The long-term consequences of arguably the wildest summer in NBA history will be hard to predict. After an apocalyptic-weather-event-level flurry of moves, the league is arguably in its most competitive state in over a decade. At the same time, the non-glamour markets have to be smarting after an exodus of players to traditionally popular cities like New York and Los Angeles. In the past, the NBA has tried to look out for the shafted teams in the next collective bargaining agreement, constantly tweaking rules to promote Adam Silver’s agenda of parity. Those tweaks, however, have mostly resulted in unintended consequences, and the NBA’s most recent attempts at creating “fairness” for less popular teams have more backfired than helped.
During the 2011 lockout, the NBA and the NBPA reached a settlement on a new CBA that clearly reacted to recent events in the league, most notably the repeater tax, which was introduced one year after LeBron James formed a superteam in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The repeater tax essentially penalized teams who consistently paid the luxury tax, with the logic being that keeping together a team of stars would grow so prohibitively expensive that they would break up and the players would go elsewhere.
Has the repeater tax helped to create parity? The team it probably hurt the most was Oklahoma City, who one year after the lockout, lowballed James Harden in contract negotiations before trading him to the Rockets. The Thunder had a homegrown core of three future MVPs at that point, but it was clear ownership wasn’t willing to do whatever it took to keep all those players together. Let’s say one day the Charlotte Hornets are in a similar position. Are we sure that Michael Jordan would dip into the repeater tax to keep together a championship core? What about Robert Sarver’s lottery-dwelling Suns, who theoretically could stumble into three or four stars as they amass top draft picks? Would he be willing to pay up?
Meanwhile, the Warriors had one of the most expensive rosters in the league the last two seasons, and their rich owners ponied up the money necessary to keep the team together. Golden State also seemed ready to pay a huge tax bill this season if it meant bringing back Kevin Durant, which would have put its total payroll upwards of $300 million.
The repeater tax always bothered me, because teams who are good and willing to pay to keep those players together shouldn’t be penalized for that. The league should value continuity, and teams who draft well and acquire stars—like say, the Sixers—shouldn’t have to pay insane sums for good management. (Philly, it should be noted, has built its contender without signing traditional big-name free agents, though the blatant tanking obviously helped.)
In 2016, the league and players’ association reached a new CBA agreement that introduced the supermax contract, which has been discussed at length both at SI and around the NBA internet over the last couple seasons. The supermax is stupid for everyone. It forces players like Anthony Davis to forfeit millions of dollars if they want to leave the team that drafted them, which is wildly unfair. It can cripple the cap sheet of a team if it’s given to a less-than-A+ superstar, like the Wizards and John Wall. Or it can make you look incompetent, like the Hornets did with Kemba Walker.
The supermax was introduced right after Kevin Durant left OKC for the Warriors, and the idea of it was obviously to help teams like the Thunder keep their superstars from bolting in the future. But not only are players willing to give up that money if it means playing somewhere they actually get to choose, not every team is willing to give the extension to its best player. (And frankly, in the case of the Hornets and Walker, that’s defensible from a management perspective.)
In his op-ed after the Russell Westbrook trade, Thunder GM Sam Presti wrote: “Given the way the league’s system is designed, small-market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise.” Presti, of all people, has arguably been hurt most by the league’s tweaking, even though those changes were made to help the OKCs of the world compete with Los Angeles and New York. The league has been designed to help small-market teams compete, the design is just flawed.
The NBA and NBPA next have an opportunity to opt out of the current CBA in 2022, and it will be fascinating to see how the two sides react to yet another landscape shift in the league. The three-year period between now and the opt out should at least help bring some clarity to both sides about their priorities.
The league especially needs to decide what it values. This summer seemed like progress for the NBA, but Presti probably speaks for most of his colleagues when it comes to the fairness of the system. If the NBA keeps trying to fiddle with the CBA to achieve parity and keeps failing, wouldn’t it make more sense to go the other way?
If the difference between playing in New Orleans and L.A. is a few million, why wouldn’t Anthony Davis play with the Lakers? But if the difference was dozens of millions because there was no such thing as a max salary, would AD be a Pelican right now? If there was no draft, but the Magic could offer Zion Williamson $30 million next season, wouldn’t he consider playing there? (It has to be the Magic in this scenario, because they only sign power forwards and centers.)
The questions the NBA needs to ask itself moving forward are 1) Is the league actually in a good place right now? and 2) Why have our previous attempts at creating homogeneity mostly backfired? If Silver is happy with how the next three seasons play out, with no runaway title favorite looming like the Warriors, then maybe the league shouldn’t make huge operational changes. But if the goal remains to help out the jilted small markets, than the league’s design may need more of a remodel than a fresh coat of paint. The small tweaks haven’t worked, and actually thinking hard about the usefulness and the crutches some teams have gotten accustomed to—like the draft, or the max salary—could actually bring the league closer to what it wants, while helping players in the process.