The franchise tag and what it would mean for the NBA | Magic Basketball

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Mar 03

The franchise tag and what it would mean for the NBA

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

As people around the NBA try to assess the future of the labor situation, the idea of a franchise tag keeps rearing its head. David Stern floated the idea back in October, and every so often, the notion has come up again in the public eye. Most recently, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, responding to the Carmelo Anthony trade, wrote the following: “Hello, David Stern? Did you leave a wake-up call for the 21st century? Your clubs need to be able to protect their great players with a franchise tag, as the NFL does. If that isn’t priority No. 1 in your lockout talks, you need the Wite-Out.”

Reilly’s assertion that the NBA needs protection from the players is nothing new. In fact, I would venture to say that no other entertainment industry or sports league so suffers from the perception that its very lifeblood–the men on the court, the product–is antithetical to the goals of the league. In the Stern era, concessions like the dress code and the rules about players leaving the bench have been made to quiet worries that players were violent or disrespectful in a way that was threatening to the league. This franchise tag idea, though, is something different. This is not a response to the image crisis that happens after the brawl at the Palace, or an attempt to win over people turned off by Allen Iverson’s brilliant and brash nonchalance. Rather, the hypothetical franchise tag seems to be a measure entirely more odious, and based even more in harmful mythology, than either of those two provisions, and to fully apply the logic of the franchise tag is to fundamentally change the league for the worse.

The seed of the franchise tag, or the idea of it, is without a doubt the pain that recent superstar departures have caused their fan bases. While this is totally understandable–particularly in the case of a high-profile local product like LeBron–I feel as if, in 2011, it hardly needs to be pointed out how one-sided fans’ views about player movement can be. As in, fans root for teams cutting beloved players all the time. Across every sport. Some Lakers fans have been calling for Derek Fisher’s head for years. The Indianapolis Colts just cut Bob Sanders. The Oakland Athletics traded Rickey Henderson and then refused for years to allow him one game–one single game–in an A’s uniform to retire where he belonged. I have heard no major protests about how the Oakland Athletics or the Indianapolis Colts are ruining their leagues, though I would argue that it is much, much more dangerous to sports for a team to cut an often-injured player when they feel like it because they did not perform due diligence with their medical staff before offering him enormous amounts of money. The whole idea of teams moving players is fine with the viewing public–it’s business, they’re professionals, they’re just playing a game anyway. When players flip this narrative, though, that’s when the Rick Reilly’s of the world start to pile on. (If you want to read Tom Scocca’s brilliant takedown of Reilly, who himself moved from the Denver Post to the bright lights, big market rags Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, it’s here.)

The narrative holds that players have a responsibility to the fans, that they are emblems of a city and must take that representation seriously. But the reality of the situation is that NBA fans are rooting for business entities, and rooting for basketball success is often the same as rooting for business success. You root for Mark Cuban to empower his organization to spend money and energize players, or for Peter Holt to get out of the way of his brilliant front office. Realistically, the core thing you root for is not pick-and roll-execution or hard play, but an organization which enables those things in the first place. However, the owners have the luxury of staying behind the curtain until they feel like it, staying quiet about their decisions until they see an advantage in making themselves visible.  It’s the players, though, who are out there in precious little more than underwear, showcasing their personalities and their games, appearing for all the world like the defining element of their franchises. I think that’s why fans so often feel that when a player leaves an organization, the responsibility falls on the player. They’re so much more recognizable, and we know so much more about them than we do the owners. For instance, it’s fairly easy to formulate a narrative in which Carmelo’s departure for New York is related to his “Stop Snitchin'” video and his cowardly back-pedal slap in MSG, or his outspoken wife’s desire to be somewhere she can launch herself as a brand. It is much harder, with the precious few glimpses we get of owners, to formulate a similar narrative about the business side of the league that might explain Carmelo’s decision.

The thinking is that a franchise tag would force players–or at least, one player for every team–to respect that bond with their fans. What it won’t do is force the owners, the people who have very real public relationships, with things like tax incentives for arenas and a vast number of jobs they offer to cities, to respect that same bond. No amount of franchise tagging will prevent Clay Bennett moving from one totally viable market to a smaller one, or from the Maloofs committing 70 million to Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia while complaining about their arena, or from Donald Sterling parading his players’ “beautiful black bodies” for women in the Clippers’ locker room. Why do we believe that owners like this–the owners, Bennett excepted, who are much more likely to be drafting coveted players–deserve to keep starts simply because ping-pong balls determined the location of that star’s rookie season?

Mostly, competent organizations keep the players they have. The Spurs have their trio, OKC seems to have pleased its stars, other teams at other times have had a mutually beneficial relationship with stars in small markets. And even when this isn’t true–I would argue that the Cavs and Nuggets did a plenty good job of trying to field winners–young, supremely gifted men should be allowed to make decisions about their livelihood as they see fit. Do you know how fast I would move to a world-class city to make millions of dollars if my wife would be happier? Or how fast I would jump at the opportunity to work with my best friends, who were also world class talents, in a state with no income tax and no winter? I recently had to quit a good job because of a broad range of factors that did not allow me to have time for it, and nobody mentioned I was betraying any sense of responsibility. It is understood, in almost every business, that people have a right to do what they feel is best for themselves as it pertains to their work, and the simple issue of owing it to someone, or even the single issue of winning a championship, does not dictate that right. Further, it is so easy to miss the fact that owners themselves are huge players in this process, and don’t need any further means to ensure their success without succeeding at winning games and having good organizations. Player movement keeps teams accountable. Player movement means that human beings get to decide by whatever criteria they favor what is best for them. Player movement, in essence, ensures a vibrant league.

