Is the NBA broken?
The Jazz couldn’t piece together enough to beat the Bulls two decades ago.
Can they piece together enough to beat the Warriors now?
When DeMarcus Cousins signed a cheap deal — yep, we’re at the point where $5.3 extra-extra-extra large is considered mere scraps — with Golden State, a lot of people were not just angry, they were pushed to the point where they thought the NBA is straight busted.
A team that already had taken three of the past four world championships, including the one decided last month, with four All-Stars on the roster, just added another one. How are outfits like the Orlando Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz supposed to react to that? How are they supposed to compete in the here and now with that?
They aren’t supposed to.
But maybe they can.
It’s the beauty, the thrill of attempting to scale a steep mountain.
People complain about the effects of free agency on a league that has never been more unbalanced. Even with monetary incentives in place to keep spending on somewhat of an even-keel, to heavily tax those who knock things out of balance, some teams don’t care all that much about leveling the course. If winning a championship takes plowing through the waves at an expensive 45-degree angle, so be it.
The Cousins case is a bit of an anomaly. He turned down a two-year, $40 million deal after his Achilles injury with the Pelicans to eventually sign the one-year contract with the Warriors. It is reported that Cousins himself called Golden State general manager Bob Myers because he wasn’t getting free-agent offers.
That wasn’t because the 28-year-old center isn’t talented. Rather, it’s a mix of his bad attitude and the serious injury that stopped teams from picking up their phones and opening up their bank accounts.
It’s actually a brilliant move by Golden State and by Cousins, a move that will allow the player to heal without pressure to get back to the court before he’s ready — because the Warriors won’t need him until the playoffs. And if he contributes to another title for Golden State, showing he’s physically sound and mentally fit, keeping his stupid behavior of the past in check, he’ll ascend to a free-agent deal next offseason that will be lucrative even by NBA standards.
Meanwhile, the Warriors, frightened a bit by the manner in which Houston threatened them in their most recent championship run, benefit from a well-behaved Cousins, popping the balance of power even farther off its axis.
And that’s what got so many people freaked at the signing.
But here’s the truth: It’s nothing new.
The NBA has never been an even, equal league. It’s forever been an association of franchises in which some teams are a whole lot more equal than others. And it isn’t only because some are smarter, although acumen sometimes does play a role. Check the history books.
Over the league’s 72 years, 50 titles have been won by just five teams.
Think about that. It’s mind-blowing.
Meanwhile, even well-run clubs like the Jazz have never won a single one.
The Celtics have won 17 titles. The Lakers 16. The Bulls six. The Warriors six. The Spurs five.
That’s remarkable. For a league that supposedly champions competition the way the NBA does, historically speaking, it hasn’t been all that competitive. Some of it is the nature of the game. The number of players on each team is relatively small, so if one of those teams has a Russell or a Bird or a Magic or a Kobe or a Jordan, well … too bad for everybody else.
Those kinds of players, when they are grouped with one or two other greats, reap the benefits that include hoisting Larry O’Brien’s trophy. Teams that are lucky and smart and crafty enough to draft those top-drawer players deserve to be rewarded. But when free agency opened the opportunity for players to go wherever they wanted, financial considerations taken into account, it gave certain teams and markets advantages.
You already know all that.
You also know that the provisions placed into the current Collective Bargaining Agreement giving incumbent teams financial advantages to hold onto their players who become free agents doesn’t really make much of a difference. The salaries are so large now that an extra $50 million here, an extra $40 million there doesn’t hold much sway.
Ask Gordon Hayward about that.
When LeBron James recently decided to sign with the Lakers, practically no amount of basketball salary could have made much of a difference. That move had more to do with LeBron’s high-profile side business interests — producing movies and TV shows and music — than it did anything on the court.
How can a league interfere with that kind of draw?
Golden State was smart to draft Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The subsequent signing of Kevin Durant and now Boogie Cousins is another matter. It is the modern definition of a super team.
But the point is, there have always been super teams. Dynastic teams that were just too good, too talented for other teams, try as they might, to stay with.
It doesn’t make the attempt any less worthy.
It makes small successes more rewarding.
In that way, the Jazz’s Dennis Lindsey is astute to target the best teams in the league and to do what he can to catch and challenge them. It’s the only thing he can do. It’s the exact thing general managers of teams facing the Celtics and the Lakers and the Warriors and the Bulls and the Spurs of past years, past decades did.
It’s not a level playing surface. The court has never been level.
If a team like the Jazz ascends to the top, how sweet will it be?
Sweet enough to make the uneven climb worth it.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.