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Friday, December 09, 2011

Commissioner Stern Should Not Have Voided the Chris Paul Trade

Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit about "Bad Idea Jeans"? The NBA created a real-life version a year ago when it assumed ownership of the troubled New Orleans Hornets franchise. What could possibly go wrong when the league office--which is supposed to impartially run the NBA's affairs without showing favor to any team or player--is in charge of a specific team? Phil Jackson, then the L.A. Lakers' Coach, immediately mentioned one possibly unsavory scenario: "When Chris (Paul) says he has to be traded, how's that going to go?...Someone's going to have to make a very nonjudgmental decision on that part that's not going to irritate anyone else in the league." If this were an SNL routine, one character would say, "Nah, that could never happen" and then the "Bad Idea" logo would fill the screen.

In theory, the NBA is running the Hornets essentially like a blind trust, assuming formal ownership until a suitor can be found who will hopefully keep the team in New Orleans: the league technically owns the team but the team's front office executives are supposed to be free to make whatever decisions they think are in the team's best interests without interference from league headquarters. That theory went up in smoke in stunning fashion on Thursday when Hornets General Manager Dell Demps completed a three team deal that would have shipped Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers in exchange for Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first round pick while sending Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets. The NBA cliche is that the team that receives the best player "wins" a trade; technically this would be considered a "win" for the Lakers but it was hardly a lopsided transaction: the Lakers received an elite point guard but gave up two quality big men, the Hornets gave up an elite point guard but received four potential starters and the Rockets gave up a lot of depth but received an All-Star big man to replace Yao Ming in the middle. Obviously, the Hornets would be disinclined to trade Paul if they thought that they had a realistic chance to re-sign him after this season but the so-called Derrick Rose rule in the new CBA will unfortunately not be of much use to New Orleans or Orlando (in the future, young superstars who have made the All-NBA Team and/or won an MVP will receive much more lucrative contracts by re-signing with their original teams than they would by seeking their fortunes elsewhere but this stipulation does not apply to Paul or to Orlando's Dwight Howard).

After word of the proposed deal had already leaked out, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that the league had voided the entire transaction, supposedly for "basketball reasons." There is much speculation about who may have pressured Stern to take this action: perhaps "small market" owners do not want to see the Lakers profit at the expense of the Hornets or perhaps "large market" owners do not want to see Paul go to the Lakers because they had their own designs to woo Paul either now or after this season. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert reportedly sent an email to Stern complaining that if such deals are permitted it will only be a matter of time before the NBA consists of five superteams and 25 other teams that should each be known as the Washington Generals. This is indeed a valid theoretical concern in the sense that, if the NBA operated as a totally free market with no salary cap or other restrictions, all of the top players would probably end up in New York, L.A. and Miami. Henry Abbott and others keep banging the same drum saying that it is wrong for the league to in any way restrict how much money stars can make and/or prevent stars from deciding where they want to play but a league run by Abbott's rules would not last very long; a successful professional sports league needs a common draft that gives weaker teams first crack at young talent and it needs a business model that provides for ample compensation to the best players while also making sure that all of the best players do not end up on one or two teams. If you take Abbott's way of thinking to its (ill)logical conclusion, then the NBA should not have a draft, a salary cap or any free agency rules: the New York Knicks should be able to offer $150 million to Chris Paul and $100 million to Jared Sullinger (or whichever college star they like next summer), while Dan Gilbert fills out his roster with players from Cleveland State University--but once you accept/understand why a league should have a draft, a salary cap and rules regarding free agency then the next step is to figure out specifically how to construct a business model containing those elements; such issues can only be solved through collective bargaining and that is why the NBA just had the second longest work stoppage in its history: the business model needed to be fixed. Abbott and his favorite economist may have determined that LeBron James and other stars are supposedly underpaid relative to their alleged true market value but if the NBA paid James what Abbott thinks James is worth then the whole enterprise would collapse and James would ultimately receive nothing. If James or other players dislike the terms of the league's CBA then they are certainly free to sell their services to the highest bidder in other leagues--but until Abbott and Costello (Dave Berri) find someone with very deep pockets to put their economic "theories" to a real world test (by creating a rival league based on "advanced basketball statistics") the fact is that James' true "market value" is what the NBA can afford to pay him without destroying its entire business model.

