Earlier this week, the NBA’s free agency kicked off with a splash. After Chris Paul and Paul George both opted to stay with their current teams (somewhat surprising on the latter), it was open season. LeBron made the biggest news obviously, leaving the Cavaliers for the Lakers presumably to end his career.
Then came the other signings. Lance Stephenson left Indiana for the Lakers. In a surprise move given that Lonzo Ball is the future point guard for Los Angeles, the Lakers ran out and signed Rajon Rondo. People were going “okay, Warriors will have to battle with the Lakers now and not just Houston or Oklahoma City.”
And then Golden State signed DeMarcus Cousins.
And then…fecal matter flew across the room and hit a fan. The media and social media blew up maybe moreso than when LeBron signed with Los Angeles.
“Oh, this isn’t fair! Golden State has pretty much the super super-team while the rest of the league not named Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City have nothing!”
“The NBA is useless with that the rich get richer!”
“There is no more competition in the NBA!”
“These players are no longer wanting to work for a championship as they are just doing a bandwagon bit of latching on to a far talented team!”
“These players are hypocrites!”
“The NBA should do something about this!”
“The NBA is becoming AAU basketball for adults.”
Okay, so let’s divulge into some of this. The first thing I will say is that the NBA salary cap is one of the most confusing things ever. It ranges from “you can get a max contract from the team you’ve played for if you’ve done this, this, and this and the team you were on can go over the cap to sign you as well and you can earn more money if you stay on that team as opposed to if you sign with another team” or “you have to do this this and this to get this contract.” It makes the NFL’s salary cap look like kindergarten math. And by the way, when you have a salary cap, shouldn’t you have only a certain amount to spend before it gets capped off? Oklahoma City evidently has gone well over it and now in the luxury tax threshold (and thought that was only for MLB and remember, the MLB doesn’t have a salary cap).
One of the things I keep laughing at is this whole thing that Golden State bought a superteam. Yes, the Durant & Cousins signings are examples of the superteam bit, but remember, Curry, Green, and Thompson are all Warriors draft picks. They weren’t signed from elsewhere. When you keep winning games and championships, players will always want to play for your team.
Let’s look at the other major sports leagues: we see the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers (and in the past, the Tigers and Braves) bring in stars to help win championships in baseball. Nobody bats an eye. We saw in 2002 in hockey that the Detroit Red Wings brought in future Hall of Famers Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull, both of whom took less money to join the Red Wings so they can help win a Stanley Cup. Nobody batted an eye. While we don’t see it as much in the NFL, but we see players in the past take a few bucks less to join a championship caliber team like the Patriots or Steelers as opposed to joining the Jets or Browns. Heck, the Lakers signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone before the 2003-2004 season and nobody batted an eye then about the Lakers doing that. But when in 15 years after, DeMarcus Cousins took a 1-year deal with Golden State that was presumably less than market value, people lost their minds on the guy.
The funny part is, times have changed in society. 15-20 years ago, if a player left one team for another, it was because he signed for more money. He would be considered a sellout and people would rip them for doing so (Allan Houston comes to mind when he left Detroit for New York or Albert Belle leaving Cleveland for Chicago in baseball). Now we are in a society where players are taking less money to be on winning teams and teams that have a better chance than the ones they are on, people are calling them a bandwagon jumper and they don’t want to work as hard.
To that I call bull. LeBron was ripped when he originally left Cleveland for Miami. I wasn’t fond of how he handled “the Decision,” but I don’t blame him for joining the Heat. He felt like he had a better shot at winning a ring there. And he was right. He won 2. Of course, people knocked him and said “well, he couldn’t have done it without Wade and Bosh.” The same argument has now been thrown at Kevin Durant. He got shredded by everybody because he joined the Warriors, who were already stacked. He’s won two rings since joining them and has probably solidified being the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James. But he’s still blasted because he left Oklahoma City where they were near the top of the league to go to the very top of the league to get the ring. But the irony is, the people who blast these guys because they are running to get world championships instead of staying with their current teams are also the same ones blasting these players saying they’re not great because they don’t have a ring.
The argument is “oh, they’re just trying to ride the coattails of what the team already has.”
To my response is this: did Durant just sit back when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State and let Green, Thompson, and Curry do all the work? Did he say “well, I’m here and I will do my thing and you have to adapt to my game?” No. Durant adapted to Golden State’s style while still being able to play his game. He also played like he did have something to prove.
Did LeBron just sit back in Miami and let Wade and Bosh do the work? No. He was still playing at a high level. So the drives of these players of going to teams to win a championship I think is stronger than what they were doing for their other teams because they want to prove they are a championship player. Can’t fault them.
“Yeah, well, Cousins is still a hypocrite for what he said about Golden State and doing the superteam that way.” Yeah, well, if what is said about Cousins not having any other contract offers besides the Warriors is true, that eliminates any hypocrisy. His job is to play basketball. If he doesn’t get an offer, he doesn’t have a job. It’s that simple. And I’m not the biggest Cousins fan in the world (in fact, quite the opposite).
With all of this said, the NBA does have a problem as we see way too many teams get “eliminated from day one of the season” due to a huge roster disparity. I get that you will always have players wanting to join the top teams. It was like that 20-25 years ago. It is like that now. And it will be like that in the future. The NBA has the feel like there has been too much power given to the players and I know some are going “well, the players make the league” but an argument can also be made that the “players need to make the league better” and many fans have been turned off by what is going on with the NBA, whether players are running to sign with winning teams or demanding trades to certain teams, etc. And they do have a point and I agree with that as well. It is a problem. So Adam Silver, will have to figure out what to do to make the NBA more competitive instead of just having about 4 teams really having a legit chance a year out of 30 to win the championship.
It doesn’t have that feel the salary cap is an obstacle to anybody. Teams are still finding ways to get the stars they need without worrying too much about it. Maybe changes (don’t know what honestly) to the cap will help that.
The one thing that makes any change difficult is the stars are taking less money to join these teams to win. You can’t penalize the players for doing that. So my radical idea would be instead of the players “suffering” consequences for leaving their teams is to give compensation for these teams losing players in the form of a first round draft pick to the player’s new team similar to what MLB does. It will have to make teams re-think their strategies on how to go after players or do sign and trades that will help off-set teams losing their stars. It will improve the competitive balance for those teams losing their stars and keep fans more interested in the product.
So the NBA has to do something, though there isn’t much to do. But whatever can be done, needs to be done. I just hope the league does something sooner rather than later before interