All good things come to an end. That is a universal parable, capable of explaining all kinds of historical demises. And, even in a medium as institutionally heavy as sport, the cyclical nature of the world persists.
The Dynasties eventually fall, and a grace period is required for the rebuild. Think Liverpool in the Premier League era, or Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson. It would be fair to say that basketball operates on a much more fleeting, unpredictable plain. Because of the nature of the salary cap and the draft system, cycles are much more sudden, and more evenly spread out than in football.
Since its first inception in 1947, the NBA (or BAA as it was initially known) has produced 19 champions – 23 if you count teams which relocated in between titles, which you should. Comparatively, in 18 more years of existence, Spanish football has offered up only nine winners, while England has just 24 conquerors in 120 years of competition.
And yet, the two retain many similarities. This was proved over the summer, when two ageing empires began their descents into ignominy: Real Madrid and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In both cases this was on the surface precipitated by the loss of a generational talent – LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo. But in reality, the writing had been on the wall – one that was plastered with temporary wallpaper to cover the deepening cracks – for some time.
Now, before we set out about aligning these two teams, it’s worth pointing out the obvious differences. For one, Real Madrid are a far, far more successful entity, from the standpoint of both recent and ancient history. Los Blancos have 33 La Liga titles to their name, 19 Copa del Reys and 13 Champions League triumphs.
Cleveland, on the other hand, have one solitary title. One lonely championship banner, accompanied only by meaningless boasts of divisional and conference wins.
Their respective mires reflect this – naturally, a team as storied as Real Madrid are going to have a more expectant and reactionary fanbase. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and thus Madrid’s demise is not as drastic as their Ohio counterparts. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t followed dramatically similar paths.
As alluded to, their declines had been coming. Despite winning an extraordinary three Champions League titles in three years, the Spaniard’s spending power had been compromised in this period.
Thanks to a TV deal that was becoming more and more dwarfed by that of the Premier League, and a gargantuan wage bill – second only to La Liga rivals Barcelona in world football – the Galactico model of old had been replaced with a more net spend and youth conscious M.O.
Not only is #FCBarcelona’s €487m wage bill the highest in Spain, but it is also by some distance the highest in Europe. As a comparison, the top English wages are: #MUFC €337m (€150m lower), #MCFC €300m (€187m lower). pic.twitter.com/OVUFc9cRQa
— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) November 13, 2018
This was greatly necessary. There was no getting around the fact that their incredibly successful team was growing old – during the 2017/18 season, Zinedine Zidane put out the second oldest starting XI the club had used this century. The same problem was occurring 3,991 miles away in Cleveland.
A year removed from their unprecedented triumph, and fresh from a summer in which their second best player, Kyrie Irving, had moved on (to forge his own destiny away from LeBron’s shadow) the Cavs possessed the oldest roster in the NBA, with an average age of 30.
Though these facts were at times evident during the ensuing season – especially during the initial stages – by and large it was covered up by the success had at the end of it. For the Cavs, a fourth straight Play-Off Finals was reached, while Madrid made up for a poor domestic campaign by winning the Champions League once more.
It would not be hyperbole to suggest the principle propellors behind these runs were LeBron and Ronaldo. With 15 goals and three assists, the Portuguese forward contributed to more than half of Real’s 33 scores in the competition. Meanwhile, in his 16th season in the league, and 12th consecutive post-season, James was a statistical marvel – averaging nine assists (a career high) and 34 points, in what many deem his greatest play-off showing ever.
Now obviously losing that is going to hurt you, no matter the infrastructure. But the problem with both of these sides, was that their foundations were weaker than expected. For the Cavs, this was mostly thanks to LeBron. His sudden return in 2014 thrust this short-term vision upon them, forcing them to hand out exorbitant contracts to ageing players on his advice.
While it didn’t quite happen like that at Real, the remaining cast was still found wanting. They still had world beaters at almost every glance, but these were now tired world beaters. World beaters who had beaten the rest of the world so many times, they were beginning to get tired of it. And if not of ‘it’, then of their Spanish surroundings.
Of course, it being modern sport, the first ones to pay for this weren’t the players themselves, but the managers. After replacing Zinedine Zidane – who clearly saw the tides were changing and left of his own accord – in June 2018, Julen Lopetegui was relieved of his duties just four months later, on the 29th October, following a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico.
A day earlier, Tyronn Lue had been sacked after leading his group of overpaid hasbeens and bit-parts to an 0-6 start to the season.
In 2017/18, Cleveland had the highest roster salary of any team in the NBA. They now have the 19th highest, after some enforced culling of the more outrageous contracts, and they’re not done yet. While Real Madrid’s financial might will never dwindle to this extent, such actions may be required for success in the long-term.
The key difference between basketball and football, is that in the former being bad earns you the chance to be good – the teams with the worst records have the best chance of getting the number one pick in the Draft at the end of the season.
The same option clearly isn’t available to Real, but they may have to take a leaf out of this book. The disinterested and overpaid may have to be cast out, and the fledgling talents given a chance to stretch their wings, if success is to be sustained in the future.
While failure will not reap the same rewards, time and experience just might.