NBA: A Super era for teams, is it good for the NBA?

Boston started the era, now with Miami leading the NBA into the future, is it in good hands?

The NBA has flourished into one of the biggest sporting leagues in the world over the last 20 years, through the Jordan era, and now out into the time of the ‘Superteams’. Since the late 90s, when Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando to join Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, star players have been leaving small market teams to join fellow stars on the big name teams. It wasn’t such a big deal back when Shaq left Disneyworld for the Hollywood lights, but as the number of stars deserting is increasing at an alarming rate, one is left to wonder whether the NBA is really as healthy as it seems.

In what was once a league where the common practice was to stay with the same team for your whole career, it is almost the norm nowadays to play for numerous teams. As players are now more focused to win a championship than ever before, players are willing to push the boundaries and force franchises into trading them, usually where they want to go. In recent seasons, the Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard trade rumours that surrounded them for months on end caused their teams to underperform under the heavy media attention received by the obstinate superstars. While the franchises shouldn’t complain about the media coverage because they receive very little national press normally, even they know they will slip off the radar completely once their star exits town.

Once a star leaves a small market like Orlando, a franchise like the Magic will disappear into obscurity,

This may become commonplace in the NBA if stars keep deserting small market franchises

either being perennially stuck with an okay roster just finishing outside the playoffs year in and year out, like the Houston Rockets since the end of the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming era, or forever mired at the bottom of the standings. Until they land another top prospect in the draft, they can’t offer anything that would lure a star to the franchise, usually being in a small city, with a larger franchise in another sport also being in town, stealing fans. Mediocrity also doesn’t get fans into the stadiums and this was clearly evident towards the end of the Nets tenure in New Jersey averaging a mediocre 13,961 per home game in 2011-12 after several losing seasons.

What have franchises like the Bobcats got to offer a superstar over franchises like the Lakers? A history of success? Great weather and a thriving city? A solid roster that can mould around a superstar? The Bobcats aren’t even the most popular basketball team in town, let alone sports team. While these small market teams struggle to attract crowds and produce enough revenue to get out of the red, the stars lap it up in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami. Team loyalty is not what it once was in any sport, but at least NBA stars are willing to team together for less money, rather than more, something the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) failed to see happening.

After all the talk of the NBA owners making it harder for players to trade and move around in Free Agency by reducing the money and contract length a team could offer, players seem more determined than ever to team together to win championships together. After the original ‘Big 3’ assembled by the Boston Celtics in 2007, we have seen the Heat, the Knicks, the Nets and now the Lakers assemble corresponding ‘Superteams’ in the largest cities in the US. As lucky as some teams have been with drafting ‘Big 3’s’ in San Antonio and Oklahoma City, it is highly unlikely that the Magic and the Hornets will be as lucky in their drafting as the Spurs and Thunder.

As unethical as the ‘Superteams’ are in terms of old fashioned sporting ideologies, they have been the popularity boost that the NBA needed after the lockout of 2011. Whilst the NBA has had its lowest overall average attendance in years at 17,274, even being surpassed by the NHL at 17,455, the sport has never been more popular as a television spectacle, garnering huge markets in China thanks to Jeremy Lin and Australia due to Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills as well as in the US. The 2012 NBA Finals pulled the same amount of viewers in 5 games as the 2011 NBA finals did in 6 games. Merchandise sales are at an all-time high and you can’t walk down the street in Downtown LA to the outer suburbs in Melbourne without seeing an NBA jersey or snapback. With competitive teams in the 4 of the 5 biggest cities in the US, the NBA will only keep to grow in popularity as the ‘Superteams’ form rivalries akin to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the 80’s.

Can league commissioner David Stern consider the league to be healthy having 5 or 6 teams challenge for the championship every year and the rest struggling financially and merely making up numbers? If Stern is happy with having 25 teams constantly struggle to fill stadiums, he will lose the most loyal fans from the small markets to the other major league sports.

The NHL provides a similar product in game length and is played at the same time of year. The casual fan interested in the ‘Superteams’ now, will not stick around. The will be “band wagoning” if you will, until the era ends and they move on, leaving the league with very little base to work off. The salary cap was a great advent to keep parity in the league, but more is needed now to ensure the future and sustainability of the league beyond the ‘Superteam’ era.

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4 thoughts on “NBA: A Super era for teams, is it good for the NBA?

  1. I’m not convinced everything is as bad as you paint it, Ben. Famous player’s moving throughout the league isn’t as recent a phenomenon as you paint it (Kareem laid down the blueprint a long time ago), although there have been a few notable cases recently. The NBA has been trade-heavy for the better part of 50 years, and player loyalty is the exception rather than the rule.

