The other night I had the unfortunate experience of watching a Minnesota Timberwolves games. Needless to say it was a gut wrenching experience. I'm sure the T-Wolves front office will tell you that they are in rebuilding mode and are slowly developing a young core of players into a contending team. While that is great PR spin for the fans, the truth of the matter is Minnesota is a bad team that will continue to be a bad team for several years and the league would be better off without them.
The current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of this season and rumors have been swirling that the owners and Commissioner David Stern are discussing disbanding teams in unsuccessful markets in order to help the league commercially and prevent a lock out.
Ironically Stern was the one who spearheaded the league's expansion efforts by adding six teams from 1988-1996 and another, the Charlotte Bobcats, in 2004. This brought the total to 30, on par with MLB's 30 and the NFL's 32. However, the league was expanded during prosperous financial times and one of the overlooked consequences was the dilution of the talent pool. Nowadays the NBA is in a far less flourishing environment and contraction is seen as a way to stop the economic bleeding. Even though dissolving a couple franchises is seen as a tool by owners to keep money in their pockets, it may also help the product put forth on the court.
There used to be a time in the NBA where every team, no matter how bad, had a superstar player on the team. A go to guy that was the face of the franchise. Even during down years, the fact that a team had a number one player meant they at least had a plan. Teams were built to have a star player and a bunch role players to compliment him.
During the time of expansion this was still the preeminent thought of franchise building, but it is far less practical in todays NBA. The problem is there are not enough quality role players on teams. If a team lacks quality big men or athletic wings, they get exploited. Having only one superstar isn't enough to mask the problems of a poor supporting cast. Recently we've seen teams such as the Heat, Celtics, and Lakers stock pile superstars in order to make their role players as inconsequential as possible. Franchises and players alike realize that getting a collection of two or three elite players can mask any other shortcomings and in this watered down league will immediately turn a team into a contender. It seems coaching and chemistry take a back seat when you have superior talent.
With team building now revolving around getting multiple superstars, franchises need to clear a bunch of cap space in order to pay these in big name players. The Knicks mailed the in last three seasons in order to save up enough money for this free agent class. Even though they hadn't made the playoff since 2004 and were one of the worst run franchises, they were still able to lure Amare Stoudemire and have money left over. Was it worth taking on expiring contracts and and not being important for years in order to get a star player? In the Knicks case the ends might justify the means, but there is also a dark side to signing superstars.
Knowing the league is weak and filled with haves and have-nots, franchises feel they need to have a superstar to make them relevant. But with so few true star players in the league some teams tend to reach and pay good players top dollar. Often known as the Joe Johnson effect or Hedo Turkoglu syndrome, these type of signings can hinder the growth of a team for years. Contraction can help prevent these type of signing not only by expanding the talent pool but also by removing the people who offer the players the contracts in the first place.
Maybe in a contracted NBA T-Wolves GM David Kahn won't be able to make head scratching signings and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling won't be making money by putting a losing team on the court. Sure the Clippers have shown some promise early on this season, but how many times over the years have you heard that the Clippers have a young, enthusiastic nucleus of players that will turn around the losing culture? That's what you get when you are constantly drafting in the lottery, young and enthusiastic.
Don't get me wrong young talent used to be the way to build a team but not in the current incarnation of the NBA. These 19 and 20 year olds that come out of college might be good enough to step right in and be successful, but they can't immediately be leaders and winners. Plus the best draftees go to bad teams and once their rookie contract is up, when they are only 23 or 24, they often are looking to go to a team in better shape than their current bottom or middle of the road one.