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The NBA, A-through-Z: Competitive balance

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LeBron James and Roy Hibbert ply their trade (Getty Images)

The free agents have just about all been signed up. The NBA is down to a series of Instagram photos from moving yachts and crossed fingers from worried teams hoping their players stay safe in the summer off. There’s nothing going on, save for that clock on the wall that is ticking down to the 2013-14 season.

And it’s moving SO SLOWLY.

This is why we’ve decided to pick 26 things we’re looking forward to in 2013-14. Or, at the very least, 26 things that intrigue us as we wait out an offseason that feels like it has thousands of miles left to cross before we can get to Halloween and opening week. Because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – you guessed, NBA A-through-Z.

We continue with competitive balance.

Some would smartly argue that the idea of “competitive balance” in the NBA is a laughable one, and that would be a soundly prepared hot sports take. We’re yet to take in the full breadth of what the 2011 lockout and eventual NBA collective bargaining agreement has given the league, even after an intelligent summer, but what we do know is that a goodly chunk of NBA teams have run screaming away from the luxury tax, while several seem to be barely bothered by paying it. That’s not exactly the fiscal outlook the NBA was looking for.

If they were ever honestly looking for it, that is. On Monday, Denver Stiffs’ Jeffrey Morton published a fantastic column looking at the new and partially concealed Great Divide that the NBA has created:

I have said repeatedly since 2011 that the NBA lockout had less to do with competitive balance than it did extracting a bit more money from the NBPA. While it is harder for super teams, such as the one in Miami to form (due to the new trade restrictions for tax paying teams) it doesn't prevent large market teams who are willing to pay a bit more than they did before to bring a good team together. The luxury tax won't prevent large market teams from going in to the tax threshold, they just have to be slightly more creative than before.

It’s not that the large-to-huge market teams are attempting to completely dodge the luxury tax. Instead, they’re trying to miss out on the repeater tax, something that comes from consecutive tax-paying years, resulting in stiffer penalties for each time that toe is dipped into the $72 million-plus water. This doesn’t necessarily mean teams are shedding for this summer, they’re just prepping to re-tool in 2014 around the same high-priced talent, miss the tax, and plunge right in soon after.

Meanwhile, you have a team in the Denver Nuggets – one that prints money with its Wal-Mart funding – avoiding the tax at all costs. You have the sellout-earning Oklahoma City Thunder dumping James Harden to then not contend for Kevin Martin during free agency before deciding not to pay Kendrick Perkins to not play basketball for him, while tossing out the untested Jeremy Lamb and a center picked in the lower part of the lottery as its “LOOK OUT MIAMI!”-fearsome 2013-14 unit. Whew.

And the Bulls will waive Carlos Boozer next year despite a quarter-century of through-the-roof profits. And the Indiana Pacers have to mind every penny. And the beat goes on …

With that in place, less than two years and just three technical offseasons into the new CBA, we still don’t know how it will all shake out. Maybe this league will feature a litany of baseball-styled top-heavy and lower-rung payrolls. Then again, maybe the owners deserve what they’re getting after over a decade of stupid spending and poor planning in the years following the 1998-99 lockout.

The fans, of course, deserve none of this.

In the place of that frustration, though, comes the 2013-14 campaign. One that could produce a ridiculously-entertaining regular and postseason – even if it ends with the same result, and LeBron James hoisting the trophy for the third straight June.

In his conference alone the Indiana Pacers have significantly upgraded their roster in ways that don’t even factor former All-Star Danny Granger’s possible presence. The Chicago Bulls have gotten serious again, and will add a playmaker and shooter in Mike Dunleavy Jr. to, oh yeah, go along with the return of 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose. The Knicks, for all the laughs we’ve had at their expense, could genuinely improve on the play (if not the record) of the team’s 54-win season from last year. And for a team loaded with players we’ve seen play hundreds of times, the Brooklyn Nets remain a fascinating and unpredictable wild card.

Meanwhile, the Thunder still boast two of the league’s best players, youngsters that are still improving year by year. The San Antonio Spurs aren’t going anywhere, the Golden State Warriors have loaded up on more wing talent and should be healthy by October, the Memphis Grizzlies still don’t like it when you score on them, the Los Angeles Clippers have a real (successful! Not to denigrate!) coach now, and the Houston Rockets just added Dwight Howard.

(And the Lakers will be on national TV 25 times next year!)

This is still going to be a wildly entertaining year, because as fun as 2012-13 turned out to be, it didn’t feature anywhere near the amount of championship-level threats as 2013-14 should. Health-willing, and tankers-forgotten, this should turn out to be something special.

Now we’ll just have to see how much the owners will ruin things between now and the next lockout.

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