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Welcome to the No Benjamins Association

The financial state of the NBA depressed Bill Simmons during All-Star Weekend and the trade deadline. But that's nothing compared to the scary days that lie ahead. Bill

I skipped my annual NBA All-Star Weekend column because I was frantically trying to finish my book. At least that’s how I rationalized it. I need to finish this book. I have a deadline. I can’t afford to spend that writing time on anything else. But after reflecting for a few days, I came to a sobering conclusion: The book was a convenient excuse. I could have found time to pump out that column. I just didn’t want to hand it in.


See, it wouldn’t have been a typical All-Star Weekend account for me. It would have been about money. You might remember me writing that the NBA was the No Balls Association two years ago. Now it’s the No Benjamins Association. Nobody is rolling in Benjamins anymore. Everyone is scared. Money hangs over everything.

That’s what I ended up discussing for four solid days in Phoenix. Hands down, it was the most depressing All-Star Weekend I’ve ever attended. Celebrities were scarce. The parties weren’t as good or plentiful. Even the number of groupies seemed lower than usual. It’s not as if everyone was drinking Natural Light and eating Hamburger Helper, but still, when you’re celebrating a weekend with the No Benjamins Association, you know it. We should have been talking about Kevin Durant‘s coming-out party, a potentially delicious see-if-you-can-top-this battle between Kobe and LeBron at the game (never happened), whether H-O-R-S-E worked, who might emerge in a wide-open playoff race, even whether the Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard dunk contest “battle” was too contrived … only everything kept coming back to that dark cloud of money.

For once, the league’s problems have nothing to do with talent, drugs, racial issues or how the sport is being played. With the country embroiled in its worst economic crisis in 80 years, the NBA is quietly bracing for its own little D-Day … only outsiders don’t fully realize or care. Clearly, we wouldn’t put this budding debacle on par with the Gulf War, the collapse of American car companies, the real estate quagmire, the implosion of Wall Street, the decline of the American dollar, the shaky footing of previously untouchable media institutions (newspapers, magazines, TV networks, movie studios and publishing companies), or even Vegas and the porn industry caving financially. But All-Star Weekend invariably reflects the state of the league itself: The shop talk at restaurants, hotel bars, parties and even during breaks at the Technology Summit provides a nice feel for how things are going (good and bad). Every 2008 conversation centered around four things: LeBron’s evolution as a superstar, the juicy possibility of a Celtics-Lakers Finals, the big Shaq/Kidd trades and the rehabilitation of New Orleans as a tourist attraction.

This season? We talked about money. Constantly. We didn’t even know about the line of credit on the horizon; that didn’t leak until the Monday after the All-Star Game. (On Thursday, we learned that 12 teams will accept the league’s offer to borrow $200 million from JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, with between $13 million and $20 million available to each team. I found this ironic after learning in Phoenix that David Stern and Jerry Colangelo blew a jaw-dropping $100 million on the entire Redeem Team process from beginning to end. My how times have changed.) We knew about layoffs of employees within the league and various franchises. We knew various local and national sponsors were bailing, most notably car companies and major banks (two staples for the NBA). We knew certain franchises were losing significant wads of money and reacting accordingly. (Details are still trickling out. For instance, after the trade deadline, The Sacramento Bee reported the Kings would have lost $25 million had they not dumped Brad Miller‘s salary and bought out Mikki Moore, and the newspaper’s Kings blog reported team employees were no longer allowed to work overtime or eat dinner in the media room.) Even trade talk — normally a staple of any All-Star Weekend — revolved more around themes such as, “They have to cut payroll,” “They can’t take on any money right now” and “They’re too terrified of the tax to do anything.”

Raef LaFrentz

You know who was mentioned in more “Where do you think he’s going?” scenarios than anyone besides Amare Stoudemire? Raef LaFrentz‘s Expiring Contract. That thing got mentioned so many times it could have hired a PR staff and an agent. Here’s the kicker: Raef can’t play. He’s a basketball invalid. He has been injured since something like 1973. Portland’s insurance company repays the Blazers 80 percent of his salary, making him a cap figure and little else. In the No Benjamins Association, that makes him a freaking commodity. Teams wanted to dump clearly superior players on Portland at the deadline just to get Raef’s insurance money. Phoenix would have traded Shaq for Raef and Channing Frye‘s expiring contract in a heartbeat. Jersey supposedly offered Vince Carter and two protected No. 1’s for Raef’s contract, and Milwaukee supposedly would have given up Richard Jefferson and either Joe Alexander or a future No. 1 for it. Incredibly, the Blazers turned everyone down. And this is a team bankrolled by Paul Allen.

