Finally, the Forum Blue & Gold Special edition Lakers championship T-shirts are here. At the suggestion of sT (one of our regular contributors), the phrase on the back of the shirt comes again from Chick Hearn: “This is your World Champion Lakers basketball network!” (This was always Chick’s station ID when the Lakers were champions.) As with all the shirts, you can change the style of shirt, the color and whatever else you want to make it your own.
Chris J. sent me a very interesting email about how the financial landscape of the NBA in this economy is a little like turning back the clock. It’s well worth the read for the history and the comparisons to what is happening this summer and for the next few NBA seasons. Enjoy:
As the 2009-2010 season approaches, few would question that current economic conditions will soon bring big changes to the National Basketball Association.
Since the Lakers wrapped up their 15th title a month ago, most NBA fans have been preoccupied with the usual off-season fodder including free agency, the draft and the pros and cons of so many potential off-season trades.
This summer, however, the greater question for Lakers fans involves what role the purple and gold will assume in the forthcoming NBA landscape — and what steps must occur to set our favorite franchise on its desired course over the next several years.
And like it or not, the answer to the question could largely be determined by whether Lamar Odom and the Lakers front office reach an accord.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
When he penned the phrase “What’s past is prologue” nearly 400 years ago, William Shakespeare wasn’t referencing a sport that wouldn’t be invented for another 280 years. But those famous four words could certainly apply when looking ahead to what’s in store for the NBA.
Let’s start with the past, namely the 1980s. People rightly hearken back to that era as the decade of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dr. J. But really, a more accurate description would be to term that time the Era of the Superpowers.
Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper. Bird played alongside greats like Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and for a brief stint, Bill Walton. Julius Erving ran with Mo Cheeks, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and later, Charles Barkley. Those teams were far from one-man shows.
From 1980 through 1989, only five franchises made it to the NBA Finals. Think about that for a moment – two teams per year, over the course of 10 years, meant up to 20 different franchises could have potentially filled a Finals slot. But only five were good enough to get there.
And those five teams which were fortunate enough to survive until the Finals did so knowing they’d have another monumental challenge to overcome before they could go home with a championship.
In eight of the 10 Finals played in the 1980s, the winning squad had to beat a team whose core players had already won, or would go on to win an NBA title of their own. Four of the five franchises to play in the Finals that decade won it all at least once; only the Houston Rockets (led by Moses Malone in 1981 and Hakeem Olajuwon/Ralph Sampson in 1986) came away empty.
There were no mismatched Finals; no Davids vs. Goliaths. The Superpowers – the Lakers and Celtics, and to a lesser extent the 76ers and Pistons – made the playoffs their own annual battle royale, with no one team able to consistently remain on top.
By comparison, in the 1990s a total of 11 different franchises made a Finals appearance, and just one champion in that decade took its title at the expense of another past or future champ (the ’91 Bulls, which beat the remnants of the Showtime-era Lakers).
From 2000 through 2009, 11 different franchises again made the Finals, and again, only one (the 2004 Pistons) took its championship by defeating the core of a fellow Finals winner.
(Yes, the 2008 Celtics did defeat a Lakers franchise that had won a title earlier in that decade. But no one would rightfully say the 2008 Lakers were similar to L.A.’s 2000-02 title teams. Aside from Kobe and Fisher, those were completely different units.)
No matter how one slices it, the NBA of the 1980s was much more competitive when it mattered most, with great teams filled with lineups of great players – Hall of Famer players – regularly challenging one another come June.
There’s simply no way to compare that era to the 1990s or 2000s, when a handful of great teams (the Bulls, Shaq-Kobe Lakers and Spurs) took on and slapped aside a revolving door of good teams that were never quite good enough to win a title of their own.
Among the many post-80s pretenders to the throne were the Clyde Drexler-era Trailblazers; Patrick Ewing’s Knicks; the KJ/Barkley Suns; the Gary Payton-era Sonics and Malone/Stockton Jazz; the Mourning/Hardaway-era Heat; and later on, Jason Kidd’s Nets; the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks; as well as the Reggie Miller-era Pacers. All good, but never quite Larry O’Brien Trophy good.
BREAKUP OF THE SUPERPOWERS
Several factors eventually came together to take the NBA from a league with a few recurring contenders to one filled with so many would-be heirs to the throne. Among the key driving forces of this change were:
• The salary cap: Implemented for the 1984-85 season, it somewhat leveled the economic playing field between big-market teams and those with lesser revenue bases.
• Television exposure: In the 70s and early 80s, there was the CBS Sunday game of the week and …. not much else. If a player wanted to become a national household name, he’d better have been on a marquee team. You didn’t get the 7Up or Converse ads if you played in Kansas City, Milwaukee or San Antonio. But as TBS and later TNT, ESPN and the myriad regional cable outlets began to blossom, a player didn’t have to play on a marquee team to become a nationwide star (Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, David Robinson, etc.) Which lead in part to the growth of…
• Unrestricted Free Agency: Tom Chambers’ move from Seattle to Phoenix in 1988 helped kicked open the door for big name player movement. Thanks to the cap’s limits on contending teams’ payrolls, second-tier teams often had more money to spend on guys who could be their No. 1 or 2 options, often luring away players who in the past would have added depth to a contender as its third or fourth option. (Sound familiar, Lamar?)
• Expansion: The NBA had only 23 teams until 1988, when a crush of league growth gradually introduced us to the Heat, Hornets, Magic, Wolves, Raptors, Grizzlies and Bobcats. Just imagine how the competitive landscape would have been different if guys such as Larry Johnson, Glen Rice, Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O’Neal would have been divided among the previous 23 franchises, paired with established stars rather than being asked to lead their own groups of castoffs as those new franchises became established.
