James Harden, the NBA and the Myth of Small Markets
In a trade that shocked the most snark-encrusted NBA observers, the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped their hellaciously talented, hirsute guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assemblage of spare parts. Harden, the reigning sixth-man of the year, made up along with teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the core of the defending Western conference champions. The Oklahoma City Thunder were the only legitimate team standing between the restocked Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Perhaps age and chemistry will knock the Lakers aside, but absent that, their greatest threat just waved the white flag before opening day. This electric young team with title hopes just unilaterally disarmed because they claimed to be a poor small market club unable to meet the contract demands of the 23-year-old star.
Immediately the cry went out across all media, old and new: small market teams, like Oklahoma City just can't compete. As USA Today wrote, “The deal cuts to the heart of the plight of small- and mid-market teams such as the Thunder. Can they return all of their top players? Are they willing to have a payroll that surpasses the luxury tax and are they willing to pay the tax when they go over?”
Thunder management played the part of damaged small market suitor, with General Manager Sam Presti saying, "We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.” He also spoke mournfully of their need to have a “sustainable” model for developing the team. As Howard Beck wrote in the New York Times, “A system that forces a small-market wonder to give up a star player — to a team in a much larger market, no less — seems cruel and counterproductive.”
This is all nonsense. If we want to understand why the hideous Harden trade took place, we need to understand the politics and priorities of today's NBA. We need to understand that the Thunder are small-market by choice because small-markets can mean big profits. It's a business model, not a tragic geographical handicap.
First, we need to remember how the Thunder came into existence in 2008 because in this case, past has certainly proven to be prologue. In full collusion with David Stern, Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and moved them to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Stern recruited Bennett, a former member of the NBA's Board of Governors, to make this move. Why would David Stern, the man they call “Money’, choose to move a team from the 14th largest television market to the 45th? Why would he move a team to a place with ½ the per capita income? Simply, put, it’s because Oklahoma City offered hundreds of millions in corporate welfare and public revenue while Seattle did not. Using Seattle as an object lesson for any other fan base that would dare tell Stern not to feed at the public trough, was a bonus. As Bennett gushed to Stern in a private email, "You are just one of my favorite people on earth." It’s a love built on a passion for corporate welfare, a love so great that the NBA chose to think small.
The move to a "small market" has meant the best of both worlds for the swelling pockets of Clay Bennett. It has provided him with a publicly subsidized money-making machine - $35 million in profits last year according to ESPN - while also creating the illusion of scarcity. Pressure to spend can be deflected, as Presti did, onto the need for "sustainability" while prying eyes are dissuaded by anti-trust protections: protections that outrageously exist even with the infusion of public money. The blame then gets deflected onto Harden for not taking less money to stay in Oklahoma City. I have never understood how sports writers can turn so much bile on players for trying to maximize their incredibly narrow earning windows while owners, who have inherited - or in Bennett’s case, married -generational wealth, are exempt from the same criticisms. Last year's Stern engineered lockout, it should now be clear, wasn't about small-market competitive balance, but extracting wealth from the players and redistibuting it into the bank accounts of ownership.
While Harden is slammed and Presti cries the tears of the crocodile, Bennett gets to be the Bain Capital of owners: harvesting teams for profits and then throwing away their dried husks when profit margins are under any kind of threat. David Stern will retire in February 2014, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come and it’s a legacy that has cultivated a coterie of owners that put fans and communities last. The Harden trade is just a symptom of the disease.