Before we go into why so many superstars want to play together on big market teams, and what’s changed in the last 25-odd years since the advent of free agency and the soft salary cap, let’s identify that there is indeed a problem.
Because I was reading an otherwise decent article by Bill Simmons when I came across this delightful piece of revisionist thought;
“EVERYONE WHO CLAIMS THE NBA IS BEING RUINED BECAUSE SUPERSTARS WANT TO CONTROL WHERE THEY PLAY: D-minus
As Kenny Smith said last night, “If [a small-market team] builds the right pieces around the right guy, he will stay.” Period. Duncan stayed in San Antonio because it built the right team around him. Stockton and Malone stayed in Utah because they had each other. Durant will stay in Oklahoma City because of Westbrook and everyone else. LeBron left Cleveland mainly because it made bad trades and signed the wrong guys. And Utah never would have thought it might lose Deron Williams if it hadn’t screwed up the roster around him. Besides, why is it such a bad thing to have six or seven loaded teams and six or seven terrible ones? Oh crap, I hate seeing the Finals with all these elite players! Give me a break.”
The two main problems with this paragraph are both the individual player examples he uses as well as the overarching message. Let’s start with the players.
Using Duncan as an example is horrible; does Simmons really think he is wired anything like Anthony, LeBron, or even Kobe? Unlike those last three, Duncan was not a nationally recognized megastar ever since he was a teenager, and thus, never developed the natural entitlement complex and craving for the limelight of that trio. Duncan cares very little about the spotlight, and only about being around guys he is comfortable with.
Furthermore, he loves San Antonio, something that couldn’t be said about Melo in Denver or LeBron in Cleveland.
However, using Stockton and Malone as an example is even worse, and shows a complete lack of understanding of either guy’s personality.
Stockton was painfully introverted; he despised the spotlight. He hated it so much, that when the Miami Heat offered him a crazy record contract for 8 figures a year in the 90s, playing with Mourning and Pat Riley (legitimate title contenders at the time), he turned them down without a second thought.
Why? Way too much attention in that market. As such, the Jazz were actually the perfect franchise for him, because he could play elite basketball with the minimum of national attention.
Hell, we’re talking about a guy so reticent, that after his playing days were over, he immediately moved back to his small plot of land in Spokane, Washington. Zero interest in ever becoming a television analyst, coach, or GM.
Comparing his situation to that of someone like Melo is so bizarre it genuinely makes me laugh.
But Malone is also a poor example. For those who don’t follow the Jazz, “Malone might leave Utah for a bigger franchise” and “Malone not happy with contract talks” was a constant storyline throughout his 20 years there.
Hell, a 68 year-old Sloan probably wouldn’t have had the energy to manage Karl back then anymore than he could deal with Deron Williams.
In the end, it wasn’t just the quality of the team around him (which frequently got bounced in the first or second round of the play-offs) that convinced him to stay, but Malone’s personal friendship with Jerry Sloan and deceased former owner Larry Miller (an almost father and son relationship).
Not only that, but Malone also appreciated Salt Lake City the place more than most NBA superstars would; we’re talking about a self-described “black redneck” who loved the great outdoors, mountain climbing, etc.
As for current guys, moving into why the overarching message is wrong, I can buy the “team built around him sucked” excuse for LeBron, but certainly not for either Melo or Deron.
Both guys played on perennial 50-55 win ballclubs, both made the Conference Finals, and had fellow All-Stars or elite players on their rosters. (Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson, Carlos Boozer, Al Jefferson, Kirilenko for a short while, Kenyon Martin for a short while, Nene, Paul Millsap)
The city and franchise did everything they could for them, made consistently good moves, and put up with their mercurial attitudes.
Outside of winning the freaking jackpot by sheer dumb luck and landing another amazing piece that would make them serious championship contenders, what does Bill Simmons think those small-market teams could do? Nothing.
And yes, things have changed.
In the mid 80s, Ewing made history by signing for $2 million a year, the entire roster of the Pacers cost $6 million, and Larry H Miller bought the Utah Jazz for $14 million, which people thought was way too much. (Nowadays, the franchise is valued at $350 million)
This was before the game became a global sport, and the amount a superstar could make in a big market, and enjoy his celebrity and fame tripled.
Yes Bill, certain elite players forced their way out of smaller markets then too, but they were the exception, and were permanently vilified for it. Think of all the superstars on smaller franchises who didn’t force any exits, or leave in free agency; Moncrief, Gervin, David Thompson, Oscar Robertson, Moses Malone, etc. (I know Simmons considers the last two guys who forced their way out, but that is just patently wrong, and even he seems to admit this in his book)
And keep in mind, these were not necessarily guys for whom loyalty meant a big deal; many were selfish egotists too, and at least two guys I named above were known coke fiends.
Now that we recognize that there is in fact a problem, and a growing shift, the question becomes why? What chain of events have made big markets so much more attractive? We will tackle this question in Part 2…
Subscribe to all the Shoot Hoops news and articles straight to your RSS reader.
Sign up and get all the Shoot Hoops news straight to your inbox.
Follow us on Twitter and get in-stream messages