Thanks in part to those four factors, the NBA changed beginning in the late 1980s.
When Pat Riley stood on the steps of the Great Western Forum in June 1987 and guaranteed that the Lakers would repeat as champions in 1988, people looked at him as if he were insane. And with reason, for as great as those Lakers were, no NBA team had repeated as champion in two decades. The Superpower structure simply would not let a repeat happen easily.
But after the Lakers won it all again in ’88 – and then went 11-0 in the playoffs the following year before injuries to Magic and Byron Scott likely cost the team a third-straight title – back-to-back was no longer abnormal. In fact, starting with Riley’s ’87-’88 Lakers, 14 of 15 NBA Finals winners would claim more than one consecutive championship. And the lone team that failed to win back-to-backs in that run, the ’99 Spurs, still managed to form its own mini dynasty years later.
Free agency, TV, the cap and expansion killed off the age of the Superpowers for the better part of two decades. In its place, we saw an NBA where a great team with three or four good-to-great players became an abnormality — and when such teams came together, few were equipped to challenge them.
Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s Spurs and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were all very good teams – but were their titles achieved at the stake of beating the talented and competitive playing fields such as those overcome by the teams in the 80s? Hardly, as evidenced by the lack of past or future champions among the 90’s and 2000-era teams topped in the Finals.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Which brings us to 2009. Free agency, the cap, expansion teams and TV exposure are all still in play. But due to the current economic crisis, we’ve already seem a pattern that suggests the Era of the Superpower is making its return.
The NBA has already started becoming a league filled with haves and have-nots. This past season and summer have shown that some organizations will take on salary because A) they can afford to and/or B) they’re close enough to take a shot at a title. Others are cutting contracts as quickly as possible, recognizing that they’ve no shot to win so they’re opting to play it conservatively with the money until the economy rebounds.
Don’t underestimate how much this economy has hurt the pocketbooks of many NBA owners. From New Orleans to Charlotte to Sacramento and Oklahoma City, teams just aren’t flush with cash anymore, as evidenced by the line of credit the NBA recently extended to many franchise. Just because a great free agent is available doesn’t mean everyone (or anyone) will be willing to spend to bring them into the fold.
With max contracts more difficult to come by, good players are faced with a choice: do I take a lesser contract to play for a contender, or sign a lesser contract to go with a team that’s got no shot to win. And the answer, at least for everyone not named Trevor Ariza, should seemingly be a no-brainer.
Ron Artest took a pay cut to play for the Lakers. Rasheed Wallace did the same to go to Boston. Orlando got Vince Carter for a song as New Jersey realized its short-term title chances aren’t existent; Phoenix shipped of Shaq to Cleveland, and the Spurs snagged Richard Jefferson from going-nowhere Milwaukee.
Yes, there’s great anxiousness surrounding next summer’s free agents. But ask yourself this – is a Dwayne Wade or LeBron James going to take max money from a team that has no shot at winning? Time will tell, but why would they?
It’s more likely we’ll see lesser players opting to take pay-cuts in order to go where the LeBrons or Kobes or D-Wades are, and when that happens, we’re going to see a full-blown return to the Superpower era – an NBA where a handful of franchises battle it out for the chances to dance in June, while others sit back and watch the Finals on TV.
It’s too soon to predict which teams will play the role of Superpower in the decade to come, but at least for the next three to four years, the Lakers seem to be a lock with Kobe, Gasol and Bynum all locked down. L.A.’s lifestyle will always be a draw for free agents, and the Buss family has historically kept a good team on the court.
Boston has already reloaded its Big Three with a fourth All-Star in Rasheed, and Rajon Rondo give the green guys a fifth star. Likewise, San Antonio’s Big Three has added Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, with help on the horizon from DeJuan Blair and perhaps someday, Tiago Splitter. While age will eventually a role in slowing all three franchises, history suggests they’ll be in the mix in for seasons to come.
I’d also say wherever Wade, LeBron and perhaps Kevin Durant call home would have to be included among the potential powerhouses, particularly if any land in the New York area, or if Wade stays in Miami, which has good ownership and a lot of drawing power. Orlando’s also got a lot going for it with Dwight Howard & Co.
Maybe, just maybe, one or two others may creep into the list, but there’s little to suggest that NBA will again see a revolving door of Finals contenders year after year as was the case in the past 20 years. Instead, get to know a few squads well, because we’ll be seeing a lot of them, particularly as stars migrate toward other stars. The key players will follow suit, and moves like Artest taking less to join L.A. will replace the past norm, such as when Posey left a title in Boston for more cash (and more losses) in New Orleans.
With so much uncertainty on the horizon, I look at the prospect of L.A. adding Odom as they type of move that would put the Lakers as the favorite in the west for the next two, three or perhaps four years. Maybe, just maybe, they’d be good enough to be the Superpower of Superpowers. For that reason, I hope that Odom and Buss can come together and find a way to move forward that benefits the Lakers.
But with or without Lamar, the Lakers will clearly be among the class of the league until No. 24 is no longer effective. Whether or not Kobe will have enough horses alongside him to overcome a field of loaded playoff contenders remains to be seen.
Regardless, the days in which the Utahs, Sacramentos or Indianas of the world could effectively match up with the greats are coming to an end, barring one of those second-tier squads drafting an all-world rookie (of the Magic, Jordan or LeBron-caliber) who’d project them into the elite.
With luxury taxes, reduced ticket and luxury box sales, less ad revenue and other elements of the economic pinch coming to a head, the have nots simply won’t be close enough to the haves to justify spending top dollar. And without the will to spend to contend, the rich are only going to get richer.
Welcome to the new NBA. Same as the old one.