Demarcus Cousins, playoff reseeding, and the business of the NBA

Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors, once said his team was “light years ahead” of the team’s NBA competition. It became a bit of a joke around the league. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting the best players possible leads to wins and championships. Sure, the Warriors drafted well landing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson with later lottery picks. They also got lucky that Draymond Green turned into a second-round steal. The Warriors were even luckier when a huge cap spike thanks to the NBA’s new television deal coincided with Kevin Durant’s free agency after the Warriors lost in the NBA Finals. Golden State wouldn’t have been able to afford Durant without the cap spike. Durant probably wouldn’t have joined a championship team if the Warriors didn’t blow a 3-1 lead. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s much more difficult to recognize that when you’re on the side that benefitted from the luck.

The Warriors won the 2018 NBA title going away. Other than the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, no team tested them. That’s why the NBA world was shocked and angered when the champion Warriors landed multi-time All-Star Demarcus Cousins for a paltry $5.3 million dollar deal. We won’t get into why that’s good for the star known as Boogie. We will address why it’s not bad for the NBA, and why — even with LeBron James moving to the Lakers — the NBA shouldn’t reseed their playoffs just yet.

Superteams are not bad for the NBA

Let’s get this argument out of the way right now. Superteams are not bad for the NBA. In fact, superteams are one of the reasons the NBA has grown in popularity since the 1980s. The NBA has never been about parity, even as it says it is seeking more of it in the current game. Five teams have won 50 of the 72 NBA titles. Eight teams have won 59 of the titles in the leagues 72-year existence. That’s not parity.

The 1980’s were dominated by the Lakers and Celtics. The Celtics had three hall of famers and one of the best players in the game in Larry Bird. They added Bill Walton, another former MVP and hall of famer to their 1985-1986 team. That team lost exactly one home game that season. The 1980’s Lakers had two of the top-10 basketball players of all time on their roster. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seem a lot worse than pairing Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. The Pistons were a dominant team after and then gave way to the Bulls. No one was beating the Bulls. People were saying the Bulls were bad for the NBA in the same way people are saying the Warriors are bad for the NBA now. No one was beating Jordan’s Bulls. Everyone knew it. Yet, everyone still watched. It was a giant growth period for the NBA.

That didn’t change in the 2000s. When the Lakers had Kobe Bryant and a focused Shaquille O’Neal, they were unstoppable. The game kept growing. We’ve had superteams in Boston – Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce — and Miami — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh — before the Warriors arrived. The game kept growing. The television contracts kept getting bigger. Endorsement deals lavished players with more money than their actual NBA contracts.

Look at the time periods when there were superteams and overlay those time periods with times of major growth in interest, sponsorships, television ratings, and engagement. There’s a correlation. Superteams create storylines. They create interest. They create a common enemy of fans around the league. There is so much more to the NBA than who wins the NBA Finals. Any nationally televised game that involves the Warriors versus the Lakers, Rockets, Celtics, or Sixers is going to garner huge viewership numbers. Fans may complain, but they’ll still watch.

Playoff reseeding

With LeBron James taking his talents to Hollywood, the Warriors landing Cousins, and the Rockets resigning Chris Paul, a renewed call for playoff reseeding — which was only brought up seriously a short time ago — has returned.

The general idea makes sense. The NBA should want its top 16 teams to make the playoffs because then the playoffs will be more competitive. The NBA should also want the best teams going further in the playoffs because it theoretically creates the best matchups which would lead to longer series. In turn, that should make the league and its partners more money.

The idea is shortsighted for a few reasons.

First, there is no way that owners in the currently weaker Eastern Conference would go for this idea. This takes away money from their coffers. It affects smaller market teams more. The Milwaukee Bucks could theoretically make the Eastern Conference Finals this upcoming season. That would be a monetary boon for the team’s ownership. The Bucks may not make it out of the second round if the league reseed going into the playoffs. It’s obvious what owners in Milwaukee, Orlando, or Charlotte would prefer.

The league also tends to be cyclical. The East dominated during Jordan’s era. Conference dominant is not permanent. This is an era of player control and player movement. If Kevin Durant signs with the Knicks in a few years, and Eastern conference teams develop their young talent, Western Conference owners would look pretty shortsighted forcing this change now when it benefits them temporarily.

A reseeded NBA playoffs would also force a change to the regular season. NBA teams aren’t flying coach anymore, but travel still affects athlete’s bodies in the same way it affects normal people. Traveling can be tough on sleep schedules. Traveling can lead to general fatigue. This can lead to more injuries. The NBA has actively been trying to limit fatigue and make travel less burdensome. A new NBA schedule that forces teams to travel more would go against the league’s goal of making sure its players are in the best situation.

Then there are sheer costs to take into account. A non-weighted schedule means more travel. That creates more travel expenses. The NBA would have to add more rest days, which means more days at hotels. It means more costs for the team plane. It’s not a huge line item, but for teams that operate on tight margins, it’s not great.

Then there’s the fact that some of the NBA’s biggest and most important markets are in the Eastern Conference. It’s hard enough for Eastern time zone fans to stay up and watch Pacific time zone games. That means a large portion of casual fans isn’t familiar with some of the talent in the Western Conference. It is those fans that the NBA targets during the playoffs. If Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. are out of the playoffs early, that’s an entire important swath of the country with no rooting interest. Add in the general hatred for the Warriors, and the whole fait accompli feelings of the season and it leads to potential low viewership numbers.

Final thoughts

Before this season even started, every fan “knew” the finals would be the Cavs v. Warriors with the Warriors winning. Even though the season was decided before it started, the NBA had an interest renaissance. Ratings improved year over year. The conference finals set or tied recent viewership metrics. Fans were still fully engaged.

Fans were already saying the Warriors were going to win the 2018-2019 championship, and that was before Cousins signed his short-term deal with the Warriors. Signing Cousins doesn’t make that any different. Things can and will change after this year. Kevin Durant may move on from the Warriors. Cousins deal is a one-year prove it deal to market himself for his next contract. The Warriors will have to decide whether it makes monetary sense to keep Klay Thompson and pay almost half of a billion dollars to keep their team together.

The Warriors moves will force other teams to be creative. It will force other teams to take chances. Look at what the Rockets did last year to compete with Golden State. The Lakers are in the process of building a new superteam. The Sixers will get better. The Celtics have a young core. Interest in the NBA will continue to grow. It’s easy to complain about the Warriors, but in business terms, it’s actually good for the NBA.

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