Decisions, MeloDramas and the C-word: the NBA and its WWE problem

The National Basketball Association has a World Wrestling Entertainment problem.

Actually, it has several problems, none of which look like they’re going to be easily solved. (And I’m not even talking about the officiating, although I have in the past and no doubt will again in the future). The collective bargaining agreement is up after this season, at which point The League is going to have to address declining revenues, player salaries, salary cap structures, the fact that the inmates are running the asylum and what to do about the fact that star players have no interest whatsoever in playing in the Outback (you know, Cleveland, Memphis, New Orleans, Toronto, Sacto, Charlotte, etc.) when their superstar friends are living most large in NYC, Boston, South Beach, Chicago and the part of LA associated with the Lakers.

This is going to be painful under the best of circumstances, especially if Commissioner David Stern decides to walk his talk about the importance of everybody in the league being competitive and how they have to find ways of helping teams – all teams – keep their star players. This has always been the party line, but in the aftermath of last summer’s LeBron/D-Wade/Bosh circus, this year’s Melodrama and the forthcoming sequel starring Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, you can fairly feel the tension as the union and the owners swagger toward the OK Corral.

Something has to give, and the fallout from the looming negotiation process may well change the structure of pro basketball for a generation.

Every once in awhile, as the punditry discusses the NBA and the collective bargaining process, someone will drop the C-word: contraction. For reasons having to do with everything from economics to competitive balance to the aforementioned Outback issue, there are great arguments to be made for getting rid of a team or two. Or three. Or six. And this brings me back around to our reason for being here, namely the NBA’s WWE problem. Here’s what I mean by that.

In professional wrestling (which I used to follow fairly closely because I’m a popular culture scholar and also because I grew up a simple hillbilly child) you have three kinds of wrestlers:

  • Jobbers
  • Mid-Carders
  • Main-Eventers

Jobbers are the bottom of the food chain. Their responsibility is to go out there and lose. It’s okay if they manage to put on a bit of a show, but in the end their shoulders are going to be on the mat or they’re going to be tapping out.

The mid-card guys get to be involved in real storylines with each other and sometimes they work against the main-eventers, especially on TV. They often have a good bit of heat (popularity or crowd animosity, depending on whether they’re “faces” or “heels”) and they frequently wind up in TV main events against the superstars. It will usually look like they have a chance at the upset, but in the end it’s always close, but no cigar.

The main-eventers are the superstars, the guys who headline the PPVs and who are the promotion’s marquee attractions. These are the people the audience pays to see (via cable, pay-per-view or live shows). Main-eventers pay the freight.

As it turns out, you can divvy NBA franchises up into Jobbers, Mid-Carders and Main-Eventers, too. Like so:

  • Jobbers
    • Milwaukee
    • Minnesota
    • Charlotte
    • New Orleans
    • Cleveland
    • Golden State
    • Indiana
    • Sacramento
    • LA Clippers
    • Toronto
    • Memphis
    • Washington
    • Utah
  • Mid-Carders
    • Atlanta
    • New Jersey
    • Denver
    • Orlando
    • Detroit
    • Philadelphia
    • Phoenix
    • Houston
    • Portland
  • Main-Eventers
    • Boston
    • Chicago
    • New York
    • Dallas
    • Oklahoma City
    • San Antonio
    • LA Lakers
    • Miami

Granted, these categories are not cast in stone forever. As with pro wrestling, there can be upward mobility and performers can drop down the ladder, as well, according to all kinds of factors. Take the Knicks. They’re regarded as a main-eventer, no matter what, because they’re in New York. Madison Square Garden is regarded by some as the center of the hoop universe, and if you ever needed an example of how this works the courtship of Carmelo Anthony should have been all you’d need. If the Knicks win, it’s all ESPN can talk about. If they lose, why they’re losing is the big story. If they have the day off, it’s an opportunity for the analysts to reflect on where the team is going. Never mind that they haven’t won anything since the Nixon administration (and there’s no rational reason to expect this to change during the lifetimes of James Dolan and Isiah Thomas). New York is a big deal no matter what.

