A myth exists amongst the brethren of NBA fans. Some believe their teams exist, above all, to seek the highest form of glory with no hesitation: a championship.
The truth is that the league is a business.
Some owners are successful enough at it (usually owing to geography) to spend into the luxury tax and beyond. The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets know something about that.
Other, more rare circumstances allow for maxed-out team salaries because a strong, proud culture has formed around developing superstars. The Oklahoma City Thunder fit that bill, as do the emerging heavyweight Indiana Pacers.
But the norm for NBA franchises is an owner who wants, more than anything, to be running a club that consistently turns a profit. Middling competition would do, but they’d prefer to make the playoffs for the extra ticket sales.
A championship? Only one team out of 30 wins that every year. That’s not a proposition any rich man or woman with a calculator is likely to pursue.
Thus, that's the disconnect between franchise and fanbase.
Much of the common analysis of what teams should do in trades and free agency—whether they should fight or tank, use the amnesty clause or match an offer—assumes that there’s a Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of each organization’s sight. This simply isn’t the case.
While no owner would actively prevent his team from winning a set of rings, most also would not go out of their way to help them win one. They’re largely more concerned with the margins of their gains.
One prime exhibit of this spirit is Donald Sterling. For much of his tenure as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, he’s come pretty close to trying to hurt his team’s chances with his sociopathic frugality. He even tried to thwart his front office’s acquisition of Doc Rivers, and who even knows exactly why? Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported on the incident:
This had been the kind of dysfunction that frightened prospective executives and coaches of Sterling, an eccentric, often illogical man long used to undermining and bullying staff that he had often kept on short, low-money contracts.
Sterling recently changed his tune, however, and invested in a winning team in the Chris Paul era. It seems his ego has become entangled in the wins and losses of his Clippers. His history still reeks. And while he may not represent the average NBA owner, he might not be as far from one as you think.
Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf made light of the sport of basketball in general when he said, per Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer, “Basketball is a game. Baseball is religion.” He made bare the long-circulating rumor that he prefers his Chicago White Sox. The Bulls are, relative to the Sox, just an investment for him.
This is clear to fans of the team every offseason, as favorites like Nate Robinson and Marco Bellinelli take their games elsewhere in lieu of a substantial enough contract offer from the Bulls.
Reinsdorf, like Sterling, knows he's in a big enough market, with a big enough brand, to keep fans coming almost no matter what. Saying goodbye to useful players for the sake of Reinsdorf's wallet has become routine in Chicago.
Mid-market teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks have never had it good enough to consider such options. Just getting to the playoffs is enough of a challenge for them.
The Bobcats essentially admitted that they can't even imagine winning a title when they signed Al Jefferson to an enormous contract this past summer. Jefferson is a talented scorer, but he's no foundational piece, and Charlotte knows it. Middle of the road it is.
The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers make up part of that rare breed of organizations, indeed, putting it all on the line for the chance at another trophy. Both teams are going for broke and tanking this year to end up with the best draft yield possible.
Bulls fans sick of settling must feel jealous, in some part, of what's going on with both teams. Smaller-market fans resent that these big city slickers are able to pull off such a gambit—for their teams, unable to draw superstars to their region, losing typically only means more losing.
The bottom line is that owners do not hold the same emotional investment in their teams that fans do. They're largely only maximizing their ratio of competitiveness to profitability—championships be damned, if they don't fit into that equation.
So when we talk about teams and their future seasons, it’s wise to include a factor that many tend to omit—what the boss wants. By assuming he or she searches for the same glory that we do, we sometimes scheme right through stop signs that owners wouldn’t go beyond.
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