For balance in the NBA, go with the owners

Posted: June 10, 2011

If your rooting interest is the players' side in the NFL's tangled mess of a labor standoff (and it should be), the opposite may be the case in the NBA's looming battle. For reasons that have little to do with money, you should be rooting for the owners.

Especially if the 76ers have a new owner.

We'll spare you a review of the NFL situation. Just keep in mind the league is insanely profitable, its revenues are likely to keep growing, and the owners picked this fight to deny the players billions of dollars over the next couple of decades.

The NBA is different. Its collective bargaining agreement is up. The league professes to be losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It is well past time for a discussion about a working business model.

But we're not concerned here about the percentage of revenues the players get. What is vital, and could make all the difference for Joshua Harris and his mates if they succeed in buying control of the Sixers, is that a new CBA creates a new way of conducting personnel matters.

Short of having Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose hijack an hour of ESPN prime time to tell Jim Gray they're taking their talents to South Broad Street, the new labor agreement gives Harris and Co. their best chance to have a positive impact on the franchise.

Of course, the Sixers and the rest of the NBA, and all of its fans, are likely to endure the second major sports lockout of 2011 first. But that's OK. A few months in labor limbo are preferable to year after year in competitive limbo.

NBA owners are asking for a hard salary cap rather than the current soft cap with its federal-tax-code complexity and absurd and arcane rules. They also are asking for shorter contracts with limits on how much money can be guaranteed. Most of these things fall under the category of "New Rules to Protect Teams From Stupid Decisions," but some actually could lead to better competitive balance in the NBA.

And that is a good thing, no matter who owns the Sixers. The numbers speak for themselves.

In the last quarter-century, beginning with championships won in 1986, seven NBA franchises have won it all. The Dallas Mavericks could make it eight.

In the NFL: 14 franchises have won titles.

In Major League Baseball: 16 franchises have won titles, and a 17th could win this year. And there was no champion in 1994 because of a labor stoppage.

In the NHL: Boston or Vancouver will become the 14th franchise to win a championship in the last 25 years. And there was no champion in the 2004 season because of that lockout.

The NBA is the single toughest American major league when it comes to turning a losing franchise into a winning franchise. It is also the toughest to turn a good, consistent franchise into a championship team. You can have a savvy general manager, an outstanding coach, and a franchise superstar, and spend a decade getting eliminated in the conference finals and semifinals. Those onerous guaranteed contracts, hometown-friendly exceptions to the salary cap, and stifling rules limiting trades combine to keep the NBA stagnant.

Every other league recognizes the importance of competitive balance and governs itself accordingly. Maybe the NBA is losing money because fans of three-quarters of the franchises know their team has no chance to win a championship at the start of every season.

It will be a farce if NBA owners win economic givebacks from the players without addressing these bigger problems. This negotiation is a rare opportunity to throw out the CPA-friendly salary-cap rules and start afresh. We're not talking about anything revolutionary here, simply the same ability to sign players and make trades that exist in the three other major-league sports.

That could make this a good time for a new owner to step into the arena.

Harris would fit the profile of plenty of the NBA's owners - relatively young, flush with new money. The Miami Heat are run by Micky Arison, whose family owns Carnival Cruise lines. The Mavs are, of course, the property of Internet billionaire Mark Cuban. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov just bought the New Jersey Nets. Wyc Grousbeck, a venture capitalist, has owned the Boston Celtics since 2002. Tom Gores, who runs an equity firm, just took over the Detroit Pistons.

If the NBA succeeds in creating a new, truly free market, then Harris will have a chance to make a real and immediate impact on his new team. That's why basketball fans in general, and fans of stagnant franchises such as the Sixers in particular, should root for the owners in the NBA talks.

If a new CBA means business as usual, it really won't matter which businessman owns the team.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his past columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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