Competitive balance in the NBA? Good one.

Why is it that even in the conference finals we can't seem to get an interesting game?

I was on my way to Tufts University this evening from Boston on I-93 when I saw a billboard on a vacant office building looking for lessees. It read: “Sitting in traffic? Not anymore if you work here.”

While I was neither sitting in traffic nor looking for office space at the time, the message was intriguing nevertheless. In fact, it got me to start thinking about the NBA and the shortcuts it has taken (If I don’t want to sit in traffic, I can just work here!”) to try and establish competitive balance. As a result, there is a complete lack of competitive balance present in the league today, something that David Stern and his cohorts need to address to stimulate interest in professional basketball here in the United States.

Amid playoffs in which five of the six matchups in the conference finals and semifinals could be sweeps, there is definitely a problem with the balance of the game. So let’s take a look at the plague of disparity around the league, shall we?

The MLB is the only sports league in the United States that doesn’t have a salary cap. And as long as the players association lives and breathes, there will never be a salary cap in baseball. That said, Major League Baseball succeeds where other leagues don’t in promoting a compelling, competitive league.

For one, the nature of baseball (and the construction of multi-game series during the regular season) is such that any team can beat any other team on any given day. In a three-game series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s a considerable possibility that Pittsburgh will squeak one game out during the set. In the NBA, when the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves meet, nobody’s betting on the T’Wolves and rightly not.

In addition, the MLB went about establishing two systems to help curb extravagant spending by big-market teams. It instituted a revenue-sharing program and imposed a luxury tax on high-payroll teams. While these policies don’t quite dissuade teams like the Yankees from blowing large sums on free agents, it does well to control spending near the middle (in terms of payroll) of the league.

But the NBA does have a salary cap. Isn’t the whole point of the damned thing to keep games close? In theory, it sure is. But keep in mind that the NBA’s cap is a soft one, and there are plenty of channels by which to circumvent the loose limit.

The most prominent of those is via Bird Rights, which allow teams to go over the payroll cap in order to re-sign free agents who have been with the team for three years or more. That’s why the Lakers are allowed to sign Kobe Bryant to a 3-year, $90 million extension despite with will be over $85 million in payroll next season with a projected $56 million cap. So that’s one way in which teams in big markets with rich owners can weasel their way to greatness. Needless to say, you wouldn’t see the Maloofs offer that kind of money to keep a player around on the Kings because they just can’t afford the salary itself or the accompanying luxury tax.

In addition, to continue the comparison to baseball, the dollar goes a lot further in the NBA game, so going over the salary cap is more valuable to success. In baseball, starting pitchers (who command very high salaries these days) go only one out of five games. And those position players who do play nearly every game, they are only expected to contribute three out of ten times from the plate and once in awhile on the defensive side (depending on the position).

In the NBA, everybody’s playing every game, and each of the five players contributes to every offensive and defensive set. Besides scoring and the other major stats, there are ways to help your team: setting effective screens, moving well without the ball, affecting shots, and denying your assignment the ball, to name a few.

For a practical illustration of this mess, look at the payrolls of the four teams left in the playoffs: $91,314, 026 (Lakers), $83,875,420 (Boston Celtics), $82,087,014 (Orlando Magic), $74,012,783 (Phoenix Suns). The salary cap this year is $69,920,000. So none of the remaining teams is working under the s0-called “limit.”

With all this established, let me go about setting a few suggestions for bringing true competition back to the NBA.

(1) Make the cap a hard cap.

Much like instituting a salary cap or removing the DH in baseball, this will never happen. Setting up a hard-cap system infuriates both conflicting parties: the NBAPA because in such a scenario star players would have to take major paycuts to make payrolls work and the NBA because all the luxury tax payments go straight to the league anyway.

Nobody really wants this except concerned fans. Not the Laker fans that think they’re devoted because they know who Pau Gasol is but the fans of teams like the 76ers who can tell you the stat line of every player from Andre Iguodala to Jrue Holiday for the past season. If it is so obvious that you need to shell out the cash like the four teams mentioned above to compete, there’s no way all 30 teams can never hope to contend for a championship; it’s just not feasible.

(2) Cut down on the teams that make the playoffs.

Right now the NBA playoffs are a bit, well, imperfect. There are 16 teams, four 7-game rounds, and over two months of 20-game blowouts. No one wants to see that. No one wants to see the Magic beat up the Bobcats in four circus games. Certainly, the thrill of an underdog upset like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007 is great, but you have to play the odds. That type of series doesn’t come around too often.