Dallas and San Antonio are main-eventers right now because they have superstars who decided to stay (Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan), making it possible for free-spending (Dallas) and extremely intelligent (San Antonio) ownership and management to attract and retain the kind of talent that you need to compete for titles. When these superstars retire, though, we’ll probably see both slip back into the mid-card.

One great player can push a team up into the mid-card. Look at New Orleans. With Chris Paul, one of the three or four best point guards in the league, they’re a team you want to watch. Without him they’re Tulane.

You also have fringe cases. Utah is genetically as jobber as a market gets, but they landed a great coach (Jerry Sloan, now departed) and a couple of outstanding players in John Stockton and Karl Malone who were culturally fine with living in the 14th Century, so the Jazz climbed almost to the mountaintop before succumbing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. (In one of the most exciting finishes in NBA history, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan climbed up on the ring apron and clocked The Mailman in the head with a steel chair while the refs were conveniently distracted. Or something like that. This was the absolute definition of what happens at the end of a match between a main-eventer and a mid-carder.)

Now, though, Utah’s next-generation superstar, Deron Williams, has returned Utah to Jobberland for good. First he forced out the coach and then got himself moved to a high mid-card operation with main-event aspirations in New Jersey. And ain’t nobody going to Utah if they have a choice. It’s the Cleveland of the West. Sometimes the NBA’s storylines even sound like they were scripted by WWE writers, don’t they?

We’re also seeing some potential star power in the mid-card right now, mainly in Oklahoma City. Let’s be honest – OKC is a jobber city if ever one were built. But they have Kevin Durant, and if he stays in town permanently they might turn out to be what a lot of people thought Cleveland was going to be before The Decision. Operative word in that last sentence: “if.”

The upshot of this three-tier dynamic is that today’s NBA franchises play a set of defined roles, and the current star-driven structure, which allows players to collude in deciding where they’ll play, assures that Stern’s talk of everybody having a shot is as full of hot air as Vince “Mister” McMahon cutting a heel promo on The Rock. I bet that two or three times a week David Stern wakes up screaming. It’s the same recurring nightmare, where Boston and the Lakers miss the playoffs and Milwaukee and Charlotte somehow make it to the Finals. He can stand in front of the microphones and pay whatever lip service he likes, but do you believe it for a second? His job is to maximize the sport’s popularity and revenues, and few things serve that mission better than a Boston/LA championship series. That goes to seven games.

But the system lives in no-man’s land. On the one hand, the draft allows the jobbers to pick the best incoming college talent. The salary cap rules allow these teams to provide financial incentives for these players to stay. But the system doesn’t lock the players in, nor does it apparently provide sufficient incentive for players to stay. Exhibit A: LeBron James. Exhibit B: Chris Bosh. Exhibit C: Carmelo Anthony. And so on.

If one were cynical, one might suspect that this is how The League wants it. There are just enough pro-parity mechanisms in place that they can claim they’re supporting the championship ambitions of the Outback Jobbers, but the reality of the system predictably funnels the superstars to the sexy TV markets.

What can the league do? What should the league do? Well, they can leave it like it is and trust that hoop fans in Minneapolis prefer being jobbers to having no team at all. That is, they’re fine with the charade represented by the National Basketball Entertainment Association. Or they can get serious about parity, moving toward a hard salary cap and free agency structure that’s more like the NHL or NFL. This would make it more likely that you’d get a serious contender in the Twin Cities for the first time since George Mikan left town.

Or they can think about the C-word. Contract the Hornets, Grizzlies, Raptors, Bucks, Clippers and Kings, distribute those teams’ talent to the survivors and let the league be what a lot of people seem to want it to be.

I don’t know. Frankly, contraction seems unlikely (with the possible exception of New Orleans, which the league already owns) for a lot of reasons. The union is going to have no interest in creating 75 fewer jobs and the NBA is hell-bent on more, not less. My best guess – the present system allows a lot of cats to get fat and we shouldn’t expect a lot of sweeping change. We should expect the owners to do all they can to reclaim control over player movement.

So if you’re the best player in the draft and you get picked by Toronto, you might as well study up on curling and cultivate a taste for poutine.

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