The Dream Team was fun to watch in 1992 in the Olympics but if the NBA's rules permitted a handful of wealthy owners to buy up all of the elite players then the NBA would indeed become nothing more than the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals. Abbott and others say that competitive balance has never existed in NBA history but that depends on how you define competitive balance with regard to pro basketball. Competitive balance does not mean that every team has a 100% equal chance to win a title in a given year or even in the next 10 years; obviously, history has shown that to win an NBA title you almost always must have an elite player on your roster and there are only a handful of elite players in the NBA at any given time (plus another 20-25 All-Star caliber players). Competitive balance means two things in the context of the NBA: (1) No one team can simply spend $1 billion and buy up the All-NBA First Team; (2) any team that drafts well and makes sound free agency decisions has the opportunity to put together a solid playoff team and that the handful of teams that acquire/nurture an All-NBA First Team caliber performer have a reasonable opportunity to contend for a title and to retain the services of that All-NBA First Team player when his initial contract expires.

The Showtime Lakers were not built because top players decided to leave small market teams; while the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via a trade with a small market team, they did not become a dynasty until they surrounded him with shrewd draft picks (including Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson and James Worthy). The 1980s Boston Celtics drafted Larry Bird and his Hall of Fame frontcourt partner Kevin McHale. LeBron James had every right under the old CBA to form a power trio in Miami but it is historically incorrect to suggest that this is how dynasties have previously been built in the NBA--and it is foolish to think that what James, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams did last year set a healthy precedent for the NBA. How many casual fans really missed the NBA during the lockout? There was a very real backlash against the NBA, a "pox on their houses" mentality that can be largely traced back to the resentment that fans outside of New York/New Jersey and Miami feel about what James, Anthony and Williams did.

So, I understand Gilbert's concerns and I can even understand why Stern felt that he had to stop the Paul trade--but I think that Stern has made a horrible mistake and that, ultimately, this trade (or one like it) is inevitable. The new CBA does not prevent Paul and Howard from following in the footsteps of James, Anthony and Williams so there is no way that the NBA can stop them from forcing their way out of New Orleans and Orlando respectively; moreover, it is a horrible conflict of interest for the NBA to reject a deal unless that deal is clearly lopsided--particularly when the NBA technically owns one of the teams involved in the deal. Stern has potentially disrupted the functioning of not only the Hornets (who now have a very disgruntled Paul on their roster) but also the Lakers and Rockets, who now have to welcome back players they just tried to ship out.

The extremely ironic sidebar to this situation is that, while I agree with Gilbert's theoretical objection about big market teams trying to corner the market on elite players, I disagree with Gilbert's apparent belief that the specific deal in question is lopsided in favor of the Lakers. While the Lakers certainly need to upgrade the point guard position (something that I have been saying for years, much to the chagrin of Lakers' fans/Derek Fisher lovers), two quality big men is a steep price to pay for a small point guard who has been somewhat brittle in recent years. Gilbert seems to think that this deal would have paved the way for the Lakers to also acquire Dwight Howard; if that were true, then the Lakers would indeed be in great shape with a Bryant-Howard-Paul trio but with Gasol and Odom out of the picture it is unlikely that the Lakers could have persuaded Orlando to part with Howard. An aging Bryant paired with a brittle Paul and an even more brittle Andrew Bynum hardly looks like a sure-fire championship nucleus; Bryant and Paul could perhaps have carried a team to a title three years ago or perhaps could do so now if they (and Bynum) stayed healthy but what the Lakers really need to do to make a last run at a Bryant-led title while also laying the groundwork to contend as Bryant declines is to acquire Howard in exchange for Bynum and Gasol or (preferably) Bynum and Odom.

However, the actual skill set evaluation of the proposed Chris Paul trade is going to be largely ignored because of the serious implications of how the trade was cancelled. I wonder how many casual NBA fans even realized that the NBA has owned the Hornets for the past year, let alone thought about all of the potential ramifications of this: not only is it a bad idea for a league to own a team but the fact that for more than a year the NBA has searched in vain for a suitable owner tends to reinforce the contention that the league did in fact have a broken business model under the terms of the old CBA. Sure, it might be easy to find someone who wants to buy an NBA team in Philadelphia (or to move a team to Brooklyn) but who wants to buy one in New Orleans? New Orleans is home to a championship team under the NFL's business model but under the NBA's old business model it hardly attracted much interest among prospective NBA owners. It cannot be emphasized enough that the San Antonio Spurs--considered a small market team in NBA parlance even though San Antonio is hardly a small city--lost money in recent seasons even though they have won four titles in the past dozen years and are considered to be a model franchise. The NBA has some deep seated problems with its business model that the new CBA tentatively addresses but the Chris Paul trade/non-trade fiasco could potentially not only overshadow those issues but perhaps even scuttle the tenuous peace agreement between the owners and the players.

