The suggestion that the NBA has done nothing to curb the ability of franchises to form superteams is wrong. Several measures the league pressed into the 2011 labor deal were focused entirely on preventing another Miami Heat. Among them were graduating luxury tax penalties and the newly created repeater tax.
Before 2011, there was only one luxury tax rate. The graduating luxury tax was created to punish teams for blasting through the tax threshold and racking up record payrolls. The repeater tax leveraged heavy financial penalties to deter teams from exceeding the tax threshold for stretches of time.
Given the salaries star players earn and the fear over ready-made dynasties that would dominate for many years, these measures were seen as tools to prevent franchises from creating unorganic superpowers, like Miami’s. Other tweaks, including restrictions on trade-and-extend deals, the effective hard cap that hurt pricey teams’ ability to add role players and reforms to the mid-level exception, also aided this stated goal of the league.
Obviously, none of that stopped the Warriors from building a megapower with Kevin Durant this week.
There are a host of factors that worked against the NBA’s parity goals. Chief among them is the salary cap boom caused by a new national television broadcast deal. The salary cap rose 35 percent, causing a spike in cap space for all but the teams with the very biggest payrolls. Without that spike, the Warriors wouldn’t have had the space needed to sign Durant to a max deal. (Even with the spike, they still needed to trade Andrew Bogut and renounce a bunch of free agents to clear their cap holds.) The NBA wanted to phase in the cap increase without costing the players a penny over time. The players chose chaos, and here we are. (Note that there’s a smaller but still substantial 15 percent cap increase on tap for next summer.)
The biggest factor preventing parity, though, is the individual player max.
This rule has been in effect since 1998, thanks to Kevin Garnett’s massive extension. It caps players’ salaries as a percentage of the team salary cap (with allowances for annual raises). This rule is the reason LeBron James can’t sign for more than $33 million for next season, even though his true value is much higher. This rule is the reason Durant would get paid essentially the same $28 million in Golden State as in Oklahoma City. The individual player max caps the salaries of Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
Green signed a deal for under his max a year ago, Thompson is close to his max for his age and Curry will be at it in one year. With the individual max in place, that quartet will make about $104 million next season (assuming a $108 million salary cap). Without the individual max, Durant might be a $50 million player, Curry would approach that and both Green and Thompson would be well above $20 million. You’d be looking at closer to $150 million in salary for those four players in an uncapped environment, something that’d create a luxury tax bill it’d be tough for even the Warriors to swallow.
Here’s the rub: we view the individual player max as a rule supported by the league and its owners, which is accurate to a degree. But it’s also a rule heavily supported by most players. Every player in the league who isn’t a top-20 star benefits from the individual player max. By depressing the salaries of the brightest stars by tens of millions of dollars, the salaries of the collective middle class of the NBA rise by that amount. The labor deal requires a certain percentage of league revenue to be paid out to players (currently 51 percent of about $6 billion). By limiting the amount that goes to the elite, the proletariat guarantees more for itself.
The individual max is why Mike Conley is getting $30 million a year, why Rajon Rondo is getting $14 million a year, why Jon Leuer is getting $10 million a year. There’s so much money out there and only so many players to spend it on. Laments from NFL players, the less sophisticated segments of the media and casual sports fans about the silly amounts of money being thrown around on no-name players all come back to this rule. You’d better believe those no-name players love cashing those checks more than they hate the thought of facing the Warriors next year. All they’ve got left to fight the superteam is shame.
So, to prevent the next superpower, players will need to agree to end the individual max and convince the owners of the same when a new labor deal is negotiated. Fat chance, right?
Here’s where it gets interesting. New union boss Michele Roberts has vociferously attacked the individual player max as un-American, and the union’s player leadership has been reborn with superstars at the head of the table. Chris Paul is the president of the players’ union now, with LeBron James as the first vice president. The current incarnation of the nine-person executive committee has four superstars (CP3, LeBron, Curry and Carmelo Anthony), plus LeBron’s good friend James Jones and Curry’s buddy Andre Iguodala. If ever there was a time for the players’ union to rally around the end of the individual player max, this leadership group would be the one to do it.
But they’ll have to convince the majority of the 450 members of the union — most of whom benefit from guys like LeBron, Curry and Durant making less than they should — to vote against their personal interest. That hasn’t worked out too well in the past. It should make for some fascinating drama.
Given how loaded the Warriors look, that might be the only basketball drama we can look forward to over the next year.
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