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Owners vs. Owners: The Key to Settling the NBA Lockout

Robert Sarver's priorities and challenges aren't the same as Jerry Buss'.
Robert Sarver's priorities and challenges aren't the same as Jerry Buss'.

On the evening the NBA lockout started, our conversation centered around owners vs. players. Did you favor the owners' attempts to force a hard cap on the players, or the players' refusal to accept the huge cuts the owners were demanding? Frequent commenter jc79 astutely noted that:

The way I figure it, there's more than just players vs owners

It’s more like Big Market owners vs. Small market owners vs. High-Value Players vs. work-a-day Players.

I mean, who really thinks that the Knicks ownership and the Grizzlies ownership have a lot of common goals?

An excellent point, and one that Kelly Dwyer echoed in a piece posted this morning to Yahoo Sports. The NFL lockout was settled with the loss of only one preseason game, the only other impact being that their free agent signing period has been tightly compacted. All in all, the NFL lockout left most parties largely unscathed. That probably won't be the case in the NBA labor dispute, in large part because NBA owners haven't figured out revenue sharing the way NFL owners have.

For good measure, Dwyer pounds on our beloved owner Robert Sarver for his perceived mismanagement of Suns' finances, and questions why other owners would be willing to share revenue with Sarver only to see him "needlessly overpaying for middling talent".

Follow the jump for more on the potential infighting among the owners.

Much like Wil's story Sunday night regarding the players potentially decertifying the union, I'm sorry to report that there isn't a lot of optimism in Dwyer's piece. As neither the owners or players are unified among themselves, and since little is being lost by either side yet, meaningful, productive negotiations are not close to starting. Dwyer:

The factions are just too far apart -- and we're not talking about the players and owners. The owners and owners have to come up with a better revenue sharing system, and swallow the fact that certain owners ignored the dozens of ways small market owners failed to take advantage of the myriad ways to improve a team all without spending like the New York Yankees.

The interesting twist here is that Dwyer's not blaming large market owners for helping to ensure their teams' success by using their bountiful resources to hold onto players even as they go over the cap, driving salaries up overall. Instead, he's blaming middle and small market owners for failing to take advantage of ways to improve without spending a lot. Here, he calls out Sarver specifically:

You think the Los Angeles Lakers want to send a single penny to Phoenix's way after Suns owner wildly overpaid for the team years ago, then spent the next six years either needlessly overpaying for middling talent or outright selling off draft picks to add to his bottom line? Why should they help fund Phoenix's stubborn choice to hang onto Steve Nash(notes) instead of parlaying their best asset into something that can help them become a better (and, holy cow, cheaper) basketball team?

At the risk of sounding like a Sarver apologist (I'm not really, and freely acknowledge his mistakes), this isn't entirely fair. First, yes, it's possible to field a competitive team without being in a huge market or going overboard on salaries. Teams like the Spurs, Jazz and, yes, the Suns have helped prove this point. But the fact that the highest paid teams seem to always reside at the top of the standings is evidence that having the ability to spend a lot surely provides an advantage. Building a sustainable winner can be done without a huge market enhancing a team's revenue stream, but it leaves little room for error.

As I have written here before, all 9 of the teams who exceeded the salary cap last year made the playoffs. When those teams are in doubt about whether to pay a player, they err on the side of keeping him. Smaller revenue teams don't have that luxury, and that luxury helped the Mavericks to be one of the league's deepest teams in their championship run last year. Making the best of the salary level you can afford to pay is one thing, but lower revenue teams are still screwed when the high revenue teams also maximize their value. It's not possible to compete, at least not for a championship.

Dwyer's suggestion that the Suns trade Nash, and that doing so would help them become a better and cheaper team is oversimplified at best, and asinine at worst. There is little chance that trading a 37-year old Nash will return the Suns a bevy of blue-chip young players or premium draft picks. Nash is almost certainly worth more to the Suns than he is to any other team. Furthermore, it's highly unlikely that the Suns could replace what Nash provides on the court and at the box office for the $11M Nash is due next year. The conventional wisdom that a team on the decline should trade its most valuable veteran player doesn't always hold true, and it doesn't in this case.

It's true that the owners need to put their house in order and get serious about revenue sharing to be able to arrive at a lockout settlement anytime soon, and for the league to have more competitive balance. Blaming the middle and small market owners for the way they're being streamrolled by large market owners won't help the owners get to that point.

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