Forgive me this sprawling argument. It’s a complex issue, trying to parse out what it means to be a member of a team, and when that relationship can be ended or changed. And for the record, I don’t see the franchise tag happening for a variety of reasons. But as a strain of thought, I think the notion of such a tag reveals some inconsistencies in how many people see the game and the league, and that it’s important to remember how untenable it would be to force players to behave in a way that may run contrary to their interests, whatever those may be.

7 comments
Yoni
Yoni

Great article, and in principle, you're right. But not having the franchise tag hurts small market teams where players looking for a "bigger stage" will move to bigger cities, making it a top-heavy league with great teams consistently only in the larger cities. It's great to see when New Orleans, Green Bay or Oakland (even though I hate the Raiders) actually have something to root for in sports. Not having the tag would hurt teams like Cleveland, Minnesota, Memphis, and all the smaller cities that make up more than half of the league. Oh yeah, and the Orlando Magic.

The NBA is already moving back to the narcissistic era. We should be moving away from the unbalanced MLB model (anomolies like San Francisco aside), and move towards the more balanced and modern NFL model.

chewy
chewy

"The thinking is that a franchise tag would force players–or at least, one player for every team–to respect that bond with their fans. What it won’t do is force the owners, the people who have very real public relationships, with things like tax incentives for arenas and a vast number of jobs they offer to cities, to respect that same bond."

I don't think this premise is correct. The idea of a franchise tag driven by economics, not forcing players to respect the fans.

Basketball 360
Basketball 360

I personally am against the tag. The NBA already has the sign and trade for free agents and as long as teams know their star is leaving, they can trade him in advance like the Jazz and Nuggets did and neither got a bad deal in return, especially the Jazz with 2 1st round picks and Favors. www.bball360.com

tim
tim

Great article, but I kindly disagree. The franchise tag would be good for the league because it allows teams a little more time to build and/or work out a contract. The league appears to be shifting towards dominance amongst the large market teams because they can offer more visibility to players (Kevin Durant is becoming the exception and not rule), which is bad.

Parity is arguably the greatest thing to happen to the NFL and that may not have occurred if franchise players were constantly leaving for bigger markets. There has to be some type of check on player movement, so that talent is more evenly dispersed, which keeps fans interested. I’m not arguing for a-super-star-a-team, but rather more teams with just a legitimate chances to make some noise in the playoffs.

I understand players should have a choice, but I do not want the NBA to become the MLB where many of the small market teams are essentially farm systems for the larger markets. Fans lose interest. This is a business, so keeping your assets is very vital. Yes teams should be penalized for being bad, but what about the good organizations that loses a player for scraps because they couldn’t offer what other teams have?

I also acknowledge that I think the NBA has some fundamental issues with how the public perceives the players and the team, which couldn’t be remedied by just instituting a franchise tag policy.

Satyreddy
Satyreddy

Great article Danny. By and large, I agree with a lot of what you're saying. Obviously as a Magic fan, I disagree out of selfishness because I want a lockdown franchise tag so that Dwight stays here. But it is his right to be employed where he wants.

However, I think there is one aspect of this you should address. At the end of the day, are these players employed by individual organizations or employed by the NBA? If you're employed as an engineer by, say, Boeing, and they want to transfer you across the country or they want to keep you in your current location even though your family hates it, you really have no choice unless you go to another job. So if the NBA is their employer, they should be limited. Their alternative is to play in Europe or some other league, as Josh Childress recently did. Obviously if it was each individual team, your argument would be correct.

But at the end of the day, players collectively bargain together against owners who collectively bargain together. To me, that suggests being employed by the NBA. Obviously there are some antitrust issues, and for an interesting read, check out the American Needle Supreme Court case that recently came out.

Pookeyguru
Pookeyguru

"from the Maloofs committing 70 million to Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia while complaining about their arena" I don't wish to parse your argument to it's essence, but I think this is a drastic over-simplification. The Maloof's had wanted a new arena for many years while the team was very competitive, to now when it's not as competitive. The desire for a new arena has been stated since about 2000, it's just not been in national news as often because no threat to move was made.

At any rate, wanted to say otherwise I agree with your article, and the point about Carmelo Anthony. What isn't talked about is that Stan Kroenke is a terrible owner who simply listened to Kiki Vandeweghe, got bad advice on who to sign (like Kenyon Martin to that god-awful deal combined with all those dealings of draft picks), and bad luck (like Martin's repeated injuries on said contract).

But it should be known that most of those wounds Denver made were almost entirely self-inflicted, and not vice versa. Denver knew it had to put a competitive product on the court to ultimately keep Melo, and they just never did. They were nearly good, part of that blame is on Melo, and part of it was the talent around him.

At any rate, Stan Kroenke, IMO, is the worm in the apple for the Nuggets. He's not the victim-owner some have made him out to be. He's a multi-billionaire with majority ownership of 3 teams (Avalanche, Rams, and even though his son is technically the "owner" of the Nuggets now, he still has the final say anyway) and we're supposed to feel sorry for him. Forget it.

At least the DeVoss family hasn't spend tons and tons of time in the spotlight bemoaning their lack of large market success. Of course, when you get a lot of #1 picks, you don't really need to worry as much either. Orlando has been lucky to hit the lottery at the right time. It also uses it's advantage with Free Agents well.

Again, like you mention, good franchises retain their players. Poorly run franchises really don't.