One could argue that even the conference-finals round is bad this year, but again, play the odds. This is atypical of the NBA playoffs. Cut the the pool that makes the postseason in half, and the league will have a lot more satisfied and less exhausted fans.

(3) Oust owners who aren’t in it to win it.

Nothing serves as a greater doomsday to a fan base than an owner to has ulterior motives for owning a basketball team. Guys like Donald Sterling and Bruce Ratner who use the franchise as leverage for their real-estate ventures are true parasites to the league and bad for the game. Get rid of them, somehow, or else you’ll have more teams that fail to ever be in contention.

I know these rules aren’t terribly practical (and simply “getting rid” of unsatisfactory owners would prove to be a nightmare: Are there objective qualities? Who gets the team? Etc.). But something needs to be done to protect the integrity of the league. If we keep seeing blowout after blowout and sweep after sweep in the playoffs, fans will start to lose interest, and no one wants that. Just try and represent the little guy a little better because I can’t stand seeing the Lakers win anymore.

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NBA Today: May 21

  • The Philadelphia 76ers and TNT broadcaster Doug Collins have agreed on a four-year deal for Collins to become the team’s next head coach.
  • The Nets, after saying they wouldn’t renew general manager/interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe’s contract this summer, have eliminated the former position altogether and have merged it with Rod Thorn’s president position.
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NBA Mock Draft: Round 1

After the lottery ended, and each team’s pick was assured, I began to devise my mock draft. Here’s what I came up with.

(1) Washington Wizards —  PG John Wall, Kentucky

(2) Philadelphia 76ers — SG/SF Evan Turner, Ohio State

(3) New Jersey Nets — PF Derrick Favors, Georgia Tech

(4) Minnesota Timberwolves — SF Wesley Johnson, Syracuse

(5) Sacramento Kings — C DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky

(6) Golden State Warriors — PF/C Ekpe Udoh, Baylor

(7) Detroit Pistons — C Hassan Whiteside, Marshall

(8) Los Angeles Clippers — SF Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest

(9) Utah Jazz — C Cole Aldrich, Kansas

(10) Indiana Pacers — PF Greg Monroe, Georgetown

(11) New Orleans Hornets — SF Gordon Hayward, Butler

(12) Memphis Grizzlies — PF Patrick Patterson, Kentucky

(13) Toronto Raptors — PF Ed Davis, North Carolina

(14) Houston Rockets — C Daniel Orton, Kentucky

(15) Milwaukee Bucks — SG Xavier Henry, Kansas

(16) Minnesota Timberwolves — PF Donatas Motiejunas, International

(17) Chicago Bulls — PF Damion James, Texas

(18) Miami Heat — C Solomon Alabi, Florida State

(19) Boston Celtics — SG Avery Bradley, Texas

(20) San Antonio Spurs — SF James Anderson, Oklahoma State

(21) Oklahoma City Thunder — PF/C Larry Sanders, VCU

(22) Portland Trail Blazers — PG Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky

(23) Minnesota Timberwolves — SG Elliot Williams, Memphis

(24) Atlanta Hawks — SF Stanley Robinson, Connecticut

(25) Memphis Grizzlies — SG Jordan Crawford, Xavier

(26) Oklahoma City Thunder — SF Luke Babbitt, Nevada

(27) New Jersey Nets — PG/SG Willie Warren, Oklahoma

(28) Memphis Grizzlies — SF Paul George, Fresno State

(29) Orlando Magic — SF Quincy Pondexter, Washington

(30) Washington Wizards — C Kevin Seraphin, International


Celtics recreate the mystique of 2008

That face says it all for the Boston Celtics.

It’s October 2009. You’re a Boston Celtics fan. The season is about to start, and your team has just added Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels to a troupe of stars. Things are looking great, and you’ve already forgotten the exit in the conference semifinals during the playoffs.

Fast forward a few months, and things don’t look so great. Paul Pierce is playing poorly, Ray Allen can’t seem to hit a shot, and Kevin Garnett seems way past his prime. The one bright spot is Rajon Rondo, the point guard of the future. The team has blasted with disappointments, not the least of which is a home loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets. The quest for another title seems lost, and the days of the Big Three seem over.

No so fast.

