Shoals Unlimited: Signs of the NBA Apocalypse

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week. ↵
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↵The esteemed Wall Street Journal has decided to ramp up its sports content, since sports sells, and goes well with beer, which always sells well during a depression. Yesterday, it ran a mind-boggling piece on the NBA and economic hellfire, which read like it had been pieced together by an alien armed with Google blog search and no sense of the impermanent news cycle. We find out that LeBron still might go anywhere; shockingly, this year teams have "have resigned themselves to the idea that their teams are not going to be competitive this season;" Iverson was always just a cost-cutting measure, and Vince Carter is "one of the NBA's bona fide stars." ↵
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↵Granted, some version of these dire pronouncements has been with us since last summer. But seeing them together all at once, with little or no mitigation, or appreciation for the finer points of, say, Detroit's search for a new identity, did what it was supposed to do: Scare me and make me believe that really, anything could happen in the NBA as the economy continues to bring us all down to our knees. ↵
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↵With that in mind -- or rather, going on the possibility that I'm missing the forest for the trees -- here are Five Signs of the NBA Apocalypse we should all watch for. Or expect, if you're the WSJ: ↵
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↵Bargain Basement Free Agents: Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom. All players on the downside of their careers, or perennial enigmas that always make for a dodgy investment. Oh, and all happen to be unrestricted free agents this summer, hitting the market a year before the Class of 2010 has the potential to overhaul the entire league. ↵
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↵In short, these were forgotten men before money became scarce, with no one quite sure how low their value would drop. Now, with even the best teams desperate to slash payroll, we might well see these former All-Stars settle for the mid-level exception. In some cases, this would allow them to go to a contender. But Iverson, for instance, might be considered too big a star to settle for a reduced role and paycheck -- these last couple of months coming off the bench could decide whether he ends up with the Cavs or Lakers, or making nothing playing for the Bobcats. ↵
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↵Contraction In the Air: With LeBron James and Kevin Durant tearing up the league, it's easy to believe that any bad team is only a lottery pick away from legitimacy, and thus can never really be counted out. If only things were so simple. There are a number of teams out there who have been threatening to relocate for some time, some more loudly than others. At the same time, what city can afford to put up an NBA team right now (Seattle, maybe, but KeyArena's not fit, remember?) -- and what investors have the spare scratch to buy one? ↵
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↵If the Grizzlies, Kings or Hornets become too much of a drag on their owners, they might very well cease to exist, or at least go into limbo. Before you start crying, imagine a dispersal draft in which Chris Paul, Rudy Gay, David West and O.J. Mayo suddenly found new teams. And since smaller markets probably can't afford to take on this extra contract, you'd see them headed to New York and Los Angeles, and all of a sudden, the contraction has become, in effect, two-fold. ↵
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↵Stern Swings for Distant Shores: I've been listening to lot of people talk about the market on the radio, and while I don't understand much, I get that sometimes crisis can translate into fecund opportunity. It's no secret that Stern would like the league to have a more substantial presence overseas, especially in China. Why not take advantage of the current mess to move a few teams to China and Japan, or Western Europe? ↵
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↵Okay, so logistically this poses a nightmare, and it's not as if other countries are having the easiest time of it economically. But say Stern attaches some sort of financial incentive to it, for grunts and execs alike, and sets up a whole new model with lower ticket prices? Inertia is the normal state of human affairs, except when it's no longer possible. That's why, if the Commish really wants to get this New Ball Order off the ground, he might as well take advantage of the general uneasiness around the league and craft a bold new experiment on the fly. ↵
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↵The Dawn of NBA Socialism: You heard it first on the floor of Congress, and now, the self-fulfilling prophecy has come true. Yes, the last great hope for America is allowing someone other than the proverbial owners to have a stake in the success or failure of a business venture. Me, I don't want any more rapidly declining mutual funds. But suppose teams lobbied for the right to pay players in stock. ↵
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↵I floated this idea once before, and was met with protests of "they want sure money." But with less and less actual cash ready and willing to find its way into players' bank accounts, and pretty much everyone assuming the fortunes of the economy (and with it, the NBA) will turn around with time, why wouldn't a reputable franchise like the Sixers lure a free agent their way with a part-ownership stake? It also might teach players a thing or two about saving money ... and remind everyone of the mixed blessing that was the ABA's mega-weird pension/deferred payment plan (here's a particularly convoluted instance of it). ↵
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↵The Day the Salary Died Speaking of the ABA, it was competition between the upstart league and the National Basketball Association that brought about the first boom in NBA salaries. Is it possible that, aside from the LeBrons and Chris Pauls of this league, we might just see a widespread deflation of salary? Not just the aforementioned "some vets have to swallow their pride," but a radical shift in the way agents come to the bargaining table. ↵
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↵Sure, some team could load up and break the bank. However, that would only be one team (the NBA Yankees). What really indicates the feel of the times is those medium-sized markets, those just sneaking into the playoffs. In some ways, this is the most frightening of all the demonic options outlined above. It also, ironically, offers some measure of redemption and renewal for the game, instead of just watching out for the financial futures of those more powerful than ourselves.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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