    In terms of parity, I’d argue the league is in a pretty even situation at the moment. The Celtics (who are far from a super team anymore) only just snuck by the 76’ers in the playoffs, and in turn managed to stretch Miami to 7 games in the conference finals. Don’t forget that Chicago lost the reigning MVP at the start of the playoffs, removing one potential contender from the East. In the West, the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers will all be in the mix. 4 teams in each conference (with some plucky contenders like the Nuggets, Jazz, and Paces) stretching each other throughout the playoffs would seem to indicate a pretty even league.

    Losing a star player doesn’t have to be the end of a team’s chances, it’s just up to the team in question to get good value for their player. Compare Denver and Orlando. The Nuggets are stacked with young talent and should push the best teams in the West, but Orlando are basically cooked now because they overspent on average players to try and convince D12 to stay, and got very little value when he left.

  2. Agreed with Eric, while the last few offseasons have been busy ones, its been the league trend forever. The ‘original’ big 3 wasn’t formed in 2007, and it was formed in 1980 – Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, when Red Auerbach (greatest coach ever) drafted in consecutive years, Bird and McHale and traded for Parish (who played for 4 teams). Along with the ‘Showtime’ 80’s Lakers who drafted Magic Johnson and again traded for Kareem, the highest scoring player of all-time, the Celtics helped develop the NBA into the healthiest and arguably the most exciting era ever seen.
    But you could argue that the league is following that exactly same format now, with the Thunder drafting Durant and Westbrook in following years, and teams like the Lakers and Heat acquiring stars to match with other stars. Seems pretty similar to me.

    The argument is made that is once common practice for a player to spend his whole career at one team, when in fact, that’s just not true. It’s a rarity that a player will spend his whole career at the one place. In order for that to happen, a player must not only be good, have good chemistry with coaches and teammates, make good money and satisfy their family needs are among the many factors. Many times past and present, this has caused loyal players, who will/do have their jersey’s retired at a club, leave for another team. Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, Steve Nash, Ray Allen are just a few. Even Magic Johnson at one point asked for a trade from the Lakers, early on in his career. Same with Kobe Bryant.
    The difference between Lakers keeping them and Orlando losing players such as Dwight and Shaq isn’t the weather or the market, it’s the opportunity to win, which is built by good front office work.

    However, there are always going to be the few who last, and that has not changed. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk and Paul Pierce have all played at the same team for at least 14 years each. Compare that with the 1970s, only 4 people accomplished the same feat: Jerry West, Hal Greer, John Havlicek and Elgin Baylor.

  3. It’s not as bad as it can be and might be in the future if Stern does nothing about it. It’s become more frequent in the past decade or so and I understand part players are traded around willy nilly, its just that you don’t see players willing to stick by their team as they rebuild around them, like Kobe did, like Paul Pierce did.

    In terms of the top teams competing, yes. The West is looking reasonably good with at least 10 if not 11 teams vying for playoff spots, less can be said for the East though, especially 2 years ago when Indiana made it into the playoffs with a record of 37-45. That is not deserving of a playoff spot especially when you have 10 teams in the West over .500. However, I’m not focussed on the top sides, I’m focussing on the ever growing gap between the best teams and the worst, and you can’t deny that it is growing. Blowouts are becoming more and more common, and like I said, the NBA risks losing valuable fans in those markets if nothing can be done.

    However, in saying that, some teams haven’t drafted/traded well in recent years, taking Darko Milicic at number 1 for example, Jonny Flynn is another. It makes you wonder how some teams, like the Kings and the Nets, continued to draft poorly for years without making changes to their front office. It could also be said that Flip Saunders couldn’t control his egotistic young roster, so therein lies the argument, what makes the front offices of the large franchises so much better than the Wizards, Timberwolves etc.

    What baffles me is why David Stern didn’t veto the Dwight Howard trade, Orlando were clearly getting underdone in the prospect. If Stern really cared about the NBA, he would have made the move to have Pau Gasol included in the trade, just like he vetoed the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers (regardless of whether he owned the franchise or not.) I like Denver’s chances this year, the Iguodala trade has made them a genuine contender if they mesh well, which seems likely in George Karl’s system

    – Ben

  4. Ben,

    I still think you’re overrating recent history. Are you sure that blowouts are becoming more and more common? I did a pretty basic search on basketbalreference.com that ranked teams who finished with less than 20 wins (generally a poor season) by the FG% their opponents achieved. http://bit.ly/Pml7bz

    Recent seasons don’t appear until the 20’s. This isn’t a wholly conclusive way of proving the point, but it certainly doesn’t provide any indication that recent seasons have seen the poor teams become less competitive.

    If you want to find examples of player’s sticking by their team I would probably avoid Kobe. He blew up a championship squad, then held the Lakers hostage for a season as he openly flirted with the opposition. He certainly didn’t stay because of any deep affection for the yellow and purple. Perhaps Dirk or Nash would have been better options.

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