NBA Lockout Rumors: Should the League Seriously Consider Contraction?

David SpohnCorrespondent IFebruary 28, 2011

The prospect of contraction certainly has crossed the cranium of NBA commissioner David Stern.
The prospect of contraction certainly has crossed the cranium of NBA commissioner David Stern.Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

There are a few repulsive, sacred words when it comes to professional sports: lockout, holdout, and perhaps the ugliest of all, contraction.

Contraction is a frightening word that occasionally gets thrown around carelessly by players in big cities, and by journalists in those same big cities who need not worry about the ramifications of contraction.

They speculate about the possibility of cutting out the bottom-feeding teams in the league to improve the overall quality of the product of the league. It would result in a smaller dispersal of talented players, and on paper would seem to make for a more competitive league.

But the problem is, it can't be judged on paper. Professional sports aren't as simple as that.

Are the Minnesota Timberwolves or Sacramento Kings going to win the NBA title in 2010-11? Not a snowball's chance in Hades. Neither one will vie for the championship in 2011-12, 2012-2013 or 2013-14 either. But both franchises, along with all the other losing organizations which could be threatened by contraction, are building toward getting there.

The reality is, it takes the perfect storm for a small market team to compete for the NBA's top prize. There are countless examples in NBA history of small market teams who fielded very competitive teams but never enjoyed the sweet taste of being called a champion.

The Utah Jazz had the services of two of the NBA's all-time great players, John Stockton and Karl Malone, together and in their primes for nearly two decades. That amounted to zero titles. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers were fortunate to have the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James, adorn their uniform from 2003 until 2010. That equated to zero NBA championships.

The Sacramento Kings were recipients of manna from heaven when they acquired Chris Webber in 1998. They had a transcendent offense, the league's most complete roster and featured the finest home court advantage in the association. That translated to zero NBA Finals appearances. 

Winning a championship shouldn't be the measure of a great franchise—that would be preposterous, especially in the NBA, where no league has a less varied pool of champions. Since 1976, only 11 different franchises have won the title in the NBA. That is 11 different teams in 35 years. For comparison's sake, Major League Baseball over the same time frame has featured 20 different championship winners, with everyone from the Royals, Reds and Blue Jays getting in on the championship action.

The point is, if "winning a title" was the only criteria to keep a professional sports team safe from contraction, then the NBA's 30-team league would be cut in half.

The activity this past offseason coupled with the flurry of trade deadline deals has resulted in five or six "super teams" who play in big markets. Consequently, speculation has grown recently about the potential of contracting some of these smaller market teams who struggle both on the court and at the box office.

This recent trend of premiere players joining forces in big markets began some four years ago when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce in Boston, lingered when Pau Gasol was traded to Los Angeles, gained steam when LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed their respective names to contracts with Miami, and is now in full effect with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony uniting in New York.

The small market Utah Jazz watched the complete devastation levied on Cleveland after LeBron's departure, and felt compelled to trade Deron Williams to big market New Jersey simply to avoid getting nothing in return for Williams when he would inevitably leave country Salt Lake City for the bright lights of Los Angeles or New York.

All that sounds well and good to fans in New York, LA, Miami and Boston, but what about the other 25 cities (Los Angeles Clippers obviously not included) that support NBA franchises? Cries of foul play.

Ray Allen left Seattle, and soon after professional basketball left Seattle. Kevin Garnett left Minnesota, and they've dwindled at the bottom of the Western Conference standings ever since.

Pau Gasol left Memphis, and Memphis has struggled to get wins or fans in the building. LeBron James left Cleveland, and the team set the all-time record for consecutive losses. Chris Bosh left Toronto, and the Raptors now present the league's fifth-worst record.

Earlier this season, LeBron James offered a peek into his thoughts on the subject.

"Hopefully the league can figure out one way where it can go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team," James said. "The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is [now]. Contraction is not my job; I'm a player but that is why it, the league, was so great.

"Imagine if you could take Kevin Love off Minnesota and add him to another team and you shrink the [league]. Looking at some of the teams that aren't that great, you take Brook Lopez or you take Devin Harris off these teams that aren't that good right now and you add him to a team that could be really good," James said.

"Not saying let's take New Jersey and let's take Minnesota out of the league. But hey, you guys are not stupid, I'm not stupid, it would be great for the league."

Would it, LeBron? There's a lot of reasons the NFL is the No. 1 sport in America, but perhaps one of the fundamental reasons is the parody. Every offseason, essentially every NFL fanbase has a certain measure of hope that their team can compete for a Super Bowl title. The Rams, Ravens and Saints were completely unexpected world champions, and that's just recent history.

It's not like that in the NBA. Fans of the Celtics, Lakers, Magic, Heat, Bulls, Thunder and possibly the Spurs, Mavericks and Hawks had realistic dreams of their teams winning it all. Fans of the other 21 teams? Not a chance in hell.

LeBron's comments could come off as either arrogant or accurate, depending on your stance, or perhaps on the city you reside in. 

I personally feel like the NBA is enjoying a renaissance of young talent, which if distributed properly around the league's 30 franchises, would be ample to allow basketball to thrive in every market.

There are league's two dozen or so proven commodities like LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant and Carmelo. There are easily another two dozen of exciting, fringe All-Star-caliber players like Rudy Gay, Gerald Wallace, Danny Granger and Monta Ellis.

Then there is a third class of young studs who are well on their way toward becoming franchise-caliber players like Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.

The league's talent level is as abundant as it has been in decades. The problem is not contraction and the subsequent reduction of teams. The real problem the league faces is it must find a solution to this growing quandary of the formulation of super teams.

But what can the league do? They definitely can't force a guy to play somewhere he doesn't want to. That's the whole principle behind "free agency," the guy is free to play wherever he so chooses.

Kenny Smith, on TNT's acclaimed Inside the NBA recently said, "If [a small-market team] builds the right pieces around the right guy, he will stay."

Point taken. Maybe model franchises like San Antonio, despite their status as one of the league's smallest markets, have the right formula. They were lucky to win the draft lottery 14 years ago to get Tim Duncan, but kept him by way of drafting extremely well and making solid roster moves around the Big Fundamental. That paid off to the tune of four NBA titles.

It's a dangerous and unsettling prospect that David Stern encounters. The advent of free agency has created a major quagmire for the NBA, which only reinforces the notion that only big markets can succeed. If this trend continues it won't be contraction the league will be concerned with, it'll be getting fans in small markets to believe they have a realistic opportunity to compete with the big boys.