The NBA may be back but it is hardly in good shape: the compressed 66 game season is going to be tough to watch--featuring a lot of out of shape and/or fatigued players--and whatever happens on the court is likely to attract less attention than the off court dramas surrounding Howard and Paul.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

Joe Tait: A Cleveland Treasure Recalls a Lifetime Spent Behind the Microphone

The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won an NBA title and have only made one trip to the NBA Finals during their 41 season existence, so Joe Tait--who handled both the radio play by play and color jobs for most of that four decade march of futility--is not as nationally known to casual fans as Chick Hearn and Johnny Most, the long-time voices of the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics respectively. However, Tait is more than just a beloved Northeast Ohio broadcaster; his skills have been repeatedly recognized by his peers: he has received numerous regional and national media honors, including the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Even fans who know about Tait's long, distinguished career as a Cavs broadcaster may not realize how many other sports Tait has covered, including Major League Baseball, minor league hockey, college football and indoor soccer. Joe Tait: It's been a real ball not only describes Tait's life and career but also provides a brief, entertaining history of the Cleveland sports scene circa 1970-2011. Tait initially resisted the idea of writing a book and when he finally agreed to participate in the project he refused to turn it into "one of those tell-all things where you pick up the rocks and look for toads." Tait also did not want the book to be in the first person voice, so he selected Terry Pluto to be his co-author. Pluto is one of America's most decorated sportswriters; he has written 27 books, including Loose Balls--a highly regarded oral history of the ABA--and LeBron James: The Making of an MVP, a concise but informative history of James' career prior to the infamous "Decision." Pluto skillfully weaves together a multilayered narrative that includes comments not just from Tait but also from fans, co-workers and former players.

Tait's story begins not in Ohio--he was born and raised in Illinois--and not with sports or broadcasting but with trains; he has been fascinated by trains since his childhood, perhaps because several relatives worked in the railroad business. Young Joe loved to ride the trains and he loved to sit by the tracks watching the trains; to this day he still collects information about--and, when possible, tries to see in person--old trains and old railroad tracks. He shared this interest with his father, though Joe also has some less than pleasant memories of a man who he calls "a real disciplinarian."

As a child, Marv Albert made up statistics and imaginary leagues long before fantasy sports became a huge business--and Tait did the same kind of thing as a youngster. In fact, Tait spent so much time alone in his room focused on "broadcasting" pretend sporting events that his father actually sent him to be evaluated by a psychologist, who concluded that Tait had "a vivid imagination" but no mental problems.

That "vivid imagination" compensated for the harsh reality that Tait--despite his best efforts and despite being a tall, big kid--was not particularly good at any sport. He tried his hand at football, basketball and baseball without much success and candidly admits, "Sports broadcasting gave me the outlet that I never would have had as a player." Tait grew up in the 1950s and did not even see a television set until he was 12; his first goal was not to be a broadcaster but rather to be a sportswriter, which makes sense considering that he spent his formative years in an era when print was king, television was in its infancy and the internet had yet to be created.

Tait's broadcasting career began at Monmouth College. He did a 15 minute sports show that did not even have a name and he also tape recorded play by play accounts of the basketball team's games to be replayed over the loudspeakers at the student center. Tait found or created jobs for himself wherever he could, even if those jobs did not pay anything, and those opportunities gave him valuable experience while also helping him to make contacts in the business. One of those contacts was Bill Fitch, a basketball coach at Coe College who also did some scouting for their football team. Tait made quite an impression on Fitch, who marveled at the enthusiastic way that Tait described Monmouth's lackluster football team while doing play by play. After graduating from Monmouth, Tait served three years in the U.S. Army before returning to Illinois and resuming his broadcasting career. Tait was ambitious--he wanted to work in a big city--but he got off to a shaky start and he was fired twice within the first two years after leaving the Army.

Joe Tait: It's been a real ball provides a detailed account of Tait's steady rise through the broadcasting ranks. Tait kept a scrapbook containing rejection letters, news clippings and other artifacts that supplement his remarkable memory. By 1970 Tait was working for WBOW in Terre Haute, Indiana; he was 33 years old and wondering if he ever would get the opportunity to work in a big market. Tait found out that Fitch had been hired to be the general manager and coach of the new expansion NBA team in Cleveland, so Tait sent Fitch a brief letter of congratulations and offered his services as a play by play man. He had not seen Fitch in a decade and was not even sure if Fitch would remember who he was.

Bob Brown, the Cavs' public relations director, handled the play by play duties for the team's first seven games but he quickly realized that he could not simultaneously work in the front office and be a radio broadcaster. Fitch recommended Tait to Brown and team owner Nick Mileti, so Tait drove to Cleveland to interview for the job. Tait was making $10,000 a year in Terre Haute and the Cavs only offered him $7400 a year ($100 a game for the remaining 74 games of the 82 game season) but Mileti pledged to make it up to Tait in the future so Tait took the plunge, finally arriving in a major market (albeit with a substantial pay cut). Mileti proved to be true to his word, providing Tait broadcasting opportunities with the Cleveland Indians and other teams that Mileti eventually added to his ownership portfolio (though, Pluto hastens to point out, Mileti in fact only owned a small percentage of "his" teams and was heavily dependent on outside financing).