And so we finally crossed the imaginary line between “building a good team while being fiscally responsible” and “being fiscally responsible and not giving a crap about anything else.” (In other words, the rest of the league finally caught up to the Grizzlies, Clippers and Suns. Robert Sarver, who knew? We always thought you were heartless, now we know you’re a visionary!) Every pre-deadline decision was predicated on fear: fear of the great unknown, fear of a shrinking salary cap (dropping for the second time ever next year) and a dwindling luxury tax threshold (dropping $2.5 million next year), fear of a landscape where middle-class Americans might collectively decide, “I no longer want to buy tickets for sporting events.” Sacramento gift-wrapped the two prizes (Brad Miller and John Salmons) in a seven-player deal just to clear money. The Lakers dumped their best 3-point bomber (Vlad Radmanovic) to clear cap space down the road (and they’re only trying to win a title). Cleveland passed up Shaq for free (or in this case, Wally Szczerbiak‘s expiring deal plus Sasha Pavlovic) because it couldn’t take on cash. New Orleans tried to give away Tyson Chandler (only its third-best player) for expiring contracts before The Team That Shall Not Be Named vetoed the trade because it “didn’t like his physical” (or, as many insiders believe, because co-owner Aubrey McClendon had second thoughts about taking on Chandler’s contract since McClendon reportedly lost close to $2 billion in the Wall Street crash).

Amare Stoudemire

The most important trade for playoff purposes? A seemingly minor three-teamer between Houston (landed Brian Cook and Kyle Lowry), Orlando (landed Rafer Alston) and Memphis (landed a 2009 first-rounder from Orlando). It happened because Memphis is hemorrhaging money and supposedly saved $2 million, even if it meant turning Lowry (who had been outplaying 2008 lottery pick Mike Conley for two solid seasons) into a meaningless pick in one of the worst drafts ever. I’d say the Grizzlies hurled a flaming bag of dog feces at their fans, but they don’t have any fans. Still, that trade (as well as the canceled Chandler deal, New Orleans’ way of turning the Turd Sandwich into its team’s official mascot) reminded me of the shady stuff that happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the league struggled to find a foothold, franchises hopped around, and every trade happened because of money or because a team wanted to nefariously dump a starter who was snorting enough cocaine to kill a police horse.

How did we get here? The economy turned in August, well after deposits had been sent in for season tickets, courtside seats and luxury suites. The league would love for you to believe that attendance hasn’t been affected, but the NBA’s official tally counts only total “customers,” counted as paid tickets, comps (seats given to celebrities, sponsors, friends of the team or whomever, a number that can be fudged any way you want), discounted tickets and no-shows. The numbers don’t reflect any falloffs with parking money, concessions, merchandise and restaurant/bar revenue around arenas. (For instance, at least half the concession stands have been closed for every Clippers home game this season — except when the Lakers or Celtics were the opponents.) They definitely don’t reflect aggressive giveaways like Chicago’s recent buy-one-get-one-free promotion or Memphis’ Pepsi Family Plan Pack (four tickets, four Pepsis and four hot dogs for $48). When you hear the Grizzlies are averaging 12,600 a game, that’s like bragging, “We sold 12,600 books this week” and glossing over the fact that 65 percent of them were bargain books for $3.99 or less. (Amazing but true fact confirmed to me by multiple people: Memphis makes about $300,000 per home game. That’s gross, not net. Even more amazing, four or five other teams are within $100,000 of that number.) So, yeah, attendance is “up” 1.9 percent, as this recent Sports Business Daily story would lead you to believe. But not really. Especially when you include Seattle’s move to a sold-out arena in Hijack City and how it skewed the overall numbers.

