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Understanding the League Office

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As I've been reading through the analyses of the whole You-Know-What thing about You-Know-Who there's been a theme recurring among the posts.  It looks like some version of this:

The league is going to have to address this because clearly it creates an absurd situation that sets a bad precedent and is not only philosophically untenable, it screws Portland.  That can't be allowed.

I empathize greatly with this view.  As Portland fan I probably even agree with it.  Heartily.  But neither you nor I work for the league office.  And the people who do work for the league office have different priorities...priorities which historically haven't jibed very well with this line of thinking.

The truth is, somebody gets screwed with just about every decision the league office makes.  Consider:

--Due to the pressure of the (H)akeem Olajuwon tank-fest the NBA instituted the draft lottery system in 1985.  The grand prize that year was Patrick Ewing.  The New York Knicks won the lottery despite not being the team with the worst record that year.  That honor belonged to Golden State, who ended up with the 7th pick.  Though the league did tinker with the lottery format in later years nobody cried for the Warriors but Warriors fans.  Certainly there was no redressing the loss by the league.  Nor has there been for teams affected by the changes in the lottery system since.

--In 2003 the league changed its playoff format, extending the first round series in each conference to 7 games instead of the previous 5-game series.  The unusual thing about this was that the change was instituted right smack dab in the middle of the season.   This also happened to be a year in which the media darling Los Angeles L*kers, flush with superstars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and coming off of three straight titles, were struggling.  This extension benefitted the teams that would have been favored, as underdogs now had to win 4 games to capture the series instead of just 3.  O'Neal himself was quoted saying that the move favored the L*kers as he couldn't see them losing 4 to the same team in two weeks.  As it turned out the L*kers never faced the possibility, beating the Timberwolves 4-2 to advance.  The Orlando Magic were not so lucky, however.  They went up 3-2 on the Detroit Pistons only to have Detroit come back and take the series.  (The Blazers, by the way, almost came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Mavericks who would have swept under the original rules.)  Naturally this didn't matter to anyone but Magic fans.

--After years of celebrating, hyping, and benefitting from straight-from-high-school players the league office suddenly decided to grow a conscience of sorts.  During labor negotiations in 2005 the league won the age-limit concession, disallowing anyone under 19 from being drafted.  The first draft affected was 2006, which was also the year Greg Oden graduated from high school.  The Toronto Raptors won the draft lottery that year.  They settled for Andrea Bargnani.  Likely they'd tell you now that they would have picked Bargnani even had Oden been available.  The only question would be whether they could hold the straight face until the cameras went off.  Nobody is suggesting they get compensated.

Through all of this we see a couple things:

1.  The league is a lot better at reacting to bad situations after they have happened than it is at anticipating them.  The flaws in the original lottery plan, for instance, are so obvious nowadays that listing them would be considered pedantic.  Somehow nobody anticipated them back then.  They just saw a situation that needed to be fixed and they threw the idea at it.  Similarly...almost any fool could have seen the PR nightmare and questioning that would come with a major sports league changing its playoff system right in the middle of a season.  Either nobody did or nobody cared.  They wanted the extra money, they made the change.

2. A corollary to Point 1 is that the league isn't adept at anticipating the unintended consequences of its actions.  You can see this in the number of times the NBA has monkeyed with the lottery and the playoff system.  Last year's seeding change was an example, and that's still not going right.  It's no surprise, then, that the confluence of medical retirement provisions, salary cap, luxury tax, and contract rules in the You-Know-Who case was never considered.  Each system was designed to govern a particular set of issues but seemingly nobody thought to ask how they interacted.

3.  Philosophical niceties and ethical consistency are fine and all, but they take a back seat to effectiveness and expediency.  In fact it's not even the back seat.  It's the hump on the WAY back seat of your old station wagon, facing backwards looking out the rear window.  No seat belt either.  (Don't MAKE us hit those brakes!)

4.  Whatever the league does to address issues when they come up--and sometimes, frankly, it's nothing--that addressing almost never includes changing or making up for things that happened in the past.  If you got the short end of the stick, so be it.  The people who come afterwards benefit from your example.

This is the point that people miss.  The league is not concerned with optimizing the system to produce the best, most fair, or most pleasing result every time.  Rather their focus is to get it right the majority of the time while preventing abject disaster from happening at all costs.  The two approaches are quite different.  The first is like a general who goes to war vowing not to lose a single man.  His approach will be the more careful and thorough.  He's the guy you probably want to serve under if you're a private.  But he also runs the risk of not achieving his objective.  The second is the general who considers some casualties acceptable as long as the objective is achieved.  You can debate all day which approach is better but the NBA is definitely in camp two.  They will be fair every time they can, but they're much more concerned with not losing the war than they are about justice for your team.  The mistakes they're trying to prevent are the league-killing ones and they will push your team off of a cliff if they think it's necessary to achieve that.

In this case, I can almost guarantee you that the league office will see a little less cap space for Portland and a few more bucks out of Paul Allen's vast wallet as an acceptable loss.  (I'm not saying I agree, I'm saying this is how they historically have acted.)  They're much more concerned with the potential disaster of players getting medical retirements left and right, coming off of the salary cap, and then coming back to play without repercussions.  The fear of that exact scenario was the impetus for writing the medical retirement rules so strictly in the first place.  It will weigh far more in their minds than anything that might or might not be happening to the Blazers. Even if this situation were an exception they'd be unlikely to care.  Its unusual nature would make them less likely to act, not more.  They'd figure the likelihood of them ever having to deal with it again was small, while the potential loophole they'd open by addressing it would be a greater threat.  They'd happily throw Portland under the bus to keep it rolling.  Nobody but Blazer fans would care.

Will we see these matters addressed in owners meetings and in the next round of bargaining agreements?  You bet they'll be talked about.  Maybe some clauses will be tightened or redefined here or there.  But the chances of major change coming from this are small.  The chances of Portland getting compensation for, or relief from, whatever injustice they're claiming are infinitesimal.  Instead the basic line you'll probably hear will run like this:

The rules worked exactly like they're supposed to.  As it turns out Darius Miles could still play.  He never should have come off of Portland's cap and now he's back on it.  We understand the consternation of the Blazers organization and their fans but when you look at it, the assignation of fault and consequences depends on timing.  You can only paint the league as having infringed upon Portland's cap space and luxury tax if you start the clock with the medical retirement.  Long before that Portland signed Darius Miles to a contract.  They remain responsible for that contract as long as he is able to play, as per league rules under which all 30 teams operate.  If they were not willing to meet that obligation they should not have agreed to the deal.  We didn't screw Portland, Portland screwed Portland.

And that, my friends, will almost certainly be the end of it from the league's point of view.

And speaking of the end of it, I am going to announce at least a temporary light at the end of the tunnel as far as all of this discussion.  Obviously this will remain a hot topic through the 10th game that Darius plays.  After that game everybody will need to rehash the situation and speculate on what it means, and that's understood.  But after THAT, as long as there's not fresh news coming out about it, I'm declaring a general moratorium on this subject for at least a week or two so we can refocus.  It won't last forever and it won't last at all if we keep finding out new things every day, but if there's nothing fresh on the horizon we could all use a break and a chance to just talk basketball for a while.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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