NBA needs to become more like NFL

2/16/2011 - NBA

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers play tonight. This would otherwise be an insignificant fact if it weren't for the timing of the game.

The teams just happen to be playing one day after the Lakers announced a 20-year television deal with Time Warner Cable that insiders say could make the team billions.

Meanwhile, the Cavs, who recently ended a 26-game losing streak, have seen their franchise's value steadily plummet since LeBron James left over the summer.

The contrasting fortunes of these teams should be of significant concern to NBA fans because it perfectly encapsulates why the league is in trouble.

Big-market teams like the Lakers never have to worry about their franchise's value bottoming out overnight. But as long as the NBA continues to do business as is, small-market teams like the Cavaliers will never have a real chance at sustaining success the way the Lakers have.

NBA officials are expected to meet with the players' association during All-Star weekend to discuss the collective bargaining agreement.

The league folks have engaged in some of the same back-and-forth posturing about labor issues as have their NFL counterparts, but unlike the NFL, the NBA isn't operating from the position of being the most addictive product in sports.

I won't bore you with all the details of the NBA's labor dispute, but if the NBA doesn't adopt the NFL way of thinking, it's destined to wallow in competitive imbalance and thus risk losing fans.

As a longtime NBA fan, it pains me to admit that there are only about 10 teams in the league worth watching, and even fewer have a reasonable shot at winning the title.

We can argue about the pecking order but ultimately most of us would agree that the Lakers, San Antonio, Miami, Boston, Dallas, Orlando and maybe Oklahoma City and Chicago are legitimately in the championship conversation.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect all 30 teams to have an equal opportunity to win a championship every season, but it's problematic when half of the league -- Memphis, Charlotte and Golden State immediately come to mind -- that could only become contenders by a fluke.

The Cavs' futility is hardly special in today's NBA. The Grizzlies have been respectable this year, but from 2006 to 2009, Memphis lost 178 games. This season alone, there are five other teams besides Cleveland on pace to lose more than two-thirds of their games.

No sports league is without bad teams, but unless NBA officials seriously consider implementing a franchise tag, hard salary cap and increased revenue sharing, we will see even more bad basketball, and losing teams won't have a prayer of changing their destiny.

NBA players won't like it, but putting a franchise tag into action is an idea with enormous merit.
This isn't to suggest that Chris Bosh or James did something wrong by going to Miami, but a franchise tag would have prevented their former teams, Toronto and Cleveland, from becoming irrelevant so quickly.

The NFL franchise tag allows a team to retain a free agent for an additional year without reaching a deal on a contract. And in that extra year, the player will make the average of the top five players at that position or 120 percent of his most recent salary, whichever is more.

I won't sugarcoat it. The franchise tag restricts players and limits their ability to immediately gain long-term security. But the upside is that it gives small-market teams a better shot at holding on to superstar players.

The Indianapolis Colts applied the franchise tag to Peyton Manning. Even though Manning is just finishing up a seven-year, $98 million deal, we all know that if he were available on the open market, just about every NFL owner without an elite quarterback would be lining up to bid. And his services wouldn't be cheap; Tom Brady set the market when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract in September.

But it's at least in part because of the franchise tag that someone of Manning's caliber remains in Indianapolis, a small market. In general, the NFL deserves high marks for creating a system where every team has an honest opportunity to compete for Super Bowl, regardless of market size. In the NFL the Steelers and Green Bay become dynasties. A team with as much tradition as the Dallas Cowboys can finish tied for last in its division and a franchise as woeful as the Detroit Lions has reason for optimism next season.

"If [the NBA doesn't] get some mechanism to narrow the gap between big markets and small markets, you'll wind up with the haves and have-nots," said Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane's sports law program. "It will destroy the product. It's a great product if it's Heat versus the Celtics, but not a great matchup if it's Heat versus the Cavs."

At some point, big-market teams like the Lakers, Celtics and even the Knicks will have to accept a system of sports socialism that's similar to the NFL's if they want the game to continue to grow.

Contraction isn't the answer. In a podcast with ESPN's Bill Simmons on Tuesday NBA commissioner David Stern said there were NBA owners who weren't opposed to contracting the league-run New Orleans Hornets -- and they're currently playoff contenders with a young, marketable star.

But how can the NBA sell itself as a global sport if it can't even sustain the teams in its home country?

The ultimate irony is that the easiest way for the NBA and NFL to solve their labor issues is to imitate one another -- at least in their present form. Considering the serious injury risks, NFL players deserve the kind of guaranteed money NBA players have earned for years. And if the NBA wants a better product, it'll take cues from the NFL and share more wealth with small-market teams.

When asked about the NBA's labor situation recently, Anthony Tolliver, the player representative for the Minnesota Timberwolves, told reporters, "If we could keep everything the same, we would sign that right now."

Only keeping everything the same will destroy everything.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.