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The NBA needs to consider its small-market teams

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 9:22 PM

No rules mandate Denver must have a strong NBA franchise or that professional basketball players should be as eager to work in Salt Lake City as Los Angeles or Miami.

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There's also nothing that guarantees the league's success if medium- and small-market teams continue to lose some of the game's biggest stars - and that's where things seem headed.

The NBA must fix its labor system. It's time to pop the hood, examine the problems carefully and determine what major parts need replacing. The viability of the league is all that's at stake.

I'm not talking about turning back the clock to a time when owners held all the power over player movement. Arguing for modifying free agency doesn't mean advocating for the end of a system that gives players a say in where they live and who they work for. What's needed is a new approach that gives fans in every NBA city at least a little hope, even when their team isn't based in a popular tour stop.

Fan anger toward LeBron James for bolting Cleveland was misguided. The frustration about Carmelo Anthony's escape to New York was misdirected. Both worked the system under the rules and the rules are the issue.

Don't hate the player. Hate the game.

James and Chris Bosh were able to join their buddy, Dwyane Wade, down on South Beach because the current setup allows for multiple stars on one roster. The Knicks are suddenly relevant again because Anthony was determined to team with Amare Stoudemire on the biggest stage, and there was no mechanism in place for Denver to keep its franchise player for a little while longer.

Commissioner David Stern and the NBA team owners who employ him should be concerned about the league's image problem because of the recent high-profile roster changes. With the NBA's collective bargaining agreement expiring in June, Stern figures to seize an opportunity to remake the model.

The soft salary cap that includes the use of exemptions and enables clubs to pay a luxury tax if they're over the payroll threshold? Count on a hard cap in the new CBA that would make it much more difficult to have multiple star free agents on one roster.

The ability for players to spur trades in advance of free agency by declining to sign extensions? Look for some form of a franchise player label that would bind players to their current teams for a year after their contracts ended.

A hard salary cap has worked well for the NFL, though it's hard to tell now, with owners claiming such financial hardship they may shut down the world's most-profitable league. Still, in the NFL tiny Green Bay has as much of a chance to host a Super Bowl parade as New York.

That's the same potential that should exist for NBA teams in Sacramento or Cleveland.

Some would suggest things are working just fine. Television ratings are soaring along with interest in the formidable Bulls, Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs. There are too few haves, however, and that threatens to undermine the whole.

The players association needs to join the NBA in a true partnership the way it did in 1983 in reaching the agreement that resulted in the modern salary cap. The union needs to work with owners in the same manner that led to drug testing and cleaned up the league's image. Everyone involved in the game has reached another fork in the road that requires cooperation.

What happened in Miami last summer was a perfect storm that likely would not occur again, regardless of the labor contract. The current system, however, did help bring it all together. In building a super team overnight, the Heat provided another obstacle for Eastern Conference teams such as the Wizards hoping to reach the top.

Rookie point guard John Wall has the look of an all-star in training. Scorer Nick Young is making a case for being part of Washington's future, 7-footer JaVale McGee displayed his impressive athleticism at the NBA slam dunk contest, and Andray Blatche . . . well, the Wizards seem to have some pieces in Wall, Young and McGee.

But good luck overtaking the Heat or Knicks anytime soon.

In the NBA, teams with one star are usually competitive. Those with two are among the league's playoff teams. Three-star clubs contend for championships.

Stars also attract role players who sometimes play key roles in championship runs. Point guard Mike Bibby gave up his entire salary of $6.2 million next season for the chance to play with James, Wade and Bosh - and no longer play for the rebuilding Wizards.

So the strong get stronger, and the majority of the league plays meaningless games for the remainder of the season.

The NBA's best teams have historically been in major markets. The Celtics and Lakers have the most championships, and stars will always seek the biggest markets to maximize their off-court earning potential.

That's understood. There just need to be some safeguards in place to ensure all the smaller-market teams don't disappear.


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