COLUMN: Is an NBA team’s future worth risk of a free agent gamble?

By Julian Reed

A ball, a basketball court within an arena, fans and the capacity for hope. Herein lies the delicate balance of professional sports and a silent agreement between individual club organizations and fan bases around the country. The agreement is simple in nature. “Give us a product worthy of paying ticket/concession prices to be in the building nightly” and (almost) more importantly, give us tangible hope. Hope can mean a variety of things depending on who you talk to and where they live.

For Miami, Los Angeles and Houston, hope is being able to either keep or land LeBron James, the best basketball player on earth today. In San Antonio, hope is continuing nearly two decades of sustained excellence and providing exemplary bridges to retirement for future Hall of Famers, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli coming off a 5th championship season.

In Cleveland, hope is dispersed in meaning. For some, it is defined by grabbing a championship that has eluded all of the city’s sports teams for decades. For others, the return of local native, LeBron James to his home state. All in all, hope is difficult to provide. This is something the NBA has always struggled with.

What if the system has created a new problem that I’m not sure NBA executives nor players realize exists? What if the silent agreement between organizations and fans has been severed? Watching the 2014 NBA Draft, I began to see the vacuum of negatives created in the wake of preparation for free agency. This isn’t an old issue. Massive player movement in free agency is still a relatively new concept in the NBA.

LeBron’s “The Decision” left an indelible imprint on the sports world and redefined the definition of leverage and power in sports. That watershed moment has now created a reality that for the second time has numerous NBA franchises selling their souls, with a high probability of striking out.

NBA Free Agency begins July 1st and includes the likes of the big three out of Miami, Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony among others. The opportunity to potentially bring in a franchise changing talent is alluring to many NBA teams. This coupled with the reality that free agency begins the week after the NBA Draft. This epitomizes the growing problem in the NBA. Heading into the NBA Draft every year, teams have to make a decision.

Short term strategy: targeting free agents to win immediately or Long term strategy: developing prospects and accumulating assets.

The innate problem with this, what if LeBron, Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony don’t join your team? You’ve essentially mortgaged your future for nothing. This happened in 2010 as well.

Dozens of teams tanked whole seasons, got rid of every competent player on their roster and “cleared the decks” just to have an opportunity to court LeBron. Once he made the decision to join the Miami Heat, all those teams were left with nothing to offer their fan bases. This coincides with a much bigger structural problem in the NBA.

Is it good for business for teams to be severely crippled by bad transactions and moves? The NBA’s logic on this matter has always been that the staunch penalty for bad contracts, trades, and acquisitions would motivate teams to make sound pristine decisions and create a league of exemplary business practice. The reality is quite the opposite.

Teams begrudgingly take every risk and gamble every asset for the “opportunity” to make a run at top free agent prospects. In their minds, a franchise changing player is worth incurring bad contracts, going over the cap limit (luxury tax), passing up future prospects, and clearing cap space. The end result often is the strict penalty limiting clubs for years to come.

All incurred merely for a glimmer of a chance. Not good for business. The two realities parallel one another in stark contrast. The latter, by and large driving the bus for normal NBA organizational business practice. Other leagues have set better sustainable business precedent. Difficult to have a discussion about sports leagues and business without mentioning the NFL.

As their product dominates the national sports landscape and they generate billions annually, they also have a system that allows teams to make mistakes without being totally hampered short and long term. Teams have full flexibility to be able to get rid of players/contracts and suffer little penalty. This of course comes at the cost of player protection and rights, but ultimately it’s a necessary evil. NBA players have a moderately powerful players union, and are guaranteed the highest average player salaries of any sport in the world, according to Business Insider.

Those rights limit the moves of teams and locks a lot of their decisions in. What this meant for the draft last week, more than a few teams traded back or out of picks altogether to save cap space.

Big picture, what does this mean, you ask? It means that the NBA’s current system forces teams to have to choose between going for free agents or utilizing the draft and player development. Thus, producing two different types of organizations (one type sustainable, one type not). It means one organization will be lucky enough to land a LeBron or Melo. All other suiters will be burned at the alter with nothing to show for it. This problem could largely be alleviated by Commissioner Adam Silver moving free agency ahead of the draft.

With that solution, teams entering the draft would know where they stand (and obviously whether a top free agent is under contract or not) and go from there with prospect acquisition. Free agency and the draft are both integral to building an NBA team. The NBA champion San Antonio Spurs for example, drafted Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Finals MVP Kawahi Leonard. However, they acquired Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw (all integral to championship run) in free agency. Realistically, need a good combination of both avenues to produce a top tier product on the court.

On July 1st, one team will have LeBron James when the dust settles. I have asked myself often, “what is the solution” in sports? Everybody wants parity. Is that realistic in a sport like basketball where stars matter most with only a handful to go around. There is no clear answer to this, but I think the question is valid. An organization like the Philadelphia 76ers, who went entirely toward the distant future with the players they drafted last week, I have a lot of respect for.

In sports (NBA especially), the omnipresent question for teams should be “who are we”? The answer to that dictates reality. If you’re one of the marquee markets (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, etc.) that can attract top talent in free agency, the answer is the destination. For cities such as Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Milwaukee, the answer is a construction site.

The two realities, you either have the means to be accessible to upper echelon prospects or you have to build from the ground up. Very few in between examples. In the coming days, Adam Silver has some difficult and no brainer decisions in front of him. If the NBA indeed wants their draft to be an event, treat it like one. Move it ahead of free agency.

If they want league wide viability, make penalty less steep. As the delicate wrapper of an agreement in place for decades comes open, I believe these decisions will garner a greater sense of urgency, evoking change.


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