Nerfing Teams in the NBA
In 2012, I, along with all Celtics fans in New England, watched in anxious anticipation as Chris Paul prepared to leave for Los Angeles. Chris Paul in purple and gold would have revitalized the Lakers and rewritten Kobe Bryant’s twilight years. Instead, I was relieved to hear that the commissioner of the league, David Stern, and the powers-that-be vetoed the deal. Chris Paul went to the other Los Angeles team (the then overshadowed Clippers), Lob City was born and the rest is National Basketball Association (NBA) history.
Anyone who knows basketball is aware of this apparently irreversible trend of the “superteam”. Ever since Lebron James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, every off-season has been permeated with rumors of superstars collaborating to play on the same team. In fact, this is immediately what happened after the failure of the Chris-Paul-to-L.A.-Lakers trade—Dwight Howard, then a top-five center, and Steve Nash, a declining star, left their respective teams for the glimmering rings promised in the City of Angels. This time, however, there was no veto. If we take a look at the state of the league as it is, only a small number of cities contain most of the talent in the NBA—Boston, Cleveland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Oakland/San Francisco, and Houston.
The disparity in talent distribution has destroyed competition in the league. During the 2016-2017 season, I did not watch a single NBA game because I knew it was a waste of time—the Golden State Warriors, far and away the best team in basketball at the moment, would destroy the regular season, the playoffs, and Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals. And guess what? They did, and if you were not a native of the Bay Area, you were not amused.
There are no rules in place to stop the current “superteam” trend. The only reason David Stern could stop the Chris Paul trade is because the NBA owned the New Orleans Hornets (Paul’s team). The only safeguard at the moment is the salary cap—a limit placed on how much teams can spend per year in order to address the financial disparity between big-market teams that can afford to spend more (e.g., Los Angeles, Chicago, New York) and small-market teams (e.g., Charlotte, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City). Every star deserves his money and no one can afford to pay for 12 NBA All-Stars. The only apparent acknowledgement on the NBA’s part of the problem is its most recent change to the all-star game rules: players no longer play for their conference. Instead, the all-star game has turned into a big-stage version of playground days where captains take turns picking the best players.
I recognize that to most people, the NBA has no significance beyond entertainment. But consider this: as Luxottica buys out its competition and charges me $150 for plastic, mediocre Ray-Bans; as prized researchers move away from public, Midwestern universities (see Jon Marcus’ article, “The Decline of the Midwest's Public Universities Threatens to Wreck Its Most Vibrant Economies” on theatlantic.com) and find higher-paying jobs abroad or at private universities; as the government continues to bail out large corporations as it did for the automobile giants in 2008—the result is the opposite of beneficial. When competition lacks, the results are harmful to both the enterprise and its consumers. Monopolization physically isolates talent. A talent drain from midwestern universities spells years of damage to midwestern economies, but a boost to thriving coastal schools (read: Stanford and Harvard). Furthermore, the damage to competition puts the consumer at risk of arbitrary pricing and subpar-quality products. The Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries dictated American gas prices for decades (read up on the 1973 oil crisis), until recent technological progress allowed American companies to locate and utilize the country’s vast natural gas reserves and thus set their own prices.
Some say that certain industries would benefit from monopolization. That has been the logic behind the nationalization of utilities and transportation systems for the public. Imagine a world where privately-owned highway systems charged tolls affordable only to the wealthy, or where one’s cell service depended on local population density (supply and demand). While this is true to some extent in today’s society (the toll on the bridge to Newport, Rhode Island, one of the oldest monied towns in America, is four dollars—the most expensive I have experienced outside of New York City), it would be worse without government accountability.
The reason the NBA refuses to regulate superteams is because of the restraints it places on the players, who, at the end of the day, are employees. Since owners already possess vast control over the lives of their players (they can be cut or traded at a moment’s notice), free agency is usually the only time a player has control over his future. Conservatives will argue that as long as the economy is left alone, all possible outcomes are morally and economically justified. However, the wider practical economic risk is a greater power imbalance between the consumer who needs and the producer who can fulfill that need.