Posted December 3, 2012
By SPENCER DANDES
School of Communication
University of Miami
Twelve games into the NBA season, little is known for certain.
No one can confidently write off the 76ers or Pacers just yet, and there’s technically a chance the Hornets could claw their way out of the Western Conference cellar.
On the contrary, everything at the top of the standings looks stable and sustainable. That can be attributed to the era of NBA “superteams,” the products of lavish spending and free-agency triumphs.
Franchises in big markets like Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Boston have assembled dominant and expensive teams that surprised and upset many in the basketball community. When Pat Riley lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to the Heat in July 2010, they joined Dwyane Wade to become automatic contenders.
The success of the 2008 Celtics and 2012 Heat, for example, has inspired other teams – and emerging NBA elites – to attempt to travel a similar path.
“Call it the Miami Model, the South Beach Effect or whatever you want. It’s the new normal for young NBA superstars looking for a new home and a better chance to win,” Ken Berger of CBS Sports wrote.
But in reality, spending big and recruiting multiple stars is a time-tested tactic. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish came before Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy preceded Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
“Basketball is different from the other sports because so few players are actually on a team,” said Christina De Nicola, a former Miami Heat communications assistant and writer for mlb.com. “Two to three superstars can easily win a championship. And if you have those superstars, it makes it easier to get supporting players to take less money with the promise of a ring.”
This approach is a proven recipe for wins. Allen signed with Boston and immediately boosted the Celtics’ championship hopes. But when the team aged and he needed a new home, Allen opted for just a two-year, $6 million contract with Miami.
Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays represent a good contrast between a team that has seen postseason glory with very limited resources compared to the MLB juggernauts in their division. While the Rays have fielded World Series contenders on a $40 million budget, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox binge if mediocrity looms – their billionaire owners notoriously spend freely until they are satisfied with the product that takes the field.
The NBA is cyclical: Teams spend big money when they need to catch up. Once an arsenal of All-Stars and elite players has been created, today’s superteams keep a low profile in free agency and the trade market.
“When it comes down to it, the teams that are able to win right away … took risks and they paid off,” De Nicola said. “They were smart with their money.”
That said, spending sprees don’t always work out.
According to Forbes, the two teams that got the least value out of their money in the last five years were Minnesota and New York. The Timberwolves averaged just 22 wins with a $68 million average payroll; the Knicks averaged 32 wins a season but paid $96 million for zero postseason victories. New York’s own vision of a superteam – Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire – has yet to show signs of true cohesion.
The superteam era was clearly impacted by the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. When league commissioner David Stern was unable to negotiate a hard salary cap with team owners during the 2011 lockout, they settled for a punitive luxury tax model. Traditional over-spenders like the Lakers and Mavericks – whose payrolls regularly top $100 million – will face increasingly stiffer taxes if they disregard the cap.
Tom Haberstroh, an analyst for ESPN.com, argues that the perceived gap between the league’s “haves” and “have-nots” says more about poor draft strategy than extravagant or unfair spending.
“The real disparity can be found in management, not dollars,” he said in a 2011 article.
In essence Haberstroh believes that small-market teams stuck in the shadow of the league’s flashier franchises largely fell behind because of unconstructive player development and questionable draft selections.
Recent history, however, tells a slightly different story.
Only nine different teams have claimed an NBA title since 1980. Los Angeles has accounted for 10 of those, and Chicago six. Boston (4), San Antonio (4), Detroit (3), Miami (2), Houston (2), Philadelphia (1) and Dallas (1) took home the others.
Each of these championship units features evidence of the superteam disparity. The Lakers, Spurs and Bulls dominated the sport by sustaining their high-quality play over several years. It is unlikely that these periods of success would have been in reach without star acquisitions and huge contracts.
“It’s not like superteams are going to devalue the methods that smaller markets use to win,” said UM junior Zach Cohen, whose hometown Washington Wizards have been out of the playoff picture for decades. “Basketball in particular usually demands that organizations overspend in order to compete.”