By Rob Mahoney
The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement has already eroded the core of a championship team in Dallas, encouraged Oklahoma City to trade a star in James Harden and provided the impetus for the deal that moved Rudy Gay from Memphis to Toronto. Although those same rules didn't deter the Lakers or Nets from hoarding talent in an effort to make their own superteams, the financial penalties and opportunity costs involved make the maintenance and improvement of those high-salary rosters that much more difficult.
But LeBron James -- world's greatest basketball player, global icon and apparently renowned idea man -- has a solution that makes the superteam concept oddly viable in a less accommodating financial climate. From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
The Heat, however, would be subject to what is known as the "repeater" tax starting in 2014-15 if they keep James, [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh together because they would be over the luxury tax for four years in a row. In that case, they would pay a tax rate that is currently more than four times the current dollar-for-dollar rate. James, Wade and Bosh do have opt-out clauses in their contracts in the summer of 2014, however.
"I think teams understand that you need three guys to do big things; the big three thing is pretty cool if you can get it," James said. "To keep teams like this together you may have to take even less because of the new CBA. I guess we'll find out."
Honestly: It's that simple. There's really nothing but wage maximization standing in the way of players teaming up in the city of their choosing. There is the pragmatic problem of an individual with a limited earning window turning down millions of dollars, but, in theory, a group of players could forego max contract potential for the sake of building a truly special core. NBA players (and pro athletes in general) are often generalized as being greedy and selfish, but the concept of individual sacrifice for the sake of team construction is nothing new. We've seen the Tim Duncans and Dirk Nowitzkis of the world take sub-max extensions before in order to facilitate roster renovation, and this current Heat core -- "Hollywood" though they may be -- also sacrificed for the sake of building a contender. Again, via Windhorst:
James and teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all took less than the maximum salary when they signed three years ago. That should enable the Heat to keep them together next season, even with the new tax rules. James doesn't think they have gotten credit for that decision.
"I have not had a full max deal yet in my career -- that's a story untold," James said.
"I don't get [the credit] for it. That doesn't matter to me, playing the game is what matters to me. Financially, I'll sacrifice for the team. It shows for some of the top guys, it isn't all about money. That's the genuine side of this, it's about winning. I understand that."
If the best player in the league (not to mention two of the top five players and three of the top 15 or so, circa 2010) was willing to leave money on the table in order to join the best team possible, I wouldn't bet against the prospect of the upcoming generation of stars doing more of the same. Most of today's top young players are obsessively focused on basketball, to the point where their entire lives are dictated by rigorous diets, never-ending workout regimens and consistent film study. How can we praise the Kevin Durants and Derrick Roses of the world for their commitment and humility, and then assume that stars of their personality and ilk wouldn't sacrifice for the sake of a more complete team? As Tom Ziller explains in a column for SB Nation, the era of the superteam isn't gone at all -- the terms have merely changed. The Lakers and Nets are still sitting on massive payrolls, and the dream around the league is still to replicate what the Heat have accomplished through whatever means possible. It might take a bit more creativity (or a bit more selflessness) than before, but a stiffer luxury tax won't deter franchises from pursuing as many star players as they can get their mitts on.