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"Contraction" And Stern's NBA Reality As An Owner's League

NBA Commissioner Stern Wants More Profitable Teams, But What Does LeBron's "Decision" Have To Do With This?

ATLANTA - OCTOBER 21:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat waits for free throws against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on October 21 2010 in Atlanta Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA - OCTOBER 21: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat waits for free throws against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on October 21 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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David Stern sent shockwaves throughout the NBA world late last weekend when he uttered the forbidden word of "contraction." "Contraction" in the NBA sense means the reduction of teams, which for players is clear no-no as it also means the elimination of jobs for those in the career of shooting hoops, blocking shots, and highlight dunks.

Stern's idea to ‘contract' is based on the alleged notion that several teams have been losing millions of dollars over the last few years. Owners of several NBA teams have gone on the record of saying that their franchise is not economically viable as they once were. But, oddly, there has not been actual evidence from the books to corroborate these statements.

And while the NBA is obviously a business where the bottom line is about how owners and the NBA itself can generate revenue, Stern's paper bullets within public forums about contraction for the sake of "competition" and a "better product" seems shrouded in the notion of protecting owners and not the players.

Besides the suggestion of cutting player expenses and salaries by one third, an amount that comes to whopping $700-800 million dollars annually, Stern's comment of the possible "franchise tag" as it comes to the NBA to make all teams more competitive (and to generate revenue), specifically in light of how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh strategized to play on the same team and, more importantly, win championships, seems to betray the very employees that help make the NBA operate in the first place. In other words, Stern directly emphasizes that the NBA is an owners league. An ESPN.com reports this:

The commissioner also said the idea of a "franchise player" is an interesting concept that he believes will come up in bargaining. NFL teams have a franchise tag designation they can use on their own players, something NBA owners may want after a summer in which LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire left their clubs, and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul reportedly decided they want to do the same.

My point isn't that I'm against contraction. But, contraction, to me, makes sense when teams don't follow the generic rules of capitalism, which is to turn a profit. But what I find strange is that contraction could possibly be avoided, Stern glibly proposes, if owners have the power to limit the ability of players to choose where they want to work regardless of how their contracts are originally constructed. To me, this buys into the fact that owners, not the players, are what are most important to the NBA. Or rather, owners are who Stern ultimately appears to be siding with, under the guise that players, as we see in the NBA's marketing of itself around the world in various programs and advertisements, are central to the operations.

Granted, the NFL is known for throwing around the "franchise tag." But from what I've seen from the "franchise tag" in the NFL, the issue is not necessarily based on restricting the movement of a player who desires to win championships, but about teams unwilling to pay what a player is demanding but finding a way to utilize their talents for one more year by paying a little bit more.

The odd thing about Stern's idea about the "franchise player" is how it is directly related not only to restricting players mobility but binding them to places for the sake of an owner's profit or lackthereof, which we as fans are never privy to. For all we know, owners could be making millions in this recession. This isn't to deny that teams may be suffering in this economic downturn. But where are actual numbers of how much money teams are losing? Why can't the public know which teams are losing money? And why do we not know which teams are succeeding and why? As a result, this leads me to ask why punish the players, collectively?

And why should we necessarily side with owners? That's a rhetorical question of sorts. Why should we empathize with owners that poorly manage their teams? I would go so far as to say the Cleveland Cavaliers' owner (Dan Gilbert) and  general manager (Danny Ferry) mishandled that roster, haphazardly constructing a team year-to-year of mismatched parts (Larry Hughes, ahem ahem) to appease LeBron rather than strategic long-term building. As competitive as the Cavaliers were, you really wonder how bad that team is without LeBron when your second best player in combo-guard Mo Williams is emotionally distressed to the point of flirting with retirement because your best player is not returning.

In the case of the Cavaliers, I don't understand why Stern would support a team that in some ways shot itself in the foot by surrounding LeBron with solid, yet unremarkable, players. Granted, reports have come out in the wake of LeBron's "Decision" that he, not Ferry, Gilbert, nor Coach Mike Brown, had complete control over the team. If that truly is the case, then perhaps LeBron just played everyone these last few years. And for that, he probably deserves the hateration he's been receiving daily. But something tells me that LeBron, strategizing to team up with two all-stars this summer, has a little more savvy and insight than to beg ownership to sign Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall after each having just one great season prior to joining the Cavs. With that said, what does restricting players' freedom to choose have anything to do with teams that are suffering?

To play devils' advocate, Stern probably knows a thing or two about managing the NBA, given his track record of transforming the product of basketball into a globally consumed commodity. And I'm sure he knows a bit more than the average player of the long-term planning necessary to maintain the NBA as a sustainable company for the NBA, owners, and the players. Stern isn't the longest-standing commissioner in the NBA for nothing. His track record is nothing short of amazing considering how he transformed the reputation of the NBA in the eighties and cashed in on the "hip-hop nation" of the nineteen nineties to market the sport to a youthful and family audience. He, clearly, knows a thing or two about how to make money in places where an audience might not have existed in the first place. And I'm sure my rant has plenty of blind spots given my own naivete to how the NBA actually works.

But, to throw out the idea of the "franchise tag" to prevent star players from the freedom of playing where they want seems extremely problematic when no where else in this world is labor bound to an owner/boss, which is probably why Reverend Jesse Jackson accused Gilbert of having a "slave master's mentality."

I'm not calling Stern a "slave owner." Nor am I calling the relationship between players of LeBron's caliber, owners, and the NBA itself one of slave and slave-master. But there is something strange about Stern's comments and his seeming desire to discipline LeBron (and many others in the future) by restricting a player's freedom for the sake of a few owners that can't get their act together. In all honesty, LeBron and Bosh's actions along with Melo and Paul's desires seem to be the norm rather than the exception. To paraphrase, closely, my man Eric Rukis, who I think put an end to the hate on LeBron, "We do it all the time when we play video games. We trade for all the best players. Its the dream." Contraction may not be the best answer, but neither is disciplining Lebron for the sake of supporting owners and their staff that struggle to put together competitive teams.