure, the NBA is twice as stagnant as any of the competing leagues. In some ways, it's actually worse than that. If you look at the playoff fields for the last 10 years, it is clear that teams get stuck in one of three categories for years at a time.

Elite: The Spurs and Suns and Lakers and Pistons, who are top-four seeds in their conference playoffs and have an actual chance to win every year.

Middling: The teams that fill out the bottom four seeds in each conference's playoff brackets most years and miss the playoffs the rest of the time make up the bulk of the league. The 76ers were in this group with Iverson.

Awful: Golden State and the Clippers, Atlanta and the Knicks, among others.

Let's try a bit of logic here. It's widely acknowledged that one of the reasons for the popularity of the NFL is that every team has a chance to turn its fortunes around through free agency and the draft. It stands to reason that the NBA's stagnation is every bit as much a reason for its plummeting ratings.

If you have Tim Duncan or Shaq or Steve Nash, you have a chance. If not, you're stuck waiting to hit the draft lottery when one of the twice-a-decade franchise players is available.

In every other major sport, teams are allowed to make trades regardless of the salaries involved. This is what makes baseball's non-waiver trade deadline so fascinating. Teams in contention take on contracts to make a run while teams that are out of it shed veterans for youth.

In every other major sport, teams have the leeway to woo free agents with whatever contract numbers they choose - albeit within the salary cap in football and hockey. There is no financial disincentive for a player to change teams.

In every other major sport, GMs have legitimate opportunities every year to improve their teams, or to fail in trying.

King is getting only the second opportunity.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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