Here’s a little game to play during your next NBA outing: Look around for how many suites are dark. (You’ll notice them specifically in the corners or behind the baskets.) A dark suite means either that nobody bought it or that somebody did buy it for the season, then made the decision, “Screw it, let’s save the $1,200 [or whatever the number is] on food and drink and not give tonight’s suite tickets to anyone.” (Note: Only a handful of NBA teams control the concessions in their arenas.) That makes the less desirable suites somewhat of a sunk cost — those companies can’t get the money back for the season, but at the very least, they won’t lose more money on that purchase. What will happen next season? They just won’t buy the suite.

When I write that NBA teams are unleashing aggressive promotions on their fans to boost attendance numbers, I’m not exaggerating. My favorites from this season:

Snowbird Ticket Exchange (Nets): New Jersey season-ticket holders can swap their tickets for a pair of tickets for the NHL’s Panthers if they’re ever in Florida, and vice versa. No, really.

College Night (Wizards): Every Wednesday, upper deck tickets cost $10 to anyone with a college ID. Come and puke in the upper deck!

International Night (Grizzlies): Heavy discounts for any game involving a visiting foreign player … which is every game, but whatever.

Pizza Pack Deal (Pacers): A pair of balcony tickets for 10 games for $60 (plus one free medium pizza from Donatos), or two club seats for $500 (yes, you still get the pizza).

Guys’ Night Out (Kings): For $55 a person, you get a $40 ticket, a Kings combo meal and a chance to meet Kings cheerleaders before the game! Lap dances not included.

Bojangles Friday Feast (Bobcats): All you can eat in the upper bowl (chicken, hot dogs, soft drinks, popcorn) for just $35. Or, as it’s also called, the Joe House Special.

Eat Cheese Curds Until You Throw Up (Bucks): OK, I made this one up. But they do have a “Guys Night Out” where you get two $37 seats, two beer/wine vouchers, two Bucks pilsner glasses and Courtside Club postgame passes ($5 wings!). Yet another reason to move to Milwaukee. By the way, please do not hurl your pilsner glasses at Dan Gadzuric.

Again, don’t trust those attendance numbers. Walk-up sales and short-term packages (12-game packs, eight-game packs and the like) haven’t gone into a free fall only because of steep discounts, and the drop-off for the Big Attendance Three (premium season tickets, suites and courtsides) won’t be felt until next season. Well, unless you’re talking about the Clippers — the franchise with the worst luck in sports history — who picked the 2008-09 season, of all years, to offer a “You can change your mind on season tickets up until Opening Night and we’ll give you your money back” guarantee. In a related story, they’re getting hammered this season. I’d give you the actual drop in revenue net, but the NBA guards that stuff as tightly as the Secret Service guards Obama. As far as we “know,” the 2009 Clippers are “averaging” nearly 16,000 paying fans per game. That’s about as realistic as Mike Dunleavy claiming he spends $100,000 a year on his wardrobe.

(Sorry, he never claimed that. I just felt like making fun of his wardrobe. The fans in my section at Staples Center finally figured out how Dunleavy dresses for games: like someone who owns a funeral home. No, really, he wears ugly gray suits or light blue suits; they always look as if he bought them at a two-for-one sale; and he always looks like he’s going to tell you how sorry he is that your aunt passed away. He even slicks his hair back like an extra on “Six Feet Under.” In a way, it’s the perfect look for this season. He’s the undertaker. In fact, that’s what I hope Clippers fans start calling him: The Undertaker. It’s perfect.)

Look around during Clippers games, and you can see clouds everywhere. Half the arena is empty most nights, unless they’re playing a team with transplant fans in Southern California — such as when the Staples Center was half-filled with Celtics fans Wednesday — and there are consistently 12-15 empty courtside seats for every game. And it’s not just the Clips. When Boston played in Denver on Monday, the place brimmed with so many Celtics fans that Carmelo Anthony angrily stormed off before Boston’s blowout victory even concluded. That has been a recurring theme in general: Fans of popular visiting teams (Boston, New York, Cleveland, the Lakers) overpowering home arenas of unpopular teams. Flick around on any busy NBA night, and you’ll see a staggering number of empty seats between the baskets in the first 15 rows in Miami, Memphis, New Jersey, Charlotte, Indiana. … I mean, we’re a few weeks away from the NBA adopting Vegas’ current policy of closing off as much of the blackjack area as possible so the open tables seem crowded. Section 321, come on down, we need you courtside! And TV cameras, please, don’t show any wide-angle shots of the north end of the stadium! The NBA is turning into the WNBA. Just a little.

