Maybe the NBA should be thought of as the Starship Enterprise, with the storylines always revolving around the same few people despite a crew of hundreds on board. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo, Dwight. Of the more than 400 NBA transactions since July 1, seven changed the way we think about the league: the signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh and retention of Dwyane Wade in Miami, the acquisitions of Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in New York and the departures of Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams from Utah.
The common theme was that the stars, the guys you see on the bridge of the Enterprise, went from smaller markets to larger markets. In a sport that can be dominated by a select few players -- 10 of the past 12 champions have featured Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal -- any hope for competitive balance resides in the ability of all teams' being able to land and retain those stars.
"Many of us are dealing with the same issues, in that now it looks like free agents are saying, 'I want to play in a few markets,'" Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond said. "If I were saying, 'There's 30 NBA teams, and we're the only team facing that obstacle'? Then woe is us. We have no chance to survive. I think we're the majority; we're not the minority."
In this case, though, there might not be strength in numbers. The NBA is in danger of becoming a caste system -- or a "Star Trek" cast system -- where the bulk of teams can sell their fans tickets but not hope. It will shape the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, in which teams in smaller cities will attempt to get on even financial footing with their larger counterparts. Some, including NBA commissioner David Stern, note that seven of the past eight teams standing in the 2010 playoffs were those that spent above the luxury-tax threshold.
But do you know who won't be paying a luxury tax this season? The San Antonio Spurs, who have the best record in the league. Same with the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. It's not just about money. Lifestyle plays a role as well. Keep in mind, James and Bosh did not get the maximum amount of money by going to Miami. Nothing in the upcoming CBA can move a landlocked Midwestern city to a warmer climate by the ocean. That doesn't exactly create equal opportunities around the league.
"Fair chance?" said Marcus Barrett, a Charlotte Bobcats fan. "Nah, I wouldn't say a fair chance. Because all the superstars don't want to come here."
I spent time talking with players, executives and fans from small markets and visiting New Orleans, Charlotte and Milwaukee, trying to see whether there was any belief the teams there could be competitive and discovering how they could make it happen.
The answers didn't get any more brutally honest than Corey Maggette's.
"I don't think so," said Maggette, who has played in Orlando, Los Angeles, Oakland and currently Milwaukee. "They can't compete with these [large] markets, you know?
"It's just like saying, 'Milwaukee or Los Angeles? Where do you want to go? Where do you want to live?' It's tough, man."
Sacramento is likely to see its entire team travel down Interstate 5 to Anaheim in the coming months. The Hornets needed the NBA to take over the team to keep it solvent. And the next Hall of Fame-bound free agent who jumps to Indiana or Cleveland will be the first.
Less than a week before he was traded by the Jazz to the Nets, Deron Williams lamented that in Utah, "It's hard to get free agents. It is. You look at [the Jazz] the last couple years, besides Booz [Carlos Boozer], we haven't had any really big free agents. Most people either got traded or drafted. We had some great second-round picks that have blossomed for us, Paul Millsap, Jeremy Evans, some of those. It's hard. I mean, I've tried. I recruit the heck out of people."
So did Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor.
"Do you make a call to those people?" O'Connor said. "Sure. If they say no, you move on. Those are excuses. You can win. If your ownership's committed, you can win."
O'Connor traded Williams because he wasn't sure that Williams would stay in Utah once he had the option to become a free agent in 2012. Coming on the heels of Jerry Sloan's resignation, it felt like an especially crushing blow to the hopes of small markets. Many look up to Utah's ability to field playoff teams year after year. They were the model of stability, with Sloan occupying the head coach's seat since 1988 and Larry Miller repeatedly writing big checks since becoming the full-fledged owner since 1986. Miller died in 2009. Even longtime play-by-play announcer Hot Rod Hundley has retired.
The Spurs are considered the model small-market franchise, winning four championships between 1999 and 2007, the result of stability plus ingenuity. (They were among the first and most successful at finding and incorporating foreign-born players.) Yet some will tell you they modeled themselves after the Jazz. And if the Jazz model can't be sustained, then what?
The hope turns to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with their San Antonio-trained general manager, Sam Presti, currently among the four best teams in the Western Conference.
The Thunder have some of the same revenue limitations. They decided they could afford to be patient. That meant no drastic moves even when the team got off to a 3-29 start two seasons ago.
"Every team handles their business differently," Presti said. "For us, we've chosen to focus on trying to build a team that is sustainable and, in doing that, certainly have had to make some decisions that were very tough decisions. Understanding that at the time they were difficult for people to understand and to accept but also recognizing that for us to continue trying to build in a proactive fashion, they were necessary.
"One of the hardest principles to assimilate into your process is that of restraint. And understanding that any time you're team-building and your goal is to build something sustainable that has a foundation and a strong base, there is a level of patience and an approach you have to take where sometimes you have to wait for things to develop as opposed to looking for quick fixes or things that might make you feel better."
That's actually where small markets have an advantage. With everything going on in Los Angeles and with the championship-or-bust expectations placed on the Lakers and Celtics franchises, those teams have to do everything they can, spend whatever it takes to win now, or they'll be irrelevant. When you're the only major pro team in the entire state, in the Thunder's case, where else will the fans turn while they're waiting?