Since this year’s playoffs began, the Boston Celtics have looked more like the champions of 2008 rather than the underachievers of 2010, and more than anything, it has been thanks to some intangible factors.

Foremost, there seems to be a newfound desire to win amid the team — and no Cetics player has embodied that shift in philosophy than Wallace. Often the butt of jokes about lacking effort and the object of criticism that he could be one of the best players of all-time if he tried, ‘Sheed has noticed the potential to come away with a title this year. All it took was a little prodding and nudging from his coach, Doc Rivers, to get him on the right path. Since Rivers’s encouragement, Wallace has been playing to win the game: taking quality open shots instead of chucking up three-pointers, playing inspired defense, and realizing the concept of teamwork that makes the Celtics run.

But the improvement in that area is not limited just to Wallace’s actions; everyone on the team seems passionate about the team’s success. Watching Game 2 against the Magic, whenever a player hit the floor after a foul, three or four other Celtics on the floor swarmed around him to help him up and scowl at the offender. It’s that kind of backing that can sway the outcome of close games.

So when Matt Barnes elects to help Rondo up after a tough foul, and Mark Jackson adeptly pointed this out, it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not a display of competitive nature to help your opponent up even if it is “nice.” Barnes’s action is indicative of how the Magic just don’t seem in it to win it. It’s more of a game than a battle of life and death, as the Celtics see it.

And the competitiveness and passion translate into greater basketball success on the court: more offensive rebounds, better looks, grittier defense, and just more balls in the basket. When you are motivated to score, the form on your jump shot is that much sounder, the timing of your block attempt is that much more precise, and the finish of your dunk is that much more vicious.

The Celtics have figured this out, and the Magic still need to get on board; that’s why they’re down 2-0 going to the TD Garden for two road games.

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Lottery shocks, as usual; Suns fall badly to Lakers

Well, chalk up another shortcoming for the New Jersey Nets this year.

After a season of woeful play resulting in a 12-70 record, the Nets had the best chance at securing the NBA Draft’s top pick going into the lottery Tuesday night — they had a 25 percent shot.

Nevertheless, they will be limited to picking third next month. The second pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the No. 1 pick will go to the Washington Wizards.

Though a completely random process, the lottery sometimes seems a little unfair. Instead of going to the team that struggled under the guise of a totally disinterested owner, the first pick will, instead, fall into the hands of the Wizards, who are already paying a point guard on the roster $126 million over five years.

But those are the breaks, I guess. Maybe Derrick Favors or whomever the Nets choose will wind up being drastically better. Can’t I dream?

*           *           *

The Phoenix Suns made me look pretty bad last night after posting my sincere admiration for Steve Nash.

They turned the ball over at an embarrassing rate, couldn’t find the range, and played defense like, well, the Suns of old. The Lakers took everything they wanted from their opponents in Game 1, and Kobe Bryant contributed a true playoff performance.

All that said (and I hate to ride the officials), there was certainly some questionable officiating over the course of the game. Kobe got his calls — that’s a given. But down low, on the perimeter, basically anywhere, the whistles were blowing in favor of the Purple and Gold.

Attribute it to home-court officiating at the Staples Center in part, but there was a larger factor. All year, the Lakers constantly berate and batter the referees after every call against them (regardless of validity) in one of the most unsportsmanlike trends in all of sports.

But it has its benefits.

When you continually pressure the officials after their decisions, they begin to doubt themselves, and you begin to establish some credibility for your case.

That the Lakers cashed in on their accumulated credibility was evident Monday night. And the dubious calls were so well-timed, in fact, that it played a significant role in Phoenix’s falling to a 20-point deficit.

Hopefully, as the series progresses, the officials work it out and stop coddling L.A.

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The NBA Draft Lottery

The Draft Lottery is always a suspenseful night for me. This year, it is even more so, as the Nets have the highest chance of coming away with the top pick this June.

If you’d like to see my take on what each lottery team needs going into the draft, take a look at this article I wrote for thehoopsreport.com. It lays out the top-five options for each and every lottery club.


Draft lottery reactions and a response to Lakers-Suns Game 1 after the lottery. In the meantime, I’ll be nervously jittering.

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NBA Today: May 18

  • The 2010 NBA Draft Lottery is tonight at 8 PM eastern on ESPN. It will be followed by Game 2 of the Celtics-Magic series at 9 PM, also on ESPN.
  • The Lakers took it to the Suns in Game 1 behind solid shooting and “compassionate” officiating.
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