Yet declining attendance isn’t even one of the league’s four biggest problems right now. I would rank the top four like this:

1. The 2011 Lockout That Hasn’t Happened Yet
Oh, but it’s coming. Fading power broker David Falk was the first to play it up publicly; hoping to stir interest in his new book, he happily played the doomsday card in a New York Times feature Sunday. (Sadly, none of the chapters in Falk’s book is called, “How I Convinced Elton Brand To Stab The Clippers In The Back And Sign With Philly So People Would Think That I’m Not Washed Up As A Super-Agent, Even Though I Am.”) But you know what? That conniving has-been nailed it when he called the NBA’s current system “broken.” The revenue-sharing system dictates specific thresholds for the cap and tax, which is fine as long as revenue doesn’t drop dramatically with teams already tied into unsavory player contracts through 2010, 2011 or, in Philly’s case with Brand, 2075 (or maybe it just feels that way to Sixers fans).

Think of the arrangement like this: Let’s say my deal with were tied directly to revenue pulled in by the Web site. Let’s say ESPN paid me $5 million a year for each of the past four years, and I felt pretty good about staying there with that number. Let’s say I hired 10 interns and locked them into deals for $100,000 apiece through 2012 (thinking I could easily make those payments because the total each year was only one-fifth of my salary). Then, let’s say ESPN told me this coming December, “We got crushed by the economy and our revenue is way down, so your 2010 salary will be $950,000.”

Well, what do I do? I already owe more money than I’m making just in 2010. Because I mistakenly projected what salary numbers I THOUGHT I COULD PAY and never anticipated my revenue would drop that dramatically, basically, I’m screwed. (Hold on, three exclamation points coming.) Welcome to the NBA’s world!!! Teams are locked into swollen contracts that suddenly make no sense, whether it’s non-franchise players making franchise money (Vince, T-Mac, Shaq, Brand, Baron, Jermaine O’Neal, Dalembert, Okafor, etc.) or overpaid role players making six to 600 times what they should be making (Marko Jaric, Nazr Mohammed, Larry Hughes, Radmanovic, Mo Peterson, etc.). In the irony of ironies, the league finally learned something that fans knew all along — nobody was buying a ticket to see the likes of Luol Deng, Gerald Wallace or Corey Maggette, much less Tim Thomas or Andres Nocioni. With the cap/tax thresholds slipping, teams can’t dodge them by dumping overpaid mistakes like when Phoenix bribed Seattle to take Kurt Thomas‘ contract and two No. 1 picks last year. Someone In The Know told me that 20 of the 30 NBA teams will lose money this season … and we haven’t even come close to hitting rock bottom yet. Just wait until next season.

Which brings us to the Lockout That Hasn’t Happened Yet. Unless the players’ association agrees to major concessions by the summer of 2011 — highly doubtful because that would involve applying common sense — the owners will happily lock out players as soon as the current CBA expires, then play the same devious waiting game from the summer of 1998. David Stern will grow another scruffy beard. The owners will plant their feet in the sand, grab the tug-of-war rope and dig in. Only this time, they KNOW they will win. See, we learned a dirty little secret in the last lockout: An inordinate number of NBA players live paycheck to paycheck. Yes, even the guys making eight figures a year. You can play high-stakes poker with them … and you will win.

David Stern

Quick tangent: You’re asking yourself, “Wait, how can a dude making $8-10 million a year live paycheck to paycheck?” Easy. First, he’s only banking 40 percent once the IRS and agents are done with him. Second, he’s probably overpaying for multiple houses and luxury cars just to keep up with everyone else. Third, he’s buying expensive clothes and dinners, chartering planes, buying expensive TVs, going to casinos, and paying for friends and family at every turn. Fourth, there’s a decent chance he’s supporting a bunch of people back home — family and extended family — and not just that, but he might have gotten roped into funding at least one dumb “investment” by a loser family member. (“Uncle Lenny, I thought you told me this nightclub couldn’t miss?”) Fifth, he is, um, “dating” frequently — even if he’s married — and if you “date” frequently, mistakes might happen that lead to hospital bills and child support payments. (If you catch my drift.) And sixth, he’s not adding these numbers up in his head because he’s thinking, “I don’t need to worry about money, I’m making $10 mil a year!” I know it sounds farfetched, but I’ve heard the Inexplicable Tale Of Financial Woe with NBA stars too many times to count … and that doesn’t include stars such as Scottie Pippen who were screwed by their financial advisers. It’s a long and inglorious list, and if you don’t think we’re headed for 15 “Real Sports” segments in the next decade with Bernie Goldberg catching up with Broke Former NBA Superstar X, you’re kidding yourself. Remember the lessons of the ’99 lockout — the players HAD to come back. And it wasn’t because they missed playing.

