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Parity gets locked out of party

Published February 23, 2011 11:05 am

NBA labor • League's lopsided power balance is among issues to be addressed in contract talks.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Los Angeles • It is good to be king in the NBA. And it is only getting better.

With Denver forward Carmelo Anthony on the verge of changing conferences and creating yet another superpower team, the increasing discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in the glitzy, glamourous league has been on vivid display during All-Star weekend.

Boston has four big-name players on the Eastern Conference team, Miami has three and Atlanta has two. Meanwhile, festivities have been housed at Staples Center, home to the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers — a franchise that leads the league in payroll and features a veritable All-Star starting five.

But while life is good and only getting better for the elite, many small-market teams are floundering. Wins are hard to acquire, star players harder, and empty seats at times outshine highlights in cities such as Sacramento, Indiana and Memphis.

Jazz guard Deron Williams acknowledged that lesser-known franchises are engaged in an escalating fight. As one of the premier point guards in the game, Williams' combination of talent, basketball intelligence and youth form the core of Utah's long-term potential. But bringing all-world athletes to Salt Lake City to complement Williams' unique game is a whole other matter.

LeBron James' decision last summer to trade small-time Cleveland for luxurious Miami represented a sea change in the NBA's makeup. Which has left Williams stating the obvious all season: Stars are teaming up and the trend is a trademark, not a fad. Moreover, Williams knows that asking All-Stars to one day join him in Utah is much easier said than done.

"It's hard to get free agents. It is," Williams said. "You look at our team the last couple years, we really haven't — besides [Carlos Boozer] — had any big free agents. Most people have either got traded or drafted.

"We've had some great second-round picks that have blossomed for us — Paul Millsap and Jeremy Evans — we've had some of those. But for the most part it's hard."

Williams has even stepped up and attempted to persuade high-caliber, like-minded workers in his profession to join him in the challenge of bringing the Jazz their first championship. But his efforts have produced little return.

"I've tried," Williams said. "I recruit the heck out of people."

While Williams works, the NBA digs deeper.

Owners and players met Friday in Beverly Hills, Calif., converging for the first time in 21/2 months as the league moves closer to a work stoppage.

NBA commissioner David Stern then addressed the media Saturday. Stern said that league-shattering issues such as contraction are not on the table with a June 30 deadline looming for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. But while the league and the National Basketball Players Association have begun to find some middle ground and vowed to increase the frequency of future meetings, everything from revenue sharing and a hard salary cap to guaranteed contracts and the ability of small-market teams to equally compete in a big-name league is producing more of a divide than a union.

"We need a different kind of [economic] model," Stern said.

Gary Roberts, dean and professor at the Indiana University Law School in Indianapolis, said that the NBA's current model is broken. And while many hint behind the scenes at a long, debilitating lockout, Roberts was more direct.

"There is a strong risk to lose an entire season in the NBA," said Roberts, while addressing sports-related labor issues last week at the 2011 Associated Press Sports Editors winter conference. "In city after city — except Boston and L.A. and maybe Miami — almost every team is losing money. If the NBA had a hard salary cap like the NFL … when revenue dropped, so would salaries. Teams are spending more than they're taking in."

The Jazz are striving to hold even. But to simply have a fighting chance against teams such as the Lakers, Orlando, Dallas, Boston and Denver, Utah has been forced to pay out of pocket and enter the luxury tax.

A franchise tag for stars such as Williams — who can walk away from Salt Lake City after the 2011-12 season — would significantly aid the Jazz. Stern said he could envision the right to protect an elite player becoming part of ongoing CBA negotiations. But the idea has not yet entered discussions, and the commissioner acknowledged that the league's current balance has clearly become lopsided.

"I think it would be a good thing if more teams could compete," Stern said. "We are very focused through revenue sharing and this deal — this agreement that we are trying to get ­— on having small markets in this league and succeed in this league."

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribjazz