It’s been a tough few months, with my footy team struggling and my other two favourite sporting leagues (the NBA and the NFL) both locked out.

Thankfully, the NFL affair seems to be coming close to a conclusion – but that was because, when it came down to it, their fight happened because millionaires (players) and billionaires (owners) couldn’t figure out how to split essentially 15% of their money. The other 85% was pretty much sweet, which is why they’ll have a deal before July’s over and we’ll get a full season.

The NBA, however, is in a much more precarious state. I don’t claim to understand the situation perfectly. I have about as much skill with financial stuff as I do with hand-building a Ferrari. But even I can see the problem.

In a nutshell, 22 of the 30 NBA owners are losing money – some a lot of it – and it’s blatantly obvious that there’s a problem with the current NBA salary structure.

Everyone knows what I’m talking about – practically every team has at least one guy who is ridiculously overpaid for what he provides, be it a second/third option paid like a superstar (Exhibit A: Rashard Lewis), a role player paid like a second/third option (Exhibit B: Charlie Villanueva) or even a completely useless player who makes role player money anyway (Luke Walton, I’m looking at you here).

I’m gonna point out something here that most NBA writers don’t want to touch, because it’s far more fun to decry bad GMs for handing out these deals.

Teams overpay for players often because they have no choice to do so.

There’s a few reasons for this which I’ll explain later, but let me give an example here. Last off-season, the Atlanta Hawks gave Joe Johnson a six year, $121 million deal and were roundly mocked for it. However, I can see why they did. As long as they have a core of Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith, they’ll be making the playoffs in the East for the next few years and getting knocked out in the first or second round, but getting the financial and other benefits that come from being a playoff team. When you consider the Hawks’ historical lack of success, unstable ownership and apathetic fans, is it so bad to be a one-and-out playoff team for a few years?

One of the most commonly-heard truisms in the NBA is that if you can’t be very good, it’s better to be terrible. The reason for this is pretty obvious – you suck enough, you’ll get high lottery picks to re-build with. Oklahoma City are the universally-cited example of building a team this way, and how any small-market struggler can succeed through being smart. This is a nice tale, but it ignores the main reason why OKC have been successful – they have Kevin Durant.

How did they get Durant? By being very lucky. Not only did the then-Sonics wind up with the second overall pick in 2007, when Durant was in the draft (and, with only the 5th worst record that year, they had a .097 chance of that No.2 pick, which was pretty damn lucky itself) but they had more luck when Portland took Greg Oden over Durant. I’m not going to deny that since Durant, OKC (led by GM Sam Presti) have been extremely smart playing both the draft and trade market. But all the smarts aren’t worth anything if you don’t get lucky.

If you don’t, and you can’t get the right picks in the right year to get you the right players? You end up like Minnesota or Sacramento. Over the past few years, both teams pretty much hit rock bottom and have received the requisite high draft picks. Both have also acquired some intriguing talent (Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio in Minny, Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins in Scaramento). However, neither have been able to make the leap because to do so, you need to have drafted a transcendent superstar – a Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan type. Something neither team have had the luck to do.

The sad part is, even if you are lucky and smart, it may not always be enough. Any Cleveland fan knows this. Which brings me to the second problem, the reason why teams are forced to pay players above their market value.

There are 30 teams in the NBA that play in 29 markets (soon to be 28 when the Nets move to Brooklyn). Of those 30 teams, I would say that there are six (Knicks, Lakers, Heat, Bulls, Mavs and Celtics) who can consider themselves the truly big market teams.

(Note 1: The Nets will be in this category when they get to Brooklyn. The Clippers, Wizards and Warriors also fit in terms of pure market size – the SF Bay Area and the Washington DC-Baltimore region are in the top 10 biggest population and TV markets in the USA and Canada – but years of front office dysfunction, lack of success and other assorted bungling have killed their chances of luring the biggest free agents).

Because when I talk about “big markets”, that’s really what I mean. The six teams I mentioned, plus the soon-to-be-Brooklyn Nets are pretty much the only teams you hear about as potential destinations for the biggest and best free agents. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams will all be playing on one or more of these teams come the 2012-13 season. Now you can see just how lucky the Thunder really were – not only do they have their transcendent talent, but he’s happy to stay in Oklahoma City. But as we learned from LeBron, more often than not these guys want a bigger and better stage (or at least one by a beach).

There’s more. Because these teams can afford to draw the biggest names, they also draw in the lesser lights/role player types who are willing to take less money to play for them, be it for a better shot at team or individual success or just the prestige of playing in those markets. Classic example? Raymond Felton. Last year he turned down a much better (financially) offer from Charlotte to sign a two year, $8 million deal with the Knicks. This is probably Raymond Felton’s market value – he’s a good enough starting point guard, but not even close to All-Star status except when playing in a stat-inflating system like D’Antoni Ball. Now he’s in Portland, expect to see his stats drop. The paradox of this is of course that he’ll probably end up getting a deal from the Blazers similar to the one he was offered in Charlotte if they want to re-sign him.

(Note 2: Of the small and mid-market teams in the NBA, Portland, Cleveland, Orlando, Denver and Houston are the best off as they all have deep-pocketed owners who are willing to pay the luxury tax. This doesn’t help with recruiting free agents, but it does at least allow teams to keep their guys together and hope they develop enough.)

Now you see the disadvantage the non-major market teams are at. They are essentially forced to pay second/third option guys star money and role players second/third option money to keep them around. Because, let’s face it – if you’re offered the same amount of money to play in Charlotte that you are in New York, you’re gonna take the New York offer every time aren’t you? Whatever one’s line of work is. That’s just the way the world works. Hell, I know that I’d do what Ray Felton did every time (unforeseen mid-season trade to Denver be damned) and take less money to be in New York.

Some say that this isn’t such a big deal, that the NBA has always had a few dominant teams and a bunch of others. The problem with the current system combined with the goals of modern players (get paid, or get where the action is) means that if we keep the status quo we’re setting ourselves up for a future where there will only ever be a few teams who get the chance to be dominant. Feel-good small market stories like this year’s Grizzlies, last year’s Thunder team or the Kings of the early 2000s will cease to exist.

(Note 3: One thing I’m not sure anyone seems to acknowledge with Oklahoma City is whether Russell Westbrook has a long term future with the Thunder. No one seems to want to discuss it because everyone in the NBA media likes to dream of a future dominant OKC team with Durant as the superstar, No.1 option and Westbrook as his Scottie Pippen. However, he doesn’t seem to have quite learned that that is his destiny for this team – see last year’s playoffs, especially Games 1, 3 and 4 of the Memphis series – and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to impact games when he’s not scoring, something a great No.2 should be able to do. He’s also a LA boy who will become available when both the Lakers and the Blake-led Clippers will be looking for point guard help. Watch this space).

So what do we do about it? I’ll continue to discuss this through my Lockout Blues series of columns. The next one is dedicated to a sticky little issue no-one seems to really want to discuss…


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