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What About The Little Guys?

Is this good for the NBA? This has been a question that's been thrown around often since Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, and it is one that is without a consensus answer. Tune in to any sports talk radio show right now and I'm sure you can hear people debating this very issue. From what I have observed in the first 24 hours since the trade, people are either completely for it or totally against it. I am currently unable to find the group of people who think it does not matter. If you find them, let me know. 

On one hand, are the people who think it is a great thing for Carmelo to be traded to New York. Big stage, bright lights, Madison Square Garden, what's not to like? Well for one, the other 29 teams in the league are not currently located in the Manhattan area. If that changes, let me know as well.

Regardless, some people tend to believe that having the NBA relevant in New York is a great thing for the league as a whole. It is clearly a huge market and has one of the most historic arenas and all of that. The people that I have found in favor of the move are typically those who are making money off of it. Relevance in big cities, such as New York, leads to more fans and more interest in the league. More interest means more media coverage. These are certainly positive aspects but when I consider the big picture concerning the well-being of the NBA, I find myself firmly against the concept of "superteams."

The alternate stance on the issue is more concerned with the 25 or so teams that aren't in massive media markets. I do not particularly care about more nationally televised games at MSG or reviving the Knicks-Heat rivalry of past decades. In my opinion, process equity or an even-playing field, is a more important issue. In the past 8 months we have seen two perfect examples of the issue that small-market teams are facing. LeBron James left his small-market to move to greener pastures and now Carmelo Anthony has forced his way out of Denver as well. This is a dangerous trend that appears to be catching on pretty quickly. As of Wednesday afternoon, Deron Williams has also been traded. This time, out of Utah and to New Jersey, which will soon be moving to Brooklyn. The trade shocked most, but Utah got a fairly good deal in exchange for Williams. It's true that Deron is still signed through next year, but the Jazz organization apparently took notice of what was happening around the league and didn't want to end up like Toronto or Cleveland. Why try to deny the inevitable departure of the superstar when you can potentially get some value now? More and more frequently we are seeing teams put in the kind of situation that Denver and Utah dealt with this week. Isn't there something to be said about parity in the league? Sure, basketball in New York may be more exciting, but what about basketball in Denver? There's still a team there. There's still a loyal fanbase there. There's still an arena there. Why would the league want all of its star players clumped together in 5 or 6 cities? 

I think it is apparent that players today have too much power or control over their teams. Carmelo Anthony showed that a star player could get exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it. In a sport that provides the superstars with more visibility than any of the other major American sports, basketball players will naturally be attracted to the most appealing markets. Going to a competitive team is not a major concern because all they have to do is call up some of their buddies and can be in contention in no time. In my opinion, that is too much power for one player to have. With Chris Paul and Dwight Howard approaching a situation similar to Deron Williams', it remains to be seen whether the trend continues or not. If Dwight makes it clear that he wants out of Orlando will they have to give up on contending now in the Eastern Conference so that they are not left with nothing when his contract expires? (Read more about Carmelo's leverage in this blog post by CBS Sports' Matt Moore, here)

It is certainly not a good idea to have 25 to 30 year olds holding most of the power in the league and it definitely makes it impossible for most of the teams to compete at all. There is really nothing currently in place to give teams such as Memphis, Milwaukee, and of course, our Cleveland Cavaliers, any chance to hold on to great players. The emergence of the "Big 3" concept in Miami and Boston is clearly working. And catching on. Quickly. Denver didn't really have any way of keeping Carmelo and however good it may be for the league when the Knicks are good, the rest of the teams in the league are going to suffer if this trend continues. 

There are of course a few examples of smaller teams doing well, however. For example, the Spurs, Thunder, and Suns all appear to be in good shape due to quality management. However, humble, loyal stars such as Steve Nash, Kevin Durant, and Tim Duncan seem to be quite rare nowadays. If the current trend continues, perhaps superior management will still be able to overcome whatever geographical disadvantages the franchise may face, but I believe that that edge will begin to diminish. In order to install some process equity, the new CBA should try to address some of these issues. NFL-like franchise tags would be an interesting option, but forcing malcontent stars to stay put might not be the answer. I'm not asking for an safety net for incompetent management, but with the way the league appears to headed, smaller market teams need to be protected in some way. I take particular issue with the double standard that exists for teams. Smaller market teams are expected to be nearly flawless in their moves in order to keep their stars and maintain relevance. Meanwhile, more attractive markets have the ability to simply clear cap space and build a team that way. The larger teams have more flexibility and a much greater margin for error. Is there anyway to fix it? Does it even need to be fixed? I hope the answer to these questions is "yes," but I truthfully do not know.

I am willing to strongly criticize Dan Gilbert and the rest of the Cavs organization for how they handled the departure of LeBron James, but at some point, if stars continue to ditch their less attractive franchises for more flashy destinations the league may need to step in and make some changes. The situation in Cleveland seems to be the exact thing that all teams are trying to avoid, and the stars know it. I can understand the media and NBA being excited short-term about the revival of exciting basketball in New York City, but looking forward can't help but worry for the sake of the little guys of the league. Maybe I'm overreacting or maybe I'm biased. I could be wrong and the emergence of more "superteams" is exactly what the league needs. Maybe smaller teams in less attractive locations should continue to hover around mediocrity or withdraw into obscurity, but as a loyal Cavs fan, I sure hope not.