I can’t claim to be a big NBA fan.

In my native Montreal, professional basketball ranks about 41st in the hierarchy of sports, behind the NHL, the MLB, the NFL, college basketball, college hockey, high school hockey, peewee hockey, toddler hockey, curling, moose hunting, beaver watching and a sport I just invented called wockey, or hockey played underwater. As a sports fan, however, I’ve watched my share of NBA games, and I know enough about the league and its product to know that it’s in the most trouble of the four major sports leagues — and you can even throw the emerging MLS into the mix. It starts from the top down, and David Stern is as culpable as any for the part he’s played in the demise of the NBA.

This summer, Stern vetoed a trade that would have sent point guard Chris Paul to the Los AngelesLakers. The backlash was instantaneous, with fans and the media immediately portraying the commissioner as an oppressive dictator. I can understand the sentiment. Seeing the commissioner meddling in team-to-team affairs is frightening, and the act must have come as a shock to L.A. fans especially. But I can also see where Stern is coming from.

A few years ago, I attempted to create a large, successful fantasy hockey league. I recruited people to join who I knew had very little interest in the game, and who, when their teams inevitably failed to impress, were likely to give away their players for money, a favor or even just for the heck of it. I found myself stuck in a situation I had created, vetoing trades to attempt to preserve the integrity of what I had created. As expected, the league fell apart.
As oversimplified as the comparison may be, I think it holds true. David Stern is paying the price for a mistake — both on paper and in terms of attitude — that the league made, and he has had to take drastic measures to try to stop it.

So what was this mistake? It dates back to 1984, when the NBA’s salary cap was reintroduced for the coming season. Unlike a so-called hard cap that resides in the NHL and NFL, the NBA introduced a system that could be manipulated in many different ways, with a variety of exceptions of which teams could take advantage. Boston manipulated this cap so they could afford their big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and Miami did the same with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While the Celtics lead the league this year with a salary of approximately $87 million, the Raptors are spending a league-low of $44 million. The salary cap is $54 million, begging the question: If teams don’t have to abide by it, what is the point of having a cap?

The bigger problem that this soft cap has created, however, is the consequence it has for small- market organizations. With cash-happy teams like the Lakers, Nets and Knicks looking to emulate the Boston and Miami blueprint and players seeing the success of the few who have jumped ship for greener pastures, it has become nearly impossible for cash-strapped teams to compete. New Orleans, for example, would never be able to afford $80 million of salary, without which they will be hard-pressed to remain competitive. So why would Chris Paul have any reason to stay there?
Teams also begin to focus on the present instead of building for the future. Because teams know they can’t get fair value for their stars, they become reluctant to deal them and desperate for them to re-sign — to sell tickets and keep the fan-base interested as much as to win games. This has led to teams like the Magic doing something that in any other league — or, let’s face it, any other industry — would be unthinkable: Giving Dwight Howard, a player, full power over the future of Head Coach Stan Van Gundy and General Manager Otis Smith. Hierarchy exists for a reason; no matter how skilled or acclaimed a newspaper columnist is, he or she would never be allowed to fire an editor. Small-market teams are being forced to break from hierarchy. Because players have thrown loyalty out the window, teams are being forced to do the same. In the NBA, the individual has become greater than the team. That’s when you know that your league is in trouble.

The NBA needs to realize the path it’s heading down before it’s too late — before Kobe is handed ownership of the Lakers, Durant is given presidency of the Thunder and Jeremy Lin becomes head coach of the Knicks. Players want to win and treat free agency accordingly, fleeing to teams that are already established. Unfortunately, the way the league is currently structured, there are only a dozen or so teams that can. And there’s nothing short of having the Orlando Supermen play at the Howard Arena in Dwight, Fla., that any of the others can do about it.

Arik Parnass is a freshman in the College. CANDID CANADIAN appears every Tuesday.

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