Eliminating the NBA salary cap could do away with superteams like the Warriors
Let each team pay one player any amount and we’ll see where the big-money players go
Some NBA fans insist that the league suffers from an untenable problem: The Golden State Warriors dominate to such an extent that they already know how next season will end — with the Warriors lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and now DeMarcus Cousins dousing each other with champagne in a locker room. These fans shudder at the specter of watching that once more. They blame the players, particularly Durant, for supposedly taking the easy way out, and they cry for the league to intervene and obliterate Bay Area supremacy.
This argument is overblown. We shouldn’t reduce the health of the NBA to how many teams can reasonably expect to win a ring any season. The league hasn’t matched this level of excitement in decades, perhaps ever. With the wide-open game, constant influx of young talent, never-ending dramas off the court, the NBA finds itself in a healthy state. If sports leagues were a futures market, wise money would invest heavily in the NBA.
Yet, if the NBA did wish to more equitably distribute talent across the 30 franchises, an obvious solution awaits: Each team should be allowed to pay one player any amount of money outside the salary cap, and this amount would not count toward luxury tax considerations. This solution would need to be honed, but as I see things now, salary-cap rules and regulations can remain although they might need tweaking. If a team wanted to pay, say, LeBron James what he was truly worth per year, then that team could do so, although it could only pay James an out-of-salary-cap deal.
If superteams are a problem — and let’s describe a superteam as a team with multiple top-25 players — then this solution carries obvious appeal. Would Durant really choose to play for the Warriors for about $25 million a year when the New York Knicks would give him $65 million? Could the Warriors re-sign Thompson to another deal if the Orlando Magic will give him $50 million a year? This is a surefire strategy to break up the Warriors and dramatically reduce the likelihood that another superteam would form in the future.
Fans speak about the NBA as though they would prefer that the best 30 or so players were evenly distributed across the league. Now, this would be hard to achieve, because some young players on rookie deals might vault into the top echelons while others under contract might develop into pre-eminent talents before their deals expire. For instance, Jayson Tatum could become a top-30 player in a couple of years. And one reason the Warriors were able to sign Durant was that Curry, despite being one of the best five players in the league, was severely underpaid.
Yet, a simple fact remains: Many of the league’s best players want to play with each other, such as recently reported regarding soon-to-be free agents Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. To play together, under this proposal, each player would have to sacrifice millions of dollars each year to make that dream a reality. Would they be willing to sacrifice that much? Each megastar would likely search for an out-of-cap deal, and a team could have only one such player.
Like any change, though, one should expect unforeseen consequences should the NBA allow teams to sign one player to a deal outside of the salary cap. Under this new format, for example, some teams might offer megadeals to young players who haven’t earned the money.
Take the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins. In June 2017, FiveThirtyEight’s Kyle Wagner correctly called him one of the league’s worst defenders: “When Wiggins contests a shot, opponents have a 56.1 effective field goal percentage; when they are unguarded, they have a 56.4 eFG percentage. Fundamentally, getting a shot up against Andrew Wiggins is the same as getting an open shot.” Yet, last November, the Timberwolves signed him to a five-year deal worth nearly $150 million. Simply put, teams sometimes misjudge talent, especially players they drafted, and overpay.
No solution to this superteam “problem” will be free from unintended consequences, ones that could ultimately worsen the league. If the owners want to please fans who oppose the construction of superteams, however, the powers that be might have to open their wallets wider and support unusual measures.