Blazersedge Mailbag: Small Markets and Big

Dave,

Perhaps you could address how a small market team might generate a competitive team (vie for a championship) @ 85% of the salary cap?

Unless I'm misunderstanding the question I'm not sure how being a small-market team limits you to using only 85% of the salary cap. Every team from New York to Utah has available the entire cap plus the means to go beyond it. It's just a matter of what cost you are willing to endure. Theoretically a small market team could compete with the Lakers in spending and try to win that way. They'd have to dig really deep, and go really broke, to do it but the option is there.

The issues with being a small market team are two:

1. With lesser financial resources compared to big market teams--due in large part to TV contracts--small market team have less capacity to absorb mistakes and thus less ability to take risks and stay solvent. A blown big contract will hurt the Lakers but it'll kill the Blazers.

2. Less name recognition and fewer potential endorsement dollars put smaller markets at a disadvantage compared to marquee teams which are usually in bigger markets. Free agents and players with enough power to control their own destinies are likelier to be attracted to well-known franchises and their pedigrees. This is a self-perpetuating situation. Getting better players over time both bolsters the big franchise's name value/attractiveness and gives that franchise more resources to complete deals to bring even more big names.

Smaller and lesser-known teams usually combat these disadvantages in two ways: draft well and spend smartly. If you can't rely on a steady flow of free agents you have to grow your own talent and then win enough to keep them engaged and motivated. Blowing draft picks hamstrings that process on both ends: talent pool and team development. The draft is the one place where the big teams have no inherent advantage so smaller market teams have got to win that battle consistently to overcome other inequities. Then they must retain enough financial flexibility--remembering their comparatively limited resources--to both retain the players they grow and make a shrewd play for any missing pieces as the team reaches maturity.

It goes without saying that growing a team this way is a significant time investment. Small-market cycles are measured in 4-6 year periods. The Lakers have the luxury of trying to refresh every time big free agents come available.

It should also go without saying that the potential for small-market teams to overcome the inequities of the system with skill, brains, and luck doesn't excuse or absolve those inequities. You might occasionally be able to beat me in a fistfight even if I cut off one of your legs first. That doesn't mean the fight or the practice was fair.

Hey, you gonna whine about the Clippers getting Chris Paul now just like you whined when the Lakers deal collapsed? You said it wasn't a fair deal and then contradicted yourself and said it wasn't fair to the Hornets for it to not go through. Are you whiny Blazer fans happy now? Let's hear some more [complaining] and conspirasy theories.

I corrected most of your spelling mistakes but I left that last one in, you know, in case you're British.

Also...Merry Christmas to you too! Hope the season is finding you well even if CP3 isn't under your Christmas tree.

Now let's clarify for those keeping score. The Lakers-Hornets deal was a problem in a couple of distinct ways. First having the league owning the Hornets and making decisions which directly affected the franchises involved (and peripherally affected all the rest) while at the same time regulating those franchises and potentially profiting or suffering from league-wide talent distribution was a problem. A corollary to that issue was nobody knowing the exact criteria for an acceptable trade, the definition being basically, "Whatever David Stern thinks it is." Who can determine his motivations? Second, having the Lakers as Paul's destination made these issues worse and ripped the wounds off of those competitive balance scars.

Combine these two and you have a no-win situation for the NBA. If Stern approves the deal you have a potential conflict of interest and the Lakers once again get a dominant player (and a financial windfall to boot) at a cheap price. If Stern rejects the deal you have a detached and basically unprecedented exercise of power and New Orleans potentially gets screwed out of compensation for a player they were going to lose anyway.

The crux of the problem was not that New Orleans got an offer for Paul. That's desirable! The Hornets should have been allowed to field offers and the one their GM felt was best should have been accepted. Stopping the deal was not the right thing in absolute terms. In fact it was the opposite of right.