Team Stern and the owners know this better than anyone. They will pick the next fight, and again, they will win. When the players’ union waves a white flag and the lockout finally ends (2012? 2013?), I predict a raise of the individual salary max (to $24-25 million), a softer salary cap, a restriction on long-term contracts (can’t be more than three years unless you’re re-signing your own star), the elimination of opt-out clauses and the midlevel exemption, and the rookie age limit rising to 20. That’s seven predictions in all … and I bet I’ll end up nailing six. Will the league survive a yearlong disappearance? What about two years? We’re less than 29 months from starting to find out. If you think it’s a good idea to disappear for even six months in shaky economic times, ask any Writers Guild member how that turns out. These wealthy or used-to-be-wealthy owners don’t want to keep losing money just to feed their ego by continuing to own a basketball team. They will make other arrangements, the same way they would arrange to sell their favorite yacht because they didn’t feel like splurging on gasoline anymore. These guys don’t want to fix the system; they want to reinvent it.

(And by the way, nobody loves basketball more than me. I mean, NOBODY. But when an NBA player with two years remaining on his contract for a total of $44 million shows up for the season out of shape, complains most of the year, lets down his teammates and fans again and again, lands in some trade rumors and decides, “Instead of getting traded to a team I don’t like, I’m going to announce that I’m getting microfracture surgery four days before the trade deadline and kill any potential trade, and even better, I’ll be healed by next spring, just in time to showcase myself for another contract,” and successfully pulls this off — with no repercussions from anybody — then yes, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Because that was disgusting. Tracy McGrady, you are officially indefensible for the rest of eternity. Even your cousin Vince wouldn’t have done that. And that’s saying something.)

2. The fear of trading ultimately hurting the quality of the league
Actually, I shouldn’t say that; it depends on what you like. If you’re into sloppier basketball with the caveat that more contenders now have a chance to make the conference finals (kind of like what has happened to the NFL in the past few years), you might enjoy the “Anything might happen!” aspect of this spring’s playoffs. If you enjoy watching basketball played at its highest possible level, if you enjoy results that make a slight bit of sense and if you enjoy comparing current great teams to past ones … you probably won’t enjoy the next three postseasons.

Even though my perfectly coiffed colleague Ric Bucher already tackled this topic, allow me to pile on: Once upon a time, contenders added one in-season piece to push them over the top (think Mychal Thompson, Brian Williams, Clyde Drexler, Pau Gasol, Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, etc.). This season? It swung the opposite way. Detroit got a jump start with its shrewd Iverson-Billups trade, an unapologetic salary dump that conned a surprising number of fans and media members into thinking that (A) the Pistons did it to “shake things up,” and (B) it might work. (Important note: Joe Dumars could trade a 2009 Maybach for a 2005 Prius and $25,000 and the media’s reaction would be, “What a guy, he loves the environment! It’s a shame everyone doesn’t think that way!”) Every other contender except Orlando had a fixable flaw, thought about fixing it, then said, “Nahhhhh … maybe we can win anyway.” Boston never replaced James Posey. Cleveland never landed a quality shooter with size. The Lakers never found Andrew Bynum insurance. Portland seems content to be just a Promising Young Team With a Huge Internet Following for the next 12 years. Utah, San Antonio and Dallas stood pat with expiring contracts to move. And the Hornets nearly committed franchise suicide with a Chandler trade that seemed curious considering they have attendance triggers tied to their current lease.

(Note: Any conspiracy theorist — here I am! — could argue the Hornets intentionally antagonized their fans in a last-ditch attempt to shed the lease. They need to average about 15,000 fans to activate the lease through 2014, and they’re a few hundred over this season … but that number would have dropped after the Chandler trade, right? Would you put a ploy that devious past the likes of George Shinn? Me neither.)

