April couldn’t come soon enough for basketball fans, who rejoice when the calendar flips into the heart of spring. No further need for argument over whether this matchup or that one is relevant—it is win or go home.
Although this is also the case with baseball and hockey, because basketball involves few players, the relative value of a good player is high. Perhaps the foremost general manager of the last 10 years, NBA superstar LeBron James has shuttled between star-studded rosters in his quest to win.
Teams have become increasingly strategic in recognition of this high value of certain individual players. The problem, however, is not the great teams, but the teams that lose out. When the talent aggregates at the top, a feeling of futility sets in elsewhere. The only worthy reward for finishing as an all-but-hopeless playoff team is the additional ticket revenue. Finishing amongst the best non-playoff teams? Completely useless.
One could actually argue that the most formidable teams who don’t have two or three NBA stars are the worst placed for future ascent to the pinnacle (an NBA Championship). They do not have a good path to the future acquisition of star players; their salary book is filled and their draft picks leave them far from star prospects.
For mediocre teams, no argument needs to be made. Their competitive motivation should clearly be to play worse. This is how they can access top star prospects. In addition, they can gain valuable assets towards future success (like draft picks and young, marginal, cost-controlled players) by essentially selling their current salary cap room in taking on players with badly valued contracts.
Currently, the only direct financial incentives for winning in the NBA are from a Player Playoff Pool, which allocates around $10 million each year from playoff gate receipts (“Millions in playoff share awaiting NBA champions” NBC Sports, 06.14.2016). These relatively small financial rewards are for the players, not the teams.
This is not to say that winning is financially fruitless. Winning teams make money from merchandise, ticket-selling and branding deals.
The NBA is an association of owners entered into a partnership. It involves a complex web of arrangements meant to spur fairness amongst its investors. A revenue sharing system is central to making small-market teams viable. Revenue sharing and the salary cap system give the NBA a fair amount of competitive equity. However, competition itself should be held to a higher standard.
The problem with the franchise-owning-partnership is that there are plenty of gaps in the league-wide motivation to compete for the highest place. Emblematic of the phenomenon is the New York Knicks. Every year, Forbes re-publish-es the fact that the hapless New York franchise is the league’s most valuable entity. This value comes down to the team’s ability to charge their choiceless fans greater amounts for tickets.
Ultimately, the Knicks do not pay a price for their decades-long futility. Put simply, the competitive motivation of the NBA needs to be married with a financial motivation. In the English Premier League (association football), teams can makes tens of millions of dollars by finishing in higher places (Total Sportek, “Premier League Prize Money 2018,” 02.27.2018). This merit-based distribution of the league’s television deal in-come means that teams have considerable incentive to finish with high ranking.
Of course, the Premier League has no play-off tournament (it is defined, itself, as a double round-robin tournament). That doesn’t mean that a derivation of their example shouldn’t be considered.
If NBA teams were directly and substantially financially incentivized to achieve success, then perhaps the regular season could carry greater stakes, despite widespread hopelessness at winning the ultimate prize.