Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Pacers and Opinion and NBA

BENNER: Fixing dysfunctional NBA will take time, flexibility

July 9, 2011

Everything is going so, so right for the Indiana Pacers.

Momentum and a positive vibe in the community following the team’s first playoff appearance in five seasons, where the Pacers were a mighty tough-out for the Chicago Bulls.

The solidification of team President Larry Bird’s status … at least for another year.

A well-calculated clearing of space beneath the salary cap, which should allow the Pacers to be active in the free-agent market this year and next.

The draft night dealing with the San Antonio Spurs that brought former Broad Ripple High School and IUPUI star George Hill back to his hometown, where he promises to be not only a solid performer on the floor, but valuable in the locker room.

And, finally, confirmation that Frank Vogel is no longer the interim head coach, but it is his job for the next two seasons and possibly a third. He’ll be joined by former Lakers assistant Brian Shaw as the associate head coach and longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke.

All that momentum and nowhere to go with it. As you are probably aware, the first of July brought with it an NBA lockout, joining the NFL in a labor impasse.

Now, by the time you read this, the NFL lockout could be over … or at least within a few days of being so. All recent signals seem to indicate a promising end to the months-long negotiations.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this next year, the NBA lockout might not be over.

Unlike the NFL, which is swimming in money, the NBA is drowning in red ink. Anthony Schoettle’s piece in last week’s IBJ accurately illustrated the financial straits many NBA teams, including the Pacers, find themselves in.

The NFL has gone to great lengths to share revenue and protect the viability and competitiveness of small markets. Every September, there is a common belief among fans of each NFL team that their team has a more or less equal chance to win it all. Recent Super Bowl winners Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis stand as testament to that. I would believe (hope?) that the new collective bargaining agreement would safeguard the small markets.

The NBA? Uh, not so much. Sure, Oklahoma City is on the rise, Memphis appears headed in a positive direction, and San Antonio has been a model of excellence.

There is not enough space here to detail all the obstacles to small-market success. While the NBA has a salary cap that is supposed to be an equalizer, exceptions to the cap are plentiful. Teams willing to exceed the cap are forced to pay a luxury tax, but that is hardly a deterrent. Prime example: the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks.

As we have witnessed with the Pacers, long-term contracts with guaranteed money can handcuff a franchise for years. Witness, Jamal Tinsley. The Pacers paid the market rate to lock him up for seven years. He turned out to be a bum they couldn’t unload.

Unfortunately, and partly because of the owners’ unwillingness to police themselves, the NBA is filled with marginal talents making ridiculous salaries. For many of these players, the only butt they put into a seat is their own on the bench.

More so, if you are lucky in the draft and land a player who can become a franchise cornerstone, he is likely to flee to a glamour market at the first opportunity. Hence, LeBron James from Cleveland to Miami and Carmelo Anthony from Denver to New York.

I’m afraid the days of a Reggie Miller and Rik Smits wanting to stay here, or the likes of Chris Mullin or Mark Jackson wanting to come here, might be over.

I hope I’m wrong about that, especially when I see a young player like the Pacers’ Paul George.

At any rate, the NBA is in a fine mess and it will take protracted negotiations and considerable give from both sides to find the middle ground. Of course, it’s not without precedent. The 1998-1999 season actually became the 1999 season when a lockout dictated a 50-game schedule that didn’t begin until January.

Sadly, lost games or even a lost season won’t hurt the owners and players like it will hurt the thousands of front-office personnel, concessionaires, parking lot attendants, hospitality workers and the like who benefit from the NBA’s presence.

Whenever the NBA comes back, I just hope it’s something this city can afford.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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