Even by expansion standards the Cavs got off to a rough start, losing their first 15 games before defeating a fellow expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The Cavs won just one of their first 28 contests en route to a 15-67 record (the Trail Blazers were a much more respectable 29-53, while the league's third expansion team that season--the Buffalo Braves, now known as the L.A. Clippers--finished 22-60). Scouting was not as sophisticated during that era--and this was especially true of the Cavs, who literally assembled their roster based on player statistics found on the backs of basketball cards. Humor can often be found in the midst of such serial losing and probably is necessary to preserve one's sanity. Fitch delivered many quips during the 1970-71 season, including, "War is bad but expansion is worse." One time on the road Fitch forgot his credential and the security guard would not let him in to the arena. Fitch asked the guard if he knew the Cavs' record and then said why would anyone be trying to impersonate the team's coach, whereupon the guard relented and granted Fitch access. After the Cavs narrowly defeated Portland to get their first win, Fitch described the sloppy proceedings succinctly: "It looked like the gamblers got to both teams."

In the 1971 NBA draft the Cavs chose Austin Carr with the number one overall selection. Fitch thought that Carr, who still holds numerous NCAA Tournament scoring records and whose 34.6 ppg career scoring average ranks second in NCAA history, could have an enormous impact on the team but injuries limited Carr to just 43 games as a rookie. Carr then had two healthy seasons before a knee injury permanently robbed him of his explosiveness and balance; he turned out to be a very good pro but not a franchise player. Younger fans likely do not know many details about Carr's career but are primarily familiar with him as one of the team's TV commentators, a role he has filled since 1997.

The Cavs did not post a winning record until 1975-76, when they went 49-33 and upset the Washington Bullets--the 1975 Eastern Conference champion--in seven games, a series that became known as the "Miracle of Richfield" (the Cavs had moved from downtown Cleveland to Richfield Coliseum). If starting center Jim Chones had not gotten injured during practice prior to the next series, the Cavs may very well have toppled Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and gone on to win the NBA title. Although LeBron James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007, the way he departed Cleveland took the bloom off of the rose of that campaign and thus the 1976 season is probably the one most fondly remembered/thought about by diehard Cavs fans.

The Cavs were not able to build or sustain any momentum from the great 1976 season; they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1977 and 1978 and then did not qualify again for postseason play until 1984-85. During most of those wilderness years the Cavs were owned by Ted Stepien, who infamously traded away so many first round draft picks that the NBA had to step in and forbid him from further destroying the franchise's future; Stepien's lasting legacy is an NBA rule named after him that prohibits any team from trading away first round draft picks from consecutive seasons. The reason that Tait was the voice of the Cavs for most but not all of their first 41 seasons is that Stepien fired Tait and sold the team's broadcast rights to a different radio station; Stepien was jealous of Tait's popularity in town, while Tait (and many others) thought that Stepien was not doing a very good job of running the team, a sentiment that Tait was not shy about expressing during his broadcasts. Tait spent one year with the New Jersey Nets and another year with the Chicago Bulls before the NBA forced Stepien to sell the Cavs to an ownership group led by Gordon Gund, who immediately rehired Tait.

Under Gund's leadership, the Cavs enjoyed some of the best seasons in franchise history. During the late 1980s/early 1990s the Cavs were one of the best teams in the league but they just could not get past the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen-led Chicago Bulls. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Tait's book is that very little coverage is given to that era; Cavs fans who are too young to remember the "Miracle of Richfield" and too disgusted with LeBron James to think fondly of the Cavs' success circa 2006-2010 consider the Brad Daugherty/Mark Price era the franchise's golden age.

LeBron James is clearly the most talented player, by far, in Cavs history (Tait's choice for the second most talented player in franchise history is Larry Nance, whose achievements are sometimes overlooked because he played alongside Daugherty and Price). Tait does not mince words when discussing his perspective regarding James' sense of entitlement, lack of leadership skills and tone-deafness regarding the "Decision." Tait insists that he feels no personal animosity toward James but rather dislikes the way that the league and the media build up players from such a young age.

It is almost a cliche to call someone an "an American original," but it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone else will follow a career path similar to Tait's, rising from small town obscurity to being the voice of the same NBA team for four decades. Joe Tait: It's been a real ball is an easy, fun book to read and will surely bring back good memories for Cleveland sports fans who listened to Tait's trademark calls since 1970.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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