This is easy to dismiss with a pair of rolled eyes, a trip to ShamSports.com's NBA salary section, and then a jaunt over to our own NBA standings. Bust out the calculator, divide one by the other, and come to a sound conclusion. Massive NBA team payrolls don't equate to over-the-top winning percentages. No kiddin', Sherlock.
It is worth bringing up, though. It's worth thinking about, and it's worth our time. Especially because absolutely nothing is going on right now save for lame attempts at "charity" games (that more than likely just break even) and more half-hearted suggestions that NBA players will work overseas during the lockout.
[… The] union views the parity issue as a red herring, an excuse to shift hundreds of millions of dollars from players to owners. Many economists are unconvinced that payroll controls do much to promote competitive balance.
"The statistical correlation between payroll and win percentage is practically nonexistent," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, who has studied the issue.
Despite apparent trends in the N.B.A., Mr. Zimbalist said the league did not have a competitive balance problem. He cited the Heat, who have made the league's championship finals twice in six years despite playing in the nation's 16th-largest television market. He also cited the Knicks, who have not won a playoff game in 10 years despite having one of the highest payrolls.
Not to dismiss the NYT or Andrew Zimbalist's work, but … no kiddin', Sherlock.
Intelligence, guided by experience, has always been the go-to move for NBA personnel types. And, because there are just five to a side and twice as many to a rotation, luck plays a massive role. The Chicago Bulls worked up the NBA's best record last season mainly because they lucked into a top overall pick in 2008 that they should have had no chance at. The San Antonio Spurs enjoyed the same stretch of luck in 1987 and 1998. The Los Angeles Lakers fell into their dynasty partially because the Grizzlies franchise bailed them out twice (taking on Anthony Peeler and George Lynch in 1996 to clear cap space for Shaquille O'Neal; and sending the team Pau Gasol for cap space and Pau's brother in 2008).
Intelligence, though, is the guiding factor. The Lakers were only in that position because GM Jerry West knew what he needed to do in order to secure O'Neal during that particular offseason. The Spurs found Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the lower rungs of the NBA draft, and the Chicago Bulls … well, it's mainly just Derrick Rose. They even wasted his first two seasons with Vinny Del Negro as coach.
The idea that teams are spending through the nose just to compete with the big market squads? It's daft. This isn't baseball. In the NBA, the Yankees usually stink.
A couple of exceptions spring to mind. The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, two of the NBA's more well-heeled franchises, may have been hot on Joe Johnson's trail in 2010, which led the Atlanta Hawks to sign the All-Star to an awful, awful deal that was 1 1/2 times what the Knicks or Bulls could have legally paid him under the old salary cap. And "luxury," defined in NBA terms, is the then-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers signing sixth man to a (deserved, I submit) eight-figure yearly contract, making him the fourth player on the Lakers roster to reach those lofty heights.
This isn't a trend, though. And had Odom signed with his safety school, the Miami Heat, those Heat would not have been able to clear all but a few million off of their 2010-11 payroll in order to sign LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and re-sign Dwyane Wade. In the NBA, where one player can mean so much, a massive payroll can mean absolutely nothing. Remember, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were in their second seasons with the Dallas Mavericks when Mark Cuban bought the team.
Do the owners need a sensible revenue sharing plan? Of course. I watch games broadcast out of Charlotte or Indiana on some nights and wonder just who, locally, is bothering to tune into some channel up in the 600s on their cable dial to watch these sorts of games. Call me a hopeless Trotskyite, but there has to be some sort of balance.
But to call it "competitive balance"? That would be missing the point. Money doesn't prevail, in the NBA. Sanity does.
- Andrew Zimbalist
- Chicago Bulls