Commissioner David Stern loves to see the Knicks and other big-market teams go deep into the playoffs -- that has always been the suspicion of small-market teams and their fans. But I'm not so sure that point of view exists this year.
Stern and his imminent replacement, deputy comissioner Adam Silver, must be taking heart in the ongoing failures of the Knicks and Nets, whose crosstown meeting Thursday night in Brooklyn was an exhibition of extravagant incompetence. For the short term, at least, these two bloated teams have been suggesting that the new collective bargaining agreement may be on the right track. Two years after a lockout that was meant to create hope for teams from the fiscally limited NBA markets, the Nets and Knicks are demonstrating that big money doesn't buy success.
While small-market teams have been limiting their expenses in accordance with the new CBA, the Nets and Knicks tried to spend their way to title contention this year. The two teams of New York are committed to $312 million in player salaries and luxury-tax penalties between them -- far more than the costs of the 76ers, Suns, Jazz, Bucks and Hawks altogether -- and what has all of that money earned them? The Big Apple teams are a combined 9-27.
On Thursday, the Knicks snapped their nine-game losing streak by clobbering the Nets 113-83 in a game that weakened the value of the dollar in the NBA. Both franchises are able to draw from a seemingly unlimited pool of resources, and all they've got to show for that money are a couple of undisciplined organizations. After assembling the most expensive roster the league has ever seen, the Nets brought in a coach with no coaching experience. In order to compensate for that hiring of Jason Kidd, they spent a record $6 million on Lawrence Frank with the understanding that he would be expected to take on more responsibility than the normal assistant coach. When Frank did what he had been hired to do, Kidd reassigned him amid veiled claims that Frank was undermining him.
While the NBA's more successful teams are worrying about costs, the Nets are facing $6 million in severance because they hired a coach with zero management experience to oversee the most expensive roster in history.
It's important to note that the 5-14 Nets are only three games out of the playoffs in the putrid Eastern Conference, and they ought to be able to make up that ground after point guard Deron Williams returns. They can still salvage something from this season. Even so, the first impression they've created is authentic and damning: It couldn't be more obvious that they are an organization without structure.
If the coaches can't define their roles among themselves, then it's only natural that roles have gone undefined among the players. The miserable stats of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett hint at one of two likelihoods: either their careers are in free-fall decline or they don't know how they're supposed to fit in after coming from a system of structure and leadership with Doc Rivers in Boston.
There is a chance that Kidd, Garnett and Pierce -- former champions headed to the Hall of Fame -- will learn from their early mistakes as the Nets regain their health; the same goes for New York's Mike Woodson, who has won at least 53 games in each of his two previous full seasons as a head coach, in 2012-13 with the Knicks and 2009-10 with the Hawks. Center Tyson Chandler's return ought to provide the Knicks with some of the energy and defensive leadership they've been lacking in his absence.
Even if both teams improve, these early results have meaning in the larger context. I find myself wondering if their vast resources do more harm than good.
When you organize the 30 NBA teams by payroll into three financial classes, it becomes much clearer that the league's most expensive teams aren't getting a lot for their money.
10 UPPER-CLASS TEAMS: Averaging $95 million in payroll and taxes, with a combined record of 89-93.
10 MIDDLE-CLASS TEAMS: Averaging $67 million in payroll, with a combined record of 122-66.
10 LOWER-CLASS TEAMS: Averaging $58 million payroll, with a combined record of 67-119.
The middle class features seven of the league's 10 winningest franchises -- including the Pacers, Trail Blazers and Spurs, each with a better record than any of the upper-class spenders. These teams are being managed with discipline and attention to detail -- qualities that have been neglected by the Nets this season and by the Knicks for many years running.
The main reason the East has become such an embarrassment is because the rich teams of the Atlantic Division aren't holding up their end. New York, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia -- these rank among the league's biggest markets -- are a combined 30-62.
Part of the problem is that the Celtics (8-12) and 76ers (7-12) are transitioning into a new era. But it's also revealing that both of those franchises are outplaying the New York teams that were built at much greater expense to win now. The impulse to spend their way to success has deepened their graves, because neither the Nets nor the Knicks have the rights to their first-round pick in the 2014 draft, and their status as taxpayers curtails their free-agent exceptions in the new CBA.
Now that Celtics president Danny Ainge is looking like a shrewd negotiator for fleecing the Nets of three draft picks in exchange for Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry, it is less likely that we'll be seeing other big-market teams following the Nets' example. The trade value for older NBA stars has plummeted because of the disaster in Brooklyn.
Among the six taxpayers this season -- the two New York teams, Miami, Chicago (minus Derrick Rose) and the two teams in Los Angeles -- the only potential Finalists appear to be the Heat and Clippers. More frugal organizations that are exercising financial discipline to stay below the tax threshold are thriving. This will be worth monitoring over the rest of the season and in years to come, but it appears as if the failures of New York are helping the belt-tightening goals of the new CBA to come true.
