“The idea that the luxury tax hurts small markets is ludicrous. It may impact a small market that is a great team and has to raise payroll. But at bottom, it's designed to eliminate the ability of teams to use their economic resources to distort competition.” — NBA commissioner David Stern, Dec. 25, 2011
Dwight Howard landed with the perennially powerful Los Angeles Lakers last week, leaving most NBA observers outside of Los Angeles County asking a familiar question.
“What exactly was the purpose of the lockout?”
When the league's best center was traded from Orlando to L.A. three days ago, it completed the construction of the NBA's latest, and perhaps greatest, super team. In Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and fellow newcomer Steve Nash, the Lakers' starting lineup will feature a combined 33 All-Star selections and three Most Valuable Player awards.
They will be a traveling circus, one that serves as a reminder that not much has changed since the NBA and its fans endured a torturous five-month lockout.
Last year's work stoppage was supposed to be about boosting profits, ushering in competitive balance and devising a plan to help teams keep their stars. It was supposed to stop players like Howard from ditching the small markets that drafted them for more glamorous destinations like L.A.
So much for that.
Howard joined Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony as players who in the past 18 months have used the weight of impeding free agency to dictate where they'll play.
Worse, the lockout hasn't stopped the biggest markets from being the biggest spenders. Judging by the first two signing periods post-lockout, a wider gap is developing between the haves and have-nots.
While Miami, New York (Knicks and Nets) and L.A. (Lakers and Clippers) vie for the league's best players — and pony up for the big payrolls that come with them — Thunder fans are left to fume over perceived inactivity on the free agent front and wonder how on earth Oklahoma City will keep up.
So far, we can offer only small reasons for hope.
The Knicks lost “Linsanity” this summer when they decided they couldn't afford to match Houston's offer to point guard sensation Jeremy Lin. At the same time, Chicago deemed Houston's $25 million deal to backup center Omer Asik too rich to match. The Bulls also dumped Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson this summer, largely for financial reasons.
That's two teams in top three markets essentially saying it's safer to play moneyball instead of monopoly.
But the Bulls have never been big spenders. Chicago is one of just seven teams that never have dipped into the tax, according to shamsports.com. The Bulls' reluctance is more a fabric of their franchise rather than a sign of the times. New York, on the other hand, has never cringed at shelling out more cash. Therefore, the case of Lin stands as the first real indication that we might soon witness a shift in the system.
Dallas and deep-pocketed owner Mark Cuban cut back on spending last season. But the Mavs were jockeying for position in the Howard/Williams sweepstakes, not pulling back out of fear of the consequences.
Last month, however, the Mavs signed center Chris Kaman to a one-year deal, signaling another change in the league's economics. An All-Star in 2010, Kaman normally would command a long and lucrative contract. But short term deals are cropping up more as owners and front offices executives digest the perils of their books being bloated for too long. Other examples include David West (Indiana), O.J. Mayo (Dallas) and Kris Humphries (Brooklyn) all signing for just two years.