It was right after the 2008 NBA season that I first heard Jerry West raise the idea of contraction, the notion that the league would benefit by eliminating some of its weak teams.
“You look at some of these teams, the millions and millions of dollars they’ve lost, how can you call it a good year?” West told me.
If you look at pro football and pro baseball, West said, “just about all of the teams do well. But if you look at basketball, three or four of the franchises are on their asses.
“Contraction would probably be a good thing,” he added, “but it’s probably never going to happen.”
West, of course, was speaking from experience, having gone from serving as an executive for the large market Los Angeles Lakers to filling a similar capacity for the Memphis Grizzlies, a struggling franchise in a small market.
West was also speaking before the global economy suffered its major banking collapse that fall, a drop that precipitated the loss of better than 17 million jobs in the American economy alone.
The financial health of the NBA is an issue that has concerned Lakers owner Jerry Buss for some time now. According to my sources, Buss has worked behind the scenes over the past two years, encouraging the league’s other owners to put up $20 million each to buy two franchises and shutter them.
The issue is now moving front and center, as Jeanie Buss, the owner’s daughter who manages the business side of the Lakers, has begun setting the agenda for contraction while doing a publicity tour for her new book, Laker Girl.
Joining her in setting that agenda is her boyfriend, Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who has likewise acknowledged that contraction could be an answer to difficult economic circumstances.
The larger backdrop for this issue is obviously the current collective bargaining showdown that pits the NBA Players Association against the league’s owners. Many observers have projected that the NBA is headed toward a lockout next fall because the two sides can’t reach a new agreement for the league’s salary structure.
The owners have long said their current economic format is unworkable, that the league is losing hundreds of millions a season. The players counter that such talk is just so much bargaining hype, that the NBA continues to rake in billions each year.
West obviously saw this situation building two years ago when he told me, “You look at the propaganda that comes out of the league office and you know that a lot of that stuff is not true.”
Then he quickly added that you still have to respect the owners “and what they’re trying to do,” which is guarantee the NBA’s long-term health.
West’s is a voice respected by both sides of the showdown, players and owners, who face tough concessions in coming to terms.
As for his prediction that contraction would probably never happen, it may have already started. The NBA’s purchase of the New Orleans Hornets this season has ignited speculation that the club might be shut down and its players dispersed.
If the Buss plan goes into effect, it raises the immediate question, what team would be next?
The only thing clear at the moment is the hard choices.
The shuttering of two teams would have a major economic impact on their respective cities.
It would mean the loss of jobs for 30 players, for two coaching staffs, for hundreds of support employees in marketing, sales and other front office functions.
The loss of the $20 million put up by each NBA ownership is no small thing either. That would essentially serve as a draining of equity from each team.
On the other hand, Jerry Buss, who made his fortune in real estate, has long been recognized for his astute management of the Lakers. He has been a visionary in many regards. The solution he proposes is a bitter one for many teams, but there are signs that his agenda is gaining favor.
Even Miami Heat star LeBron James has mentioned contraction favorably, a development that only reinforces the fact that there are two classes of NBA players – superstars such as James and the remaining role players who need the collective bargaining efforts of the players association.
While stars such as James will always get their millions, that’s not a guaranteed thing for the lesser players who make up the bulk of the league.
Perhaps the biggest issue for such a plan would be the identity of the second team shuttered. Would the Los Angeles Clippers, long an embarrassment to the league, be on the short list?
Is this a ploy by Buss to protect his own investment? After all, Los Angeles and Southern California have been hammered by the downturn. The film, TV and recording industries have been devastated in recent years.
Can that market, large as it is, support two NBA teams?
Jackson has already privately voiced concern about the dispersal of players from the shuttered teams. Would brilliant point guard Chris Paul wind up in a place like Orlando to create an unstoppable duo with center Dwight Howard?
What about the meteoric young star of the Clippers, Blake Griffin, or some other major player for a weak franchise?
Where would they go?
Unfortunately, contraction is not a new concept to the NBA. In the early years of the league after World War II, franchises came to life, then died and quickly made their way to the hoops graveyard.
That process itself created a paranoia among the remaining teams because it left a vacuum of fear. Would the richest teams, such as the New York Knicks, wind up manipulating things to get the top players? About the only thing clear this time around is that such paranoia will rise again. Whatever happens, it’s not going to be clean and it’s not going to be pretty.
The real question is, is it necessary?
Roland Lazenby is the author of Jerry West, The Life And Legend Of A Basketball Icon, published by ESPN Books.