• Kobe Bryant moves closer to a return. Bryant is targeting Sunday's game against the Raptors in Los Angeles for his season debut after performing impressively at practice this week. The 9-9 Lakers have remained within reach of the playoffs, and Bryant's return couldn't come at a better time as they deal with injuries to Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake. Other stars returning from Achilles surgery would not appreciate the pressure of having to produce immediately, but Kobe needs to be needed.
• Week of the fractured hand. Four important players suffered broken hands in one painful week. Anthony Davis was off to an All-Star start for the Pelicans, J.J. Redick was having his best year with the Clippers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had helped position the Bobcats for a potential playoff run and Paul Pierce added to the bad news that has defined the Nets. Redick's injury is the most damaging. In addition to the fracture of his shooting hand, he also suffered a torn ligament and is expected to be sidelined for as long as two months from a contender that has been struggling to define itself in the early going.
• The unstoppable Spurs. They are 15-3, and this week Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker celebrated their 469th win together. Only two trios have won more games: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish of the Celtics (540 wins) and Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper of the Lakers (490). But those 1980s teams never stretched together the run of consistent excellence of the three Spurs, who are pursuing a 13th straight year of championship contention.
• Mexico City disaster. A generator fire outside the Mexico City Arena filled the building with smoke Wednesday and forced the postponement of the Spurs-Timberwolves game, which will be played in Minneapolis. The NBA's future lies beyond the borders of the U.S. and Canada, and that future will always be interesting and unpredictable.
• Anthony Bennett to play minutes at small forward. The key to creating a productive role for the No. 1 pick depends on his underperforming teammates. The Cavaliers' 4-12 start was the fault of their experienced players, as opposed to their rookie power forward, who was averaging 2.4 points and shooting 24.1 percent in 11.4 minutes. But better news was emerging this week: The Cavs beat the Bulls and the hot Nuggets as Andrew Bynum provided 34 points and 17 rebounds in the two wins. If Bynum can provide steady production in the paint, then the Cavs ought to contend for the playoffs in the horrid East.
• Kyle Korver ties record. The Hawks' swingman on Wednesday made a three-pointer for the 89th straight game to tie Dana Barros' 18-year-old record. It is to Korver's credit that he is not one of these three-point shooters who hurts his team badly when he isn't shooting. He has been a valued postseason contributor each of the last six years with the Hawks, Bulls and Jazz, and Atlanta is positioned to return to the playoffs this season.
Get to know: Ian Mahinmi
The 6-foot-11 center is averaging 15.4 minutes as the backup to Roy Hibbert for the 17-2 Pacers. Mahinmi, 27, was born and raised in France and has played for three contending teams -- San Antonio, Dallas and now Indiana -- in his career.
1. He signed professionally with the French club STB Le Havre in his mid-teens. "Being able to play against grown men every day at practice and then in games was the biggest thing for me," Mahinmi said. "When you're 16 or 17 years old, living on your own, having some responsibility, having to get to practice on time or you get fined, and having to improve on top of stuff like that -- that makes you grow up fast.
"It's hard between going to school and then going to practice, and then missing school and going to games. We practiced twice a day, almost every day. Sometimes we had an exam that was really important at school, and they would let me miss one practice or two. It was a lot going on. It was tough at first, but when you get the hang of it, it becomes fun. Pretty good life."
2. The Spurs picked him No. 28 in 2005, when Mahinmi was 18. "I was surprised when my agent called and said there are a few teams interested," Mahinmi said, "because I was going to put my name in the draft, but I wasn't really going to leave it in. I just wanted the hype and see if any team would be interested.
"They had just won the championship in '05. They had a strong, vet group, and not a lot of playing time for a young guy like me. I definitely had to be patient and work a lot with the coaches to stay sharp -- and then the trips down to Austin, where they had their D-League team. That year I spent in the D-League was the best thing that happened to me, because it's a whole different game over here. Referees are different, the rules are different, guys that you play against are different, more athletic, the games are faster. That year really helped me to adjust my game to the NBA game.
"I did really good in my first year, was [All-NBA] First Team D-League, so they had great hopes for me going into the following season. But I broke my ankle that summer, so it took me about a year to come back from that. That was when the Spurs needed me the most, because a bunch of our bigs went down, so that was the perfect opportunity for me. But I was hurt. And then my third year I got the chance to play.
"Being in San Antonio set up my whole career. That's probably the best organization in the league right now. I know what it takes to be a pro: the focus, the practice time, the watch-film time, the watch-the-way-you-eat, watch the way you sleep, all that stuff. It was kind of a great school to me. Those three years were the foundation in my career, and I was blessed to have those with San Antonio."
"We had such a great group of guys, we had ups and downs throughout the season, and nobody really expected us to go the way that we did," he said. "To see how we barreled through injuries, the ups and downs, the winning, the losing streaks, to finally come together right before the playoffs started and take off -- that togetherness, the way we moved the ball, the way we were barreling up the court, it was one of the best years I had. It was a close group of guys. Everybody trusted each other. When you're on the court and you know all your guys got your back, it's a great feeling, and that year was the best year."