Even Amare’s brief appearance on the bargain rack had an unprecedented conclusion. Here was the perfect storm for a panic trade — the Suns struggling with a bad coaching hire, their fans turning on an unhappy Amare, the franchise basically announcing, “We’re going broke, we will take 60 cents on the dollar for our best player” — and nobody took advantage. In three-plus decades of following the league, I can’t remember a fire sale for a player of Amare’s caliber being greeted with such dramatic disinterest. This guy will average a 29-9 if you run with him and he’s happy. Any takers? Any? Nope. That’s the NBA in 2009 — you’re better off with LaFrentz’s basketball corpse than a four-time All-Star.

3. Lousy officiating
This has nothing to do with the economy, obviously. But what the hell? Seriously, what the hell? HOW COULD THE REFEREES BE THIS CONSISTENTLY BAD??? THEY ARE KILLING THE PRODUCT! THEY ARE KILLING IT!!!! I CAN’T STOP USING CAPS!!!! How are we enabling such staggering incompetence on a day-to-day basis?

A great example: I knew we were in trouble before Wednesday’s Clips-Celts game when I saw Bennett Salvatore, Courtney Kirkland and Leroy Richardson, or as they’re more commonly known, “The Three Stooges.” I told my wife, “These guys will find a way to decide this game, you watch.” She didn’t care; she was more interested in devouring the bag of Sour Patch Kids we had just purchased. But sure enough, with the Celts somehow leading by just one (they were awful all night) and only 35 seconds to play, Rajon Rondo missed a free throw that ricocheted to Mardy Collins, only Big Baby Davis somehow swiped the ball away as Richardson’s whistle blew. The Boston bench exploded, thinking it was an undeserved foul, only Richardson had blown his whistle for a Clippers timeout. One problem: Collins never had the ball. He fumbled the easy rebound to Davis even as the Clippers were signalling for time. Richardson granted the timeout because he’s inept at his job and didn’t make sure Collins, you know, actually secured the rebound. Did you know you can call timeouts when you don’t have the basketball? Me neither. As a kicker, the Clips scored the winning basket on their free possession.

These screw-ups seem to happen four times a week. The league claims to care and made a big stink about hiring Ronald Johnson this past summer to clean things up. Nope. It’s still a mess. Three weeks ago, the Lakers and Celtics played the highest-rated regular-season cable game in 13 seasons. Guess which crew the NBA assigned to that beauty? That’s right, Leon Wood, Monty McCutchen and Jim Capers Jr. (only because Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne were unavailable). So TNT’s record audience was treated to a comically choppy slopfest in which Boston’s best player (Kevin Garnett) fouled out on a touch foul 35 feet from the basket with five minutes to play. The NBA: Where Amazingly Bad Officiating Happens. When will someone take responsibility and admit that something is seriously, drastically, undeniably wrong? Why can’t Stern announce in June, “Our best three referees right now are Steve Javie, Mark Wunderlich and Joey Crawford, and we want the best championship series possible, so those guys will be handling every 2009 Finals game because we care about the quality of our sport?” For a league that claimed to take the Donaghy scandal so seriously, we haven’t seen any inclination that it did. Not even a hint. Not a whiff. It makes me want to commit a flagrant foul 2 on myself. But I digress.

4. The dawning of NBA Franchise Hot Potato.
Ohhhhhhhh, it’s coming.

I became obsessed with this topic over All-Star Weekend and solicited input from as many people in the know as I could. Franchise Hot Potato hinges on five factors in all, although only three need to be in play. You need a team with a dwindling fan base and/or bailing sponsors and suite/courtside customers. (I count 11: Indiana, Memphis, Milwaukee, Sacramento, New Jersey, New Orleans, Miami, Orlando, Minnesota, Charlotte and Philly.) You need a team trapped in an aging stadium that can’t drum up local money for a new one. (I count three: Sacramento, Jersey and Milwaukee.) You need an owner who purchased his team because he was worth a ton of money ON PAPER … only now, he’s worth significantly less and might even be worth $10 for all we know. (Consensus candidates for this list: Phoenix, Hijack City, Jersey, Memphis, Indiana, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Charlotte … and, surprisingly, Sacramento and Cleveland.) You need cities with NBA-ready, modern arenas either finished or about to be finished that would love nothing more than stealing a team. (Definitely Kansas City, Anaheim, San Jose, Louisville, Tulsa and Pittsburgh; possibly Columbus, St. Louis; and just for fun, let’s throw in Montreal and London.) And you need a struggling team that can actually extricate itself from its lease.