And it's not about getting the fans to buy in so much as it is instilling belief in the best players. Oklahoma City has done that with Kevin Durant, who took a step in the opposite direction of the spotlight-seeking stars this past summer and committed to a five-year extension with the Thunder.
When asked recently about the challenge of attracting other stars to join him in Oklahoma City, Durant said, "That's come to my mind. I guess that's the way we did it with the draft. They have to come if they're drafted. But if we continue to just play hard and be a team that comes out and is known for playing hard and playing together. Hopefully, guys that love to play basketball will love to be a part of it.
"Big market, small market, that's something I try not to get into. Everybody else outside the game is going to ask me about it. But I'm here, I like it here, I love my teammates and coaches and the city. I don't have to worry about anything else."
How many other players take that approach?
It almost seems that small markets don't just need to hit the winning lotto numbers, they need to have the bonus number as well. They need to stumble upon a player with Durant's talent and his mindset.
As Maggette said, "The players have got to be really sold on coming to a small market. The only way that's going to happen is if you turn out to be a LeBron James or a Blake Griffin and you're from Milwaukee and you really want to stay in Milwaukee."
And we've already seen how that went with James in his native northeast Ohio.
Eventually, free will and independent thought triumph. The quest is to look for rules and regulations that at least give the smaller markets a fighting chance.
The fans don't understand the minutiae of collective bargaining agreements. The people I talked to were knowledgeable, up-to-date on what's going on in the league, well-versed in the history of their teams and the sport -- and they don't know how the league actually functions. They just know how they want it to be.
"Even out the salaries," said Doug Dorrow, a fan in Milwaukee. "I know there's a salary cap [now], but a lot of people manipulate it ... however that works is way beyond me."
From city to city, variations on the same theme kept popping up, similar to what Hornets fan David Boyd said:
"I like the way the NFL is set up where every team has a chance to win the Super Bowl."
Stern has hinted at the same belief, rhetorically asking reporters in December, "What do you think makes [the NFL] so competitive?"
The answer is revenue sharing and a hard salary cap. The NBA can never be like the NFL, though, because the entire NFL television package is handled on a national network level, while the bulk of NBA games are televised by local stations. That's where the disparity kicks in. The annual local TV rights for some small-market teams don't even match the contract of the highest-paid player on their team. The Lakers, meanwhile, are about to create their own channel that will bring in a reported $150 million a year or more -- as much as $200, according to an SI.com report.
Then there's the inability to attract major corporate sponsors who crave the prestige and visibility that come from partnerships. The Knicks' parent company, Madison Square Garden, signed a 10-year deal with JPMorgan Chase worth a reported $30 million a year. No chance the Memphis Grizzlies are getting a deal like that.
Small-market teams can't afford to take a chance. Well, they can take chances; they just can't afford to be wrong. They can't compensate for an error by simply signing another player at that position. They also can't spend big dollars for small parts. The Lakers have Steve Blake at $4 million per year. He's not an essential part of their plan to repeat as champions, but they thought he could help. Because they're over the dollar-for-dollar luxury-tax threshold, his real cost to them is $8 million.
The solution fairness is not as simple as adjusting for the income disparity by restricting the amount teams can spend via a hard salary cap. I asked a general manager who has worked in both large and small markets about the different strategies that come with each place.
"If you have free-agent money, players will go where they have the best salary available to them," the general manager said. "If it's even, then the location comes into play also. Most players want to go to a winning environment.
"In a smaller market, you may have to overpay to get someone to come."
So if small markets want to get top-tier free agents, the next salary-cap structure needs to allow them a way to spend more on a player than their competitors do. How would they have the means to do this? That will have to come from better revenue sharing. But don't just write every one of the have-nots an equal check. Make them spend more to get more. In other words, the higher a team's payroll, the larger the cut of the revenue-sharing pie it receives. The union would be more likely to sign on to this arrangement because it would be a means to drive up salaries. And you might avoid some of the internal sniping in baseball, in which the big boys such as the Yankees and Red Sox accuse some teams of doing nothing but pocketing their checks and never spending to improve their teams.
The next step is retention and or/compensation. One possibility is a version of the NFL's franchise-player designation, in which a team retains rights to a free agent for a year as long as it pays him an average of the highest-paid players at his position or 120 percent of the previous year's salary, whichever is greater. Since positions aren't as strictly defined in the NBA, the NBA would have to go with the maximum raise. In fairness to the player, it should be a larger raise than he could receive on the open market.
Next, automatic compensation for losing a free agent, such as the Major League Baseball system that forces teams to send their best available draft pick to their free agent signee's former team.
There are no changes to the league's setup that will turn bad decision-makers into good ones. And nothing will guarantee good results. Even under the current system, since 2003, the two teams playing in the league's smallest TV markets, the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets, have made more combined playoff appearances (six) than the two teams playing in the largest, the New York metropolitan area's Knicks and Nets (four).
"It's not necessarily the market or the amount of revenue that a team has that proves to translate into championships," Hornets president Hugh Weber said. "You have to build a championship style and organization, with the culture and the mission and resources to back it up."
You can have resources or you can be resourceful ... and still be at the mercy of where a man chooses to live.