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Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency, adding one of the very best basketball players in the world to a star-studded core fresh off winning an NBA-record 73 games and coming within a few minutes of back-to-back NBA titles, has led many observers to all but crown the Warriors as next year’s champions and decry what they perceive as an inevitable elimination of competitive balance throughout the league. While commentators’ anger has tended to focus on Durant for choosing to join the Warriors rather than staying with the Oklahoma City Thunder and attempting to beat them, some have also turned their attention to the NBA itself, wondering how a team that already employs the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player and two highly paid All-Stars could also be allowed to pony up a max deal for Durant without running afoul of salary-cap restrictions … and wondering whether maybe the rules should be changed to prevent such super-powered team-ups in the future.
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed the ramifications of Durant-to-the-Warriors during a press conference after the league’s Board of Governors meeting at Las Vegas Summer League on Tuesday night, a meeting he said featured “a robust discussion in the room of various views of player movement that we’ve seen.” His response suggests that while he doesn’t begrudge players their right to move as they see fit within the rules, he’s still interested in pursuing changes to the league’s structure that would make it harder for them to come together.
“I’ve read several stories suggesting that that’s something that the league wants, this notion of two super-teams, that it’s a huge television attraction,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s good for the league, just to be really clear. I will say whoever is the prohibitive favorite, try telling that to the 430 other players who aren’t on those two teams. I mean, we have the greatest collection of basketball players in the world in our league, and so I’m not making any predictions, but there’s no question, when you aggregate a group of great players, they have a better chance of winning than many other teams.
“On the other hand, there are lots of things that have to happen. We’ll see what happens in Golden State,” he continued. “You had a great, great chemistry among a group of players and you’re adding another superstar to the mix, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. But just to be absolutely clear, I do not think that’s ideal from a league standpoint.”
Silver’s concerns about the Warriors’ newly stacked deck stem from an issue that he referenced repeatedly as deputy commissioner under David Stern during the 2011 lockout: “competitive balance.”
Many outside the league office have looked skeptically at claims that measures like limiting individual player salaries, instituting harder team salary caps and establishing more punitive luxury taxes have any real impact on teams’ wins and losses. Some viewed calls for increased competitive balance as a red herring to distract from a push to reduce the share of basketball-related income received by players in the last round of collective bargaining. That push worked, by the way, with owners kicking players’ tails at the negotiating table and dropping players’ share of BRI from 57 percent in the last CBA to a 49 percent-to-51 percent band in the current system. That amounts to an estimated $3 billion haircut over the life of the 2011 agreement.
As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe wrote earlier this week, though, Silver “truly believed it was possible to engineer greater parity” through the implementation of measures like the harsher luxury and repeater taxes. Silver believes the league has moved in the right direction on that score — a point some might argue — but still sees room for improvement.
“In terms of so-called competitive balance, we’ve had five years of now this collective bargaining agreement, going into the sixth year, and we’ve had four different teams win over the last five years, so I view that very positive from a competitive balance standpoint,” Silver said. “I don’t necessarily want to overreact to a particular situation.”
“I think we can make the system even better, and I think it is critically important that fans in every market have that belief that if their team is well-managed that they can compete,” he added. “Certainly, it’s important to me that markets in this league, those that are perceived as small, as those that are larger, all feel like they have an equal chance.”
Here’s the thing about that, from David Aldridge at Bleacher Report:
There has never been competitive balance in the NBA. Never. Ever. Not in Bill Russell’s era, or in Wilt Chamberlain’s, or in Larry Bird’s or Magic Johnson’s or Isiah Thomas’. Not in Michael Jordan’s era, or Kobe Bryant’s, or Tim Duncan’s.
Bird, a Hall of Famer, played with four other future Hall of Famers — Kevin McHale, Nate Archibald, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. Magic, a Hall of Famer, played with three other future Hall of Famers — Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Thomas, a Hall of Famer, played with three other future Hall of Famers — Joe Dumars, Adrian Dantley and Dennis Rodman.
And Rodman, after a brief sojourn in San Antonio, decided the best way to keep winning rings was to…join his former nemeses in Chicago, where he, [Michael] Jordan (Hall of Famer) and Scottie Pippen (Hall of Famer) won three more rings.
Nothing is new. It’s just new to you.
The [Cleveland] Cavaliers became just the 19th team in league history — since 1947 — to win the NBA championship. I detailed the lack of parity on NBA.com just a couple of weeks ago, when it looked like Golden State was going to repeat. Ten teams, including the Warriors’ franchise, have won 61 of the possible 70 championships in league history.
