NBA executives — those who run the league and the franchise owners who back it — are always concerned about various competitive balance issues.
It seems as though there’s a rule change or two in every collective bargaining agreement intended to disrupt how certain teams do business. The 2011 lockout deal sought to shrink the leverage of impending free agents to demand trades to specific teams in the wake of the (first) Carmelo Anthony saga. The new agreement inked this year sought to bolster teams’ ability to retain superstar free agents.
That 2017 deal will go into effect on July 1. It was seen as a reaction to Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors, where he shot his way to his first championship with an NBA Finals performance for the ages. Had this deal been in place in 2016, the Thunder could have paid Durant much more for longer than the Warriors could have. That might have swayed Durant to stay.
Here’s the problem: That new clause was reactive
It happened after Durant already made his decision. In effect, it bolstered the Warriors’ ability to retain 2017 free agent Stephen Curry. The labor deal made little effort to hurt the ability of teams to retain a coterie of superstars, just as perhaps the greatest collection of basketball talent in its prime assembled in Oakland.
The labor deal is locked in through 2023. The NBA can do nothing structurally to cut off the Warriors’ dynasty until then.
The timing on contracts and free agency for the Warriors actually opens up the potential for the team to survive the next labor deal intact. Curry and Durant can re-sign with the Warriors for five and four years, respectively, this summer. (Both are eligible to sign for 35 percent of the salary cap — Curry due to designated player eligibility and Durant because he has 10 years of service in the NBA. But there are no Bird rights on Durant, so he is eligible to sign for a maximum of four years.)
Durant’s contract, if he goes the full four, will expire in 2021, and he’d be eligible to sign another big deal with Golden State under the currently agreed-upon labor deal. Curry’s contract would expire in 2022, a year before the labor deal is renegotiated.
In fact, an adjustment to a rule making it difficult to sign older players to massive, long contracts will actually make it easier to retain Curry and Durant into their late 30s, if the Warriors so choose. The old over-36 rule is now the over-38 rule, meaning Golden State will be able to offer Durant a five-year deal in 2021 without triggering over-38.
The Warriors would be able to give Curry a three-year deal in 2022 without triggering the over-38. (More likely, Curry could opt out in 2021 to sign a new four-year deal without triggering over-38.)
This would all happen before the next time commissioner Adam Silver and angry NBA team owners are able to change the rules to make life harder for the Warriors to continue winning titles. There’s a non-zero chance Durant, Curry, and the rest of the Warriors could have a fistful of rings by then, beyond the one KD now has and the two Steph possesses.
Furthermore, the NBA’s rule tweaks reacting to the Durant contract could lead to other superstars remaining with the teams that drafted or traded for them early in their careers. As an example, the so-called Durant rule could lead to Russell Westbrook remaining in Oklahoma City long term, and James Harden already re-signed with Houston for big bucks. Two of the top 10 players in the NBA staying home reduces the ability of new superteams to form and rival the Warriors!
One caveat here: The NBA seriously strengthened the luxury tax as a cudgel to punish superstar-heavy teams in the 2011 lockout deal. This was a reaction to the formation of the LeBron-era Miami Heat, huge payrolls for the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers, and a decade of blowing past the salary cap by Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks.
It will cost Joe Lacob and friends a lot of money in payroll and luxury tax penalties to keep this crew together. At some point, as the Warriors pay down their new bayfront San Francisco arena, the ownership group may cry “uncle” and seek to reduce payroll costs around Curry and Durant.
A second caveat: No one knows how long Durant will stay in Golden State or if he’ll continue to sign short-term deals to maximize his earning potential.
But if Lacob and friends are willing to pay whatever it takes, and if Durant wants to remain a Warrior, there is nothing — nothing — the NBA can do to stop them until 2023.
Buckle up. We may see a lot more titles from here on out.