The last “need” is easier said than done, as the Grizzlies would tell you — owner Michael Heisley would leave treadmarks fleeing Memphis if he weren’t tied to FedEx Forum through 2015. Then again, Hijack City owners McClendon and Clay Bennett showed us a nice blueprint for weaseling out of a lease in Seattle last year, a strategy best described as, “make up selfish reasons to leave, make your move, leave a trail of broken hearts, bastardize the integrity of the league, then make everything OK by just paying everyone off because the city will be greedy enough to accept a cash settlement right away over fighting you in court for the next six years.” Thank you, fellas. You guys will be remembered as the Lewis and Clark of Scumbag NBA Owners.

Looking at the next 15 months only, the consensus of people in the know was that multiple NBA franchises (guesses ranged from three to eight) will move cities, get sold to new owners or throw themselves on the mercy of the league (meaning the NBA would effectively take over operations of that franchise, kinda like what happens in the MLS or WNBA). Nobody believes the league will contract or merge two franchises, simply because Stern is stubborn that way; that would be an undeniable sign of weakness in his eyes. (If you don’t believe me, I have five words for you: Season 13 of the WNBA.) On the other hand, he’s the one who opened the door for 21st-century franchise relocation with his callous handling of Seattle’s situation. The other 29 NBA cities learned an ominous lesson from SonicsGate: If you don’t heed every arena-related wish of your team, no matter how insane or unrealistic those wishes are, then it might move and the commissioner’s office will not protect you. As long as we have cities like K.C. and Anaheim waiting with open arms, teams will keep moving. And they will.

(Important Note No. 2: I already planted this seed to my friend Jason Whitlock, but it’s worth mentioning again … I am fine with the Kings moving back to Kansas City because Sacramento stole them in the first place. It’s like if I left the Sports Gal for Megan Fox, stayed with her for 15 years, then the Sports Gal stole me back and we spent the rest of our lives together. You couldn’t blame the Sports Gal for this, right? Hold on … lemme enjoy this scenario for a few more seconds … hold on … hold on … OK. Also, I like the thought of Pittsburgh landing the Nets or Grizzlies for some reason. Did you know Pittsburgh’s team in the ABL (circa 1962) was named “The Pittsburgh Rens” after Pittsburgh’s annual renaissance festival? You’re not gonna believe this, but they went under. Then their next team was called the Pittsburgh Pipers (ABA, late-’60s) and they went under. Regardless of what you think about Pittsburgh as an NBA city, at least admit it can come up with phenomenally dumb nicknames. Keep your fingers crossed for the Nets to become the Pittsburgh Ironmen (What? They already tried that one?) or the Pittsburgh Coal.)

So that’s the climate for the No Benjamins Association right now: Murky, unpredictable and not so lucrative. And you wonder why I didn’t want to write about All-Star Weekend. Looking at the big picture, the league won’t struggle even 1/10th as much as the NHL in years to come — of all the wildest predictions I heard in Phoenix, the craziest came from a connected executive who predicted that fifteen NHL teams would go under within the next two years (and was dead serious) — and Major League Baseball is about to get creamed beyond belief. Other than the NFL, the NBA will emerge from this financial quagmire in the best shape of any professional sport; not just because its billion-dollar deals with Disney and Turner (inked fortuitously in the summer of 2007) run through the 2015-16 season but because the Lockout That Hasn’t Happened Yet will ultimately solve every major league issue except its stupefyingly dreadful officiating.

One last thought: For most of the decade, Stern and his team kept thinking, “We’re going global, we’re going global” and never anticipated their American foundation could crumble. But it might — at least to some degree — and even if the league ultimately lands in a more econonically feasible place, we might see some things in the next three or four years that we never imagined. You know, just like we’re seeing with every other business in this country. Maybe the NBA really is America’s game.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.

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Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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