On top of that, Silver’s point about not wanting to overreact to one specific incident or “anomaly” is important to emphasize here. As I wrote last week, the set of circumstances that led to Durant-to-the-Warriors isn’t the kind of thing that’s likely to keep happening over and over:
Durant’s Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals (the 10th time in NBA playoff history that had ever happened) thanks in part to a somehow-not-impossible game of a lifetime from Klay Thompson and a whale of a second half from Stephen Curry, who over the last four years has recovered from serious ankle problems that locked him into a $44 million contract extension that, now that he’s won two consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player awards, stands as perhaps the most laughably below-market contract in the sport. Then Golden State blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals (the first time it had ever happened in the championship round) thanks in part to a somehow-not-impossible string of games of a lifetime from LeBron James.
This came just before the start of a free agency period in which the infusion of a somehow-not-impossible $24 billion broadcast rights deal hit the league’s coffers, resulting in an unprecedented $24.1 million spike in the salary cap at precisely the moment Durant hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his NBA career. The league tried to prevent that gigantic spike, but the National Basketball Players Association, unconvinced that the NBA’s “cap smoothing” plan would meaningfully benefit its constituency more than one monster cap increase, rejected the proposal, giving Golden State a window.
The way Durant’s season ended afforded reasonable doubt that Oklahoma City could finish the job against the Dubs. The way the Warriors’ season ended afforded a chance to tell a compelling story featuring Durant as the final piece of a Bay Area dynasty. The way the math worked out, thanks to Curry’s deal and the spike, afforded Golden State enough financial wiggle room to get within hailing distance of a maximum-salary offer for Durant’s services. Yes, more than a few saw this coming, but the road here was paved by a once-in-a-lifetime accumulation of almost-accidents.
Moreover, the Warriors were only in position to capitalize on that unlikely series of events thanks to sharp management from a Warriors front office led by owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers that nailed its drafts, got both Thompson and Green to take slightly less than their maximum possible salaries to afford a bit of wiggle room for future negotiations just in case, turned future draft picks and cap fodder into the indispensable Andre Iguodala, and set the stage for the unbelievable coup that followed.
“You have a unique situation with the Warriors,” Silver said. “In that case, you have three All-Stars who were all drafted by the team — Steph at 7, Klay at 11 and Draymond at 35. So then you add one free agent joining a team whose highest draft pick in terms of All-Stars was 7. So that is a bit anomalous in terms of the success of that team.”
However the NBA tweaks its draft and salary-cap structure, once a player reaches unrestricted free agency, there’s only so much the league can do to legislate what Silver likes to call “player sharing.”
No matter what the owners put in the CBA, they can't stop a player from doing something they really want to do.
— Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) July 6, 2016
Silver recognizes that, and he said Tuesday that he doesn’t begrudge it.
“My sense is that some of the player movement we just saw is not necessarily a function of market size,” he said. “It’s clearly, in the case of one particular player, a desire to be in a situation with a group of players who have already proven that they can win. And by the way, I don’t mean to be so cryptic; in the case of Kevin Durant, I absolutely respect his decision, once he becomes a free agent, to make a choice that’s available to him. In this case, he operated 100 percent within the way of the system, and same with Golden State.”
Still, Silver believes that the system can be improved by taking another look at how enacting further changes to free agency might help create “a league in which every team has the opportunity to compete.”
“I think we do need to re-examine some of the elements of our system so that I’m not here next year or the year after again talking about anomalies,” he said. “There are certain things, corrections we believe we can make in the system. Of course we’re not going to negotiate here with the union; it requires two parties to make those changes. I think we’ve had very productive discussions with the union so far, and we will continue to do so.”
The 2011 CBA is scheduled to run through the 2020-21 season, but either the league or the players can opt out after the 2016-17 campaign by giving notice of their intent to do so by Dec. 15, 2016. While Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, has said she sees no reason for a work stoppage, she also warned the NBA not to cry poverty in the aftermath of the league’s $24 billion broadcast rights deal, and has publicly discussed the likelihood of opting out of the CBA in October of 2014, with an eye on moving the players’ share of revenues back up toward where it stood before the owners wiped the floor with the players in 2011.
Silver, too, has pumped the brakes on the likelihood of a labor stoppage after the 16-’17 season. He has also spoken, though, about his preference for a hard salary cap and cautioned that, before the new TV deal windfall hit the system, “A significant number of teams are continuing to lose money.”
While multiple plugged-in reporters had previously expressed optimism about the possibility that neither owners nor players will want to derail the revenue-generating gravy-train ride the NBA is on right now, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst recently reported that both the NBA and the players’ union “are expected to” opt out of the CBA this December. A new round of bargaining would likely mean the reintroduction of all sorts of economic and system issues tabled in the last round of negotiations — increasing the age minimum for entering the NBA draft, revisiting the possibility of HGH testing, a hard salary cap, various changes to player contracts — and could mean significant changes to team salary structures, too. The league landscape could look drastically different this time next summer … or, in the event of an opt-out and protracted negotiations, whenever the two sides come to a new accord.
“In a way, the good news is that we are in a collective bargaining cycle, so it gives everybody an opportunity — owners and the union — to sit down behind closed doors and take a fresh look at the system and see if there is a better way that we can do it,” Silver said. “My belief is we can make it better.”
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