He was sent to the Pacers in a sign-and-trade deal in 2012.
"This team reminds me a lot of Dallas, as far as the way we play together, the way we play for each other," Mahinmi said. "Actually, with the Spurs it was the same way, you know? So I think we pretty much have everything we need to go all the way. It's just a matter of putting the work in, understanding what coach wants us to do, executing. But this team reminds me of every successful team I've been on so far."
Quote of the week
"You can be a fool if you want to, ... I know I'm going to be all right. I believe that I'm a special player."
-- Derrick Rose
The Bulls' MVP point guard insisted that his latest knee injury -- a torn meniscus suffered Nov. 22 -- would not prevent him from fulfilling his potential.
"If I were to look 10 years from now or so, just be in the future and looking back, I think this is going to be minor," he said Thursday at a news conference in Chicago. "It's something that just happened, and I'm never going to stop. I could tear or hurt myself 10 more times, I'm never going to stop, never."
Rose is one of the league's most competitive stars, and his ambition comes as no surprise. Whether his body will cooperate remains to be seen. If he doesn't play this season -- and the Bulls have already ruled him out until next training camp -- then he will have played 49 regular-season games in three seasons since being named league MVP in 2011.
If he rehabs more quickly than expected, Rose said, he will aim to rejoin the Bulls for the playoffs.
"If I'm healthy and the situation is right, I'm going to be back playing," he said, which could lead to a repeat of the daily questions over his availability that followed the Bulls through the postseason last spring.
An NBA advance scout looks at the West-leading Trail Blazers (16-3), who beat the Pacers and Thunder this week in Portland:
"I'm surprised by their start, but you can also see they've done a good job of adding pieces that made sense. Having Robin Lopez at center means that LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't have to guard the 5s and it frees him up to do a lot more.
"You can understand why Aldridge had been drifting out to the perimeter the last couple of years. They weren't going anywhere as a team, and he didn't want to bang inside for no good reason. You could argue that he's one of the best low-post players in the league, and now they've made him even more effective in there by improving their three-point shooting around him.
"It's about winning now for him. In order for them to win, he's got to get in the box and score. He improved his 17-to-18-footer over the years so that he's deadly from out there. But he was always a good low-post player, and that doesn't go away. There are a lot of good reasons for him to go inside now. A lot of teams have stretch 4s who can't guard him inside because they're soft and not as big as him.
"Lopez is not a skilled player -- he's not nearly as good as his brother Brook -- but he is 7 feet and he does take up space. He's in there to set screens, hit an open shot and defend the opposing 5. They can live with him because they have enough scorers. Think about all the teams that can't deal with Roy Hibbert because they're trying to guard him with guys who are 6-9 or 6-10, like Chris Bosh. But Lopez is a 7-footer who can lean on Hibbert and push him out a little bit.
"Damian Lillard and [Cleveland's] Kyrie Irving are two of the best young point guards in the NBA. Lillard has a lot better pieces around him than Irving, and now that he's been through the league for a year, he has a better feel. Lillard is more of an outside threat than someone like Derrick Rose, and he's strong enough to guard the good point guards as well as go in and bang and finish.
"Then they added Mo Williams, who has been good everywhere he's been. He's an NBA starter, and to have him in a backup role is terrific for them.
"I see a team that mirrors the way Indiana plays. Portland is better from the three-point line while Indiana is better inside, but both teams can play both ways. The Blazers have just as good of a chance to get to the Finals as anybody because there is no super team in the West. They match up with everybody. They have Lopez and Aldridge to go against [San Antonio's] Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan. I like Lillard better than [Oklahoma City's] Russell Westbrook, who is just so inconsistent, and they'll have Nicolas Batum to guard Kevin Durant. If the Blazers stay healthy, then they could be that team to get out of the West. And it won't be a fluke either."
All-Ray Allen Team
He doesn't run as much with the Heat as he did with the Celtics, but Allen has built a Hall of Fame career by running tirelessly with and without the ball. This team is made up of players 28 and older -- in the latter halves of their careers -- who have run the furthest during this NBA season (courtesy of NBA.com/stats).
F -- Josh Smith, 28 ... 43.9 miles
F -- Paul Millsap, 28 ... 42.8 miles
F -- Luol Deng, 28 ... 42.5 miles
F -- Dirk Nowitzki, 35 ... 41.4 miles
F -- Carmelo Anthony, 29 ... 41.3 miles
F -- LeBron James, 28 ... 41.0 miles
G -- Kevin Martin, 30 ... 41.8 miles
G -- Steve Blake, 33 ... 41.8 miles
G -- Joe Johnson, 32 ... 40.7 miles
G -- Tony Parker, 31 ... 40.4 miles