With a simple drawn out blog post, which doubled as a monumental moment in the NBA’s oral history, Kevin Durant pledged his allegiance to Golden State, sentencing the rest of the league to a theoretical guillotine. Golden State’s courting of Durant worked, and the Warriors, temporarily dethroned as basketball’s despotic hegemon by the Cavaliers, reimagined their structural makeup to restore themselves as the NBA’s empire.
Outrage was accompanied by perdition league wide as a team that just won a record 73 games added the third best basketball player in the world to a crop that already included a back-to-back MVP and two other All-NBAers. Someone or something must be held accountable for a business conglomerate, which has its primary value derived from competition, supposedly can’t construct a framework that lends itself to parity and equal opportunity.
Beyond the insults lofted at Durant and the new generation of NBA players for being soft and lacking the inner fire and probity to adhere to one’s pride and buck at the notion of combining forces with a group of dignified superstars, the league’s own spurning of systematical foresight has been critiqued by the public. Some have sought to explain how such a gross case of malpractice could’ve occurred, while others have pondered how an entity could exist with such a relaxed set of rules and regulations that could allow this.
The frustration over Durant’s decision is completely warranted, but will the league institute any subsequent changes? Should it? Will the requisite amount of pressure be placed upon it to ensure that it does? Basically, if one were to acknowledge that Durant signing with the Warriors does signify a problem, can and how will it be rectified?
There probably won’t be any changes. This was an issue forged from a layering of unforeseen and unusual circumstances for the league, which has ardently said its goal is to prevent this conjoining of supreme talents from happening. The main culprit is the league’s new television deal, which shot the salary cap up with a single copious leap. The league tried to combat the titanic jump with a smoothing proposal that would have imposed a gradual escalation over time, but the players’ union shot it down as is drooled over the wads of cash that glistened in the immediate future.
The one-year blip that saw the cap go from $70 million to $94.1 million is nearly equal to Durant’s starting max salary of $26.54 million in 2016-17. The cap jump afforded the Warriors the required open salary slot to sign Durant outright with cap space after renouncing a few cap holds of players like Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Mo Speights and others and auctioning off Bogut’s services and $11 million cap hit to a pool of teams that could absorb it after losing out on free agents and being saddled with a horde of unused dollars. The TV deals are now set, and, while the league is projected another mini spike of about $8 million next offseason, the cap will flatten out after that, making it extremely difficult for an organization to produce max salary slots year to year without careful planning and short term sacrifice.
Adam Silver and NBA higher ups are unlikely to overreact to a situation that will not sustain. It’s just a matter of absorbing a one-time gut punch knowing it might hurt, but it’s better in the long run. And if not for perhaps the best bargain contract in the history of the league in Steph Curry, Durant wouldn’t have been able to fit as the final piece in the construction of the NBA’s Death Star anyway. Between the enormous cap leap (which the league unsuccessfully attempted to mitigate) and Curry’s contract, the league was forced to juggle two of the biggest financial outliers in the history of the league.
If the league does succumb to the pressure of altering the CBA, the case for abolishing the limits on max player salaries and allowing player contracts to set themselves as a measure of one’s true value is a tactic that will gain momentum. The CBA quirk to restrict earning potential is an infringement of typical marketplace ideals in that it limits what an asset (in this case a player) is worth. Players like Curry, Durant and LeBron James are worth more than their max salaries, which approximately represent 30 and 35 percent of the NBA salary cap (the number escalates from 30 to 35 once they’ve been in the league in 10 years), but how much more? That’s for the market, GMs and owners to calculate, but a system in which Durant and Harrison Barnes are equals in terms of fiscal worth seems flawed.
Getting rid of capping max contracts would’ve allowed OKC to outbid the Warriors for Durant if they elected to do so, eventually pinning the Warriors under luxury tax payments too great for even Joe Lacob. But the ripple effects of such bidding eventually taps OKC owner Clay Bennett as well, holding out a hand to collect the tax payments the Thunder would almost assuredly be forced to dip their toes into.
This system encounters similar disadvantages to the current one for small market teams or slightly less well-off billionaires who aren’t willing to take on financial penalties. Lucrative big market organizations don’t like paying the tax to bring in stars either, but they have the resources to bite the bullet more so than scant ones like Oklahoma City and Milwaukee. The system would somewhat balance out over time, however. If Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are getting paid their true worth, Golden State is already going to be flirting with the luxury tax threshold, and adding another star player to the mix would be too rich for even for their blood. Meanwhile a team devoid of stars, such as New Orleans can fork over $50 million to retain Anthony Davis, knowing it doesn’t have commitments tied up in other players. Suddenly, player salaries would be exposed to more oscillations than a physics textbook, and for people who have made their livelihood off of competition, there may be myriad cases of macho-type behavior blowing salaries through the roof. So much instability and unknown variables doesn’t exactly lend well to a format of longevity and consistency.
Then there is the matter of the salary cap as well, which would remain the same as it is currently to control team spending and level the playing field for all market sizes (otherwise, the Lakers and Knicks would become the Red Sox and Yankees of the NBA). When stars like Durant, James, Curry and Davis are hogging up $50 million or more in cap room, players like Mason Plumlee and George Hill become subjugated to contracts in which they aren’t appropriately compensated for their skills. As stars are forced to break up and are divvied more evenly throughout the NBA, every team is going to be doling huge sums of cash for its two or three best players leaving leftovers for fourth and fifth starters and solid bench contributors. We’re talking about depressed contracts for starters. If they are getting leftovers, dudes like Gerald Henderson and Trevor Booker are living on scraps.
Owners shudder at granting the levels of power and money to a single player that would be a consequence of eliminating limits on max salaries, but the NBA Players Association is more invested in keeping a cap on player salaries in an attempt to appeal to its entire workforce and not just the top of the line stars who gorge on handsome apparel and sponsorship deals off the court as well. That is the entire concept of creating a union in the first place. It’s difficult to envision the players or the owners advocating for the repeal of limiting max player salaries, especially once the emotional component of Durant’s signing dies down.
It’s unlikely the league will do anything. It already instituted a more sophisticated luxury tax system that further penalizes teams that exceed the threshold by greater amounts or for longer periods of time. Escalating tax brackets and the dreaded repeater tax have mostly been scary enough to caution even the most daring owners to tone down their spending levels.
Durant signing with the Warriors didn’t manifest from a logistical flaw in the framework of the NBA’s CBA, rather it was from an unprecedented set of contingencies the NBA took methods to delete from the horizon, but ultimately couldn’t due to discrepancy with the players. A rarified situation may provoke expressed vexation and angst from involved parties, including players, owners and fans, but when viewed rationally it isn’t something worth letting disrupt a fairly fortified system.