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The NBA is Broken, But Not Because of DeMarcus Cousins

Basketball is broken but DeMarcus Cousins's decision to join the Warriors wasn't the last straw. The Crossover provides the five stages that led to a league-wide problem.

On Monday night DeMarcus Cousins shocked the NBA when he signed a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors. Coming off a torn Achilles and faced with the prospect of settling for a one-year deal on a massive discount, Cousins chose the most opulent version of that timeline. He will spend the next year rehabbing his value surrounded by the defending champs. I’m happy for him. As for everyone else, we have now returned to the sea of arguments that we were wading through during the NBA Finals. The Warriors are literally going to be starting five All-Stars next season, and that development led to hysteria among fans and media: Is this ruining the league? Should Adam Silver intervene? Is the NBA broken? 

A number of smart people mocked the reactions on Monday night, but I don't know if the angst should be dismissed so easily. On its own, yes, the Boogie signing is an interesting and probably meaningless gamble. The Warriors were going to be overwhelming favorites regardless. Not much has changed. But the news became a flashpoint because it removed any pretense about what's possible for the rest of the league next season. In that respect, it reinforced some eye-rolling that has been pretty reasonable all along.

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It's a holiday week, so I will try to keep this brief, but Monday night's momentary Warriors freakout wasn't really about Boogie. It was a reaction to a league-wide problem that has unfolded in five stages.

1. The NBA and Players Association failed to broker a deal for "cap smoothing", an agreement that would have gradually introduced historic TV money into the salary cap. It wasn't hard to anticipate some issues attendant to this failure. As Adam Silver said in 2016, "It will be disruptive and having been around the league for a long time, I only know it’s going to be disruptive in ways that we can’t even predict. It’s not the way we modeled the CBA going into the last collective-bargaining agreement."

2. That massive cap spike in 2016 allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant without sacrificing anyone from the nucleus that had won 73 games the year before. So, no, that's not how the NBA had modeled things.

3. The teams that missed on Durant felt pressured to spend the cap-spike money on second-class free agents. Some of the blame for these decisions falls on the GMs negotiating those deals, but none of it was particularly surprising. When teams have cap space, they are rarely responsible about spending it. Related: Almost the entire league foolishly assumed that the salary cap would continue to rise in the years that followed, thereby justifying massive deals for the likes of Timofey Mozgov, Evan Turner, and Ian Mahinmi. (And it wasn't just dumb teams who made mistakes here: Had the Houston Rockets not bet big on Ryan Anderson in 2016, Daryl Morey would've had a lot more room to counter the Warriors this summer.)

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4. The players and owners responded to Durant's move by negotiating a CBA that would allow teams to pay historic "supermax" money to retain franchise players, allowing teams like the Thunder to pay $41 million-per-year to a player like Russell Westbrook. That money is far more than he could get from anyone else. Crucially, though, the owners didn't negotiate a provision that would allow some of that excess money to be excluded from the salary cap. This is a problem. Teams like the Thunder and Wizards are now at a disadvantage paying massive money to keep flawed stars like Westbrook and John Wall. They kept their stars but they have no room to build around them. (Similar issues arise for teams who are retaining veteran stars on max deals that pay 30% of the cap and include bigger annual raises than those players could find elsewhere. Most players getting those deals, even All-Stars, can't produce proportional value on the court. In those cases, teams are often times better off paying their stars and hoping for a trade six months later.)

5. This summer, most teams have no cap space thanks to the 2016 splurge, and would-be Warriors challengers have no ability to improve. Meanwhile, Golden State can take advantage of those same market conditions by attracting All-Star talent on an extreme discount. This is why so many people were demoralized earlier this week. 

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None of this is permanent. Twelve months from now, a combination of escalating luxury taxes and expiring deals could force the Warriors to break up their star core. That will happen just as cap space begins to free up around the league. Things will probably begin to look normal as early as next July. Also, a healthy Celtics team could provide a more interesting Finals than we saw this past June. But none of that changes the baseline of what's happening at the moment.


Short-sighted collective bargaining created an environment that made the Warriors possible while also making it much harder for anyone to catch them—as teams spend to retain talent, they lock themselves into mediocrity, and everyone can see it. That Thunder franchise is staring at a payroll that will end up somewhere between $200 million and $300 million for a roster that doesn't have a prayer against Golden State next year.

Yes, there's definitely plenty to enjoy in the NBA regardless of who's winning the title. Also, parity is overrated. It's never been particularly relevant in the NBA. Basketball works best when there's a handful of great teams at the top of the league. All of that is important context to any "Is the NBA broken?" conversation. 

More context: most of what people enjoy about the NBA happens on the internet and is only loosely tethered to actually watching basketball. Tweets, Instagram, rumors, podcasts, highlights, burner accounts, memes—these have become a core element of the product. Today's superstars lean into the drama, and the NBA is tremendous at providing fodder for a dozen different kinds of jokes and arguments. That's the single biggest reason the league is growing in the 21st century. The conversations around pro basketball are consistently more entertaining than anything else in sports, and they are tailor-made for the internet. 

The success of this league in the digital age makes me wonder how much more it would be growing if the competitive landscape weren't so hopeless right now. It's naive to think that "The NBA has always had great teams" provides a satisfying response to parity concerns. The NBA has always had great teams, but the ideal formula is a system that creates a reasonable balance between great teams and good teams that can challenge them. It's fine to admit that in the current era the league has failed.

The Thunder are paying a quarter of a billion dollars for a team that's going nowhere. Once-ascendant teams like the Blazers and Wizards will probably never recover from mistakes made in 2016. The best thing that happened to the Jazz is that they couldn't offer Gordon Hayward a $200 million supermax because he was snubbed from an All-NBA team. The worst thing that happened to the Pistons is that Blake Griffin was available. The Rockets are about to become incredibly expensive, and they've already lost a crucial starter from a team that probably hit its ceiling last year. 

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The Bucks are holding on for dear life to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the Pelicans are doing the same with Anthony Davis. Restricted free agents like Clint Capela, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, and Zach LaVine have almost no outside market for their services. At least four major-market teams are building their future around cap space that probably won't make a difference until 2020. Among audiences aged 18-34, this year's Finals had the lowest ratings since 2007.

LeBron James went to the Lakers 72 hours ago, his new team has a good chance to trade for Kawhi Leonard in the next few weeks, and all anyone can talk about is whether the two of them will have a chance to compete in 18 months. Is the NBA broken? 

Of course the NBA is broken. The better question is how much the longer the conversations surrounding basketball can compensate for the mistakes of the league itself.