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Eight simple rules to save the NBA
Last week, I predicted a housing-bubble-type collapse for the NBA if the league doesn’t enact dramatic changes to the basic rules governing player compensation and the structuring of rosters.
My opinion is part of a larger perspective I’ve written about previously: The four major professional sports leagues — NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB — would benefit from a player-compensation system that tied a significant portion of player salary to wins and losses.
The NBA, because the league is dogged by the perception its players do not compete hard in the regular season, would benefit the most from this radical change.
Also, because the NBA is composed primarily of African-American players, many of whom have embraced the style, demeanor and flamboyant lifestyle of hip-hop artists, the league is most vulnerable to an unforeseen, rapid decline in popularity among its primarily middle-aged, white paying-customer base.
In this new era of enormous contracts, limitless access and analysis of athletes’ personal lives and the methods (performance-enhancing drugs) they use to soar to new heights, there is a love-hate tension between fans and professional athletes.
The love-hate tension is at its highest in the NBA. Other than loving hoops, the paying customers believe they have almost nothing in common with the tattooed millionaires who entertain them. Many fans believe they care more about winning and the team than the players do.
This perception — fair or not — can’t go on forever. There’s going to be a breaking point.
Last week, the Detroit Pistons pretty much quit on their coach, John Kuester. Rip Hamilton and Tracy McGrady allegedly arranged a protest that led to close to half of the roster skipping or being late to a shootaround practice. During the subsequent game, several Pistons were shown laughing when Kuester was ejected.
The whole ordeal was a black eye for a once-proud franchise. And it underscored an obvious point: Pro athletes are spoiled.
Brett Favre hated training camp, so he skipped it. Roger Clemens didn’t have to travel on selected road trips. Allen Iverson hated to practice. After having his every whim, including roster moves, catered to, LeBron James decided he’d rather be in South Beach than Cleveland. Carmelo Anthony’s wife wanted to live in New York.
The attitude at the top of the athlete food chain eventually filters down to the rank-and-file millionaires. It’s human nature. The players are not bad people. They’re reacting the way you or I would if we were coddled throughout our teens, undereducated and showered with millions of dollars and a thousand sycophants by age 21.
Rip Hamilton can’t force a trade or take his talents to South Beach. He doesn’t have that kind of juice. He does have enough to undermine a guy he believes is a bad coach.
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The Pistons story won’t be the last. Spoiled, wealthy famous people are going to act like spoiled, wealthy famous people. Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch begat Charlie Sheen sitting across from Piers Morgan on CNN.
Television and its power to economically and emotionally pervert have transformed American sports and America.
The rules governing the games must be changed to restore the integrity of the leagues.
There are idiots who believe there should be equality between the owners and the players. These idiots love to say: “Why is everyone upset because LeBron and other black men are taking control of their destiny and playing where they want to play? It’s OK when the owners trade or cut a player.”
These idiots do not grasp the big picture. These idiots likely have never owned anything in their lives.
Owners and employees are not equals in America’s capitalistic system. They can be partners. We should demand fairness between employer and employees.
But it is foolish and bad business for David Stern to allow a system that gives the players as much leverage as ownership and management.
It is appropriate for players to look out for their own best interests. It is appropriate for ownership to look out for the best interests for the teams and the league as a whole.
The overall health of the league is what allows LeBron James to make $15 million from the Heat and untold millions from Nike. He’s young. He can’t see it. Like most 26-year-olds, LeBron just wants to do what’s best for LeBron.
And I’m not arguing his move to Miami was bad for the league. In the short term, his Decision has been good for the league.
It’s what he set in motion that is the problem. "The Decision" was Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. Carmelo, Deron Williams, the Pistons and God knows what’s next is Charlie Sheen.
The players are tweaking the razor-thin, love-hate line between themselves and their paying customers.
If the customers believe the players have too much power and they’re using that power to sabotage the home team or the coach, the thin line between love and hate is going to be crossed with damaging impact.
For mainstream America, its passion for sports is fueled by the games’ connection to traditional values such as discipline, order, patriotism, sacrifice, unity, team and gambling. Mainstream America won’t pay $2,000 to sit courtside and watch Hot Sauce and the And1 Tour. Won’t happen.
The players don’t want to play for And1 Tour money. But that’s what the league would look like if the players were in control.
Ownership must think big picture and institute dramatic rules changes. The time is right. Sports fans are frustrated with the NBA, its impact on college basketball and NCAA hypocrisy. American basketball is broken. With the NBA collective bargaining agreement set to expire, why not pursue radical change?
What I’m going to suggest will sound crazy. Staying the current course is crazier.
1. Come up with a pay system that is 60 percent controlled by the individual teams and 40 percent controlled by the league. Teams would control a player’s base salary. The league would dispense money based on team and individual performance.
2. Reach an agreement with the NCAA that allows the top 100 college players/prospects to play in the NBA summer league. Pay the players as interns. Freshman get $25,000, sophomores $50,000, juniors $75,000 and seniors $100,000. Structure the summer league as a playing and educational experience. Teach the players about the history of the league and their responsibility to take care of the league and represent it in a way that grows the value of the league.
3. Register and monitor high school prospects, give them a standardized academic test upon graduation that — depending on the score — would qualify them for a financial boost should they later earn a spot on an NBA roster. This would provide an incentive for kids (and their parents) to compete academically.
4. Devise a first-four-years pay scale that pays a player extra money based on how many years of college he completed. A boy enters the league at 18, fresh out of high school, he earns less than a 22-year-old man with a college degree or even a 21-year-old who developed in college for two or three years. A kid can enter the NBA straight out of high school, but there are financial consequences for the decision.
5. Develop a compensation system that slots players 1 to 20 on the roster. Stick with me. I know the roster limit is 15. The team-controlled portion of player salaries will be fixed on a 1-to-20 basis. The No. 1 player on a roster (Kobe Bryant, for instance) would receive a base salary of, let’s say, $10 million. A player slotted at No. 2 would earn $8 million. No. 3 $6 million. If you’re the Sacramento Kings, you might not have a player worthy of a No. 1 contract. The Kings' top player might be slotted at No. 4 and be assigned a base salary of $5 million. Maybe the Miami Heat don’t have players worthy of being 5, 6 or 7. The Heat might slot Mario Chalmers and Juwan Howard at 17 and 18, which would qualify them for base contracts between $400,000 and $750,000. Also, maybe Dwyane Wade and LeBron James won’t want to play alongside each other if one of them is going to have to settle for being a No. 2.
6. This might take a team of MIT graduates, but figure out how to cut up the league-controlled portion of player salaries based mostly on regular-season wins and then on playoff success. If Kobe leads the Lakers to 65 victories and the title, he should earn approximately an additional $6.5 million in bonuses. Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ No. 2, would earn an additional $5.5 million. I’m not smart enough to tell you how much Kobe should earn per regular-season victory or playoff series win, but there are people who can do the math. The league-controlled victory bonus would be slotted, too.
7. I’d come up with a no-tattoo bonus. Yeah, I know that ticks some of you off. Basketball is the ultimate television sport. Tattoos are not TV friendly. I’d give young players an incentive to not graffiti their bodies before entering the NBA.
8. I’d contract two to four teams. I’d make the remaining teams play four games per season in a satellite home city. The Lakers would partner with Las Vegas. The Clippers would partner with San Diego. The Pacers could play in Cincinnati, the Cavaliers in Columbus.
Implement these suggestions over a five-year period and the NBA is fixed and challenging the NFL for supremacy by 2017.
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