No, the crux of the problem was that once again it was the Lakers on the other end of that deal. That once again Los Angeles had the players to send in return, the clout, the financial wherewithal (not an issue in this case as it turns out), and all the advantages necessary to be the ones who nabbed the prime free agent when all the other teams were left out in the cold. The Lakers did not have those advantages because their GM's have been better than all other GM's over the years. Shaq didn't leave Orlando for L.A. because of a front office guy. Kobe didn't refuse to play for the Hornets because of an exec. The Lakers have those advantages because they're the Lakers and they've been built up over the years to a point that no other team can compete either in resources or cachet. That was once seen as a huge advantage to the league. Now we're seeing the other shoe drop. Letting this continue unabated without batting an eyelash isn't right either. But a true fix would mean undoing much of the modern era of the NBA...obviously impossible. The only way to even begin to address the issue was that move from the Commissioner, which in itself was wrong just in a different way.

That's the problem with this situation. There was no right answer. That usually means you shouldn't have gotten into it in the first place! Add onto that the fact that the choice was between screwing New Orleans by stopping the deal or screwing the rest of the little teams in the league by letting it go through and you see the cause for complaint. The Lakers might or might not have gotten worked over but truly it's hard to feel too sorry for them. The little guys were going to suffer no matter what decision the Commissioner made.

As it turns out, all's well that ends well. Stern chose to thwart New Orleans' plans in the moment but they got what most people consider a better offer a week later. This didn't make the original decision right but at least it removed the consequences for the little guy. Nor did the trade continue the "Lakers are the only team" parade. Ameliorating those two consequences also robbed the teeth of any conflict of interest violations. Even if motive was there, effect was not...or at least not as seriously.

In short...no whining here. It seems like a good deal for all involved, including all the rest of us. New Orleans got their men, Paul went to an acceptable spot for a team that actually had to give up something to get him, the Lakers' excess resources don't bring them even further advantage, no small markets got worked over. The process wasn't good but as for the results...what's to complain about?

It seems like the Blazers are making sure they don't take on too much long-salary, leaving them a bunch of cap space starting next summer. That's a great idea, it puts them in a position to shape their own future nearly from scratch. But I have no idea what they plan to do with it.

In the past 10 years, only two championships have been won by teams with less than two max-level players (Detroit and Dallas). So if we want to win a title, how do translate that salary space into max-level players? Are they going to contact Deron and Dwight next Summer, put on a hard sell, and try to convince them to make a Big Three with LaMarcus? I'm perplexed. Do you see a path to a title in Portland, when we have one All-NBA big man and a bunch of cap space?

Max-salary-capable or not, it's going to be hard to convince big-name free agents to come to Portland. On the other hand it's also going to be hard to build through the draft without losing enough to get into the lottery. Moving some of their existing players for some new hope would seem to be the most likely avenue for improvement.

To answer your question, Portland is keeping their salary options open for now not so much because there's a clear grand plan, but because to do otherwise would lock them into a team that they know can't win it all. It's not in itself a step forward, more of a way to keep from stagnating or going backwards.

As for seeing that way forward from here, well...hmmm. I suppose we should say there are always options and possibilities. You never say never, especially with a team that still fields young players with talent. But let's look at the overall scope of things. The Blazers big shot at glory in this generation revolved around Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge. All three were high picks, Oden coming in once-in-a-few-decades fashion. Those opportunities aren't repeatable. Having two of those three irreplaceable possibilities snuffed out is going to hamstring this team no matter what. It would hamstring anybody. Outside of a miracle you just don't recover from this kind of thing to reach a championship level. In football there are no carefully crafted plays for fourth-and-50 with the game on the line. You just hike the ball, send everybody down the field, throw the hail mary, and hope for the best. Who knows? Sometimes it connects. But the Blazers right now need that to happen, then an onside kick recovery, then for it to happen again.

A more proper analogy might be an Olympian falling on his first step out of the starting blocks in a 200-meter race. He can get back up and finish it but he has virtually no shot at winning the gold anymore. He just has to cross the finish line and wait for the next race. If you're talking purely about championship expectations, that's about where the Blazers are now.

You can send questions to the address right below if you wish.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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