Monday, February 28, 2011

Whiners

We have come to whining season in the NBA:
"I'm a little concerned about the gravitation away from the smaller teams,'' [Herb] Simon [Indiana Pacers owner] said. "If Green Bay can win (an NFL) championship with 100,000 population, then [the Pacers] should be able to win a championship, too.''

The Pacers are indeed mediocre, and look to be mired in mediocrity for a very long time. Indianapolis is a small market by NBA standards; it’s 25th. But it’s a very bad idea to put these two facts together and declare that things are bad for the small market teams, because you’d be wrong.

First, it’s wrong—as some people have tried to do—to interpret the Super Friends troika as some sort of big-market coup. Miami is the 17th biggest TV market in the U.S. But perhaps what is meant by “big market” is the bright lights, big city of it all, and if so then that’s fair: Miami plays with the big boys in that respect. But in terms of cash—Miami’s basically playing with the same cards Indiana is. Indeed, Indiana can look down at the TV market rankings and find much more successful teams: Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New Orleans. (To be fair, the last team is no one’s example of a perennially successful team; still, they’re superior to the Pacers’ persistent mediocrity.) And if you want to take a team that’s around the same place as Indiana, Portland has been very successful.

The difference between these teams and Indiana is management; management creates good teams; good teams win; stars rarely leave good teams. The only way a star will consider leaving a good team is if momentum is stalled, and that’s demonstrated over several seasons. With LeBron and the Cavaliers, Carmelo and the Nuggets, Deron Williams and the Jazz…all of those teams looked to be nearing the end of their energies. But these are considerations that Herb Simon and his management team have never needed to think about, because Herb Simon and his management team have never been that successful.

I would have a slight bit of sympathy for Herb Simon’s whining if it weren’t his fault, somehow. But the team’s mediocrity looks deliberate: they've preferred more, ah, "nonthreatening" talent since the brawl (e.g. here) and they've allowed the same management team headed by Larry Bird to molder in their offices for a long time. An owner who was serious about winning a championship would’ve fired everyone in the front office and blown up the entire team. Herb Simon has shown little inclination of doing these things, which means that he is not serious about winning the championship. Instead, he would like to restrict other teams’ ability—small market and big market teams alike—to assemble compelling teams. You can’t have the salary structure of the Spurs or the Lakers or the Magic or whatever team you find compelling in a hard-cap world. You can’t. So the consequence of Simon’s whining about doing something he shows no inclination of even trying to do, in Simon’s mind, is to make the good teams worse. That’s not a strategy for success in business or sport.

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