Bit by little bit, the Jazz have pieced together a nice offseason, upgrading their team by various means, bringing in Mo Williams, Marvin Williams, Randy Foye and Dennis Lindsey. Each of those moves seemed a smart one, a step in a positive direction on a steady ascent toward improvement.
But combined, they were nothing compared with what the Lakers pulled off the other day, configuring that sweeping four-team, 12-player deal that brings them Dwight Howard and bounces them far beyond the modest gains of the Jazz.
They now have a starting lineup — called “the best in the NBA” by Jeff Van Gundy, including Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Life in the NBA isn’t fair.
And that wouldn’t be all that troubling, except that the league is built on competition. And if you build a league on competition, then it should be fair competition, where the league’s integrity is at least preserved and at most championed.
As is, it is neither preserved, nor championed.
It is simply up for sale.
A difficult truth: The new collective bargaining agreement, forged out of last year’s labor negotiations, didn’t do enough to balance the equation for unprivileged teams that don’t have the resources to commit to winning that privileged teams do. Yes, the Lakers will be taxed for the big salaries now on their roster. But given their market and the extra money they bring in from that market, they can pay those penalties on their way straight back to contention.
There are forecasts that the Lakers, between salaries and luxury taxes, in the coming years could shell out some $150 million. The Jazz will hover at less than half that annual amount. Utah could spend more to win more, but, on the tethered basketball and business side, that kind of spending for a small-market team isn’t sustainable.
“There’s one way to get what would simplify it all,” Van Gundy, the former coach and current broadcaster, said on my radio show. “A hard cap like they have in the NFL and taking away the restrictions on max salaries. If you want to pay LeBron James half of your salary cap, feel free. If you want to pay him more than that, fine. But you [only] have that amount of money.
“What would happen is, all the star players would spread out over a bunch of different teams. They wouldn’t be coming, playing together. They could make so much more money other places. It would be better for the league.”
The reason Howard was traded was because he was forcing his way out of Orlando as his free agency loomed. The Magic got desperate and allowed the deal to happen, hoping to pick up some loose scraps while the Lakers, with their pile of cash, put themselves back atop the league.
“Depending on your vantage point, [Orlando] got totally shafted or semi-shafted,” Van Gundy said. “I feel for Magic fans. They’ve had three stars in their time. Shaquille O’Neal left for free agency [to L.A.]. [Tracy] McGrady forced his way out to Houston. Now, Howard forces his way out to the Lakers.
“If I was an Orlando Magic fan, I’d be asking: Is this worth it? Do I want to be paying the huge, enormous, extravagant ticket prices to see a below-average product for … what, five years?”
And, then, if those fans are willing to do so, after the Magic rebuild again, do they lose their next star, as happened with Shaq and Howard, to the Lakers, again?
There was a better course for the NBA.
But Van Gundy said the labor strife of 2011 was never about competitive balance: “They might have tried to sell that, but it was about the same thing it’s always been about — money. That’s it.”
So, it’s the owners’ fault for settling for an increased share of income, when they could have insisted on a hard cap that would have given every franchise if not equal, at least similar opportunity. That insistence would have wiped out all of last season and created a bigger battle. And it would have been worth it.
Instead, big spenders will pay an increased, heavier tax, but if that price is still affordable for them and brings them championships, while lesser teams can’t afford to pay that price, then the gap between the privileged and the unprivileged will not just go on, it will grow wider.
Money alone doesn’t get it done. The New York Knicks have proved that over the years. It takes acumen, too. But if a franchise has acumen and money and another has only acumen, guess who usually wins?
There are outliers, mainly the San Antonio Spurs. Oklahoma City has put together a terrific collection of talent, centered on the drafting of Kevin Durant when the team was still in Seattle. And now, the Magic are attempting to follow a similar path: Get real bad and then hope to draft a generational player or two.
Much of the rest of the league, like the Jazz, will go on slowly edging up the face of a cliff, while the Lakers — and a few other teams like them — make their climb aboard an expensive, newly installed escalator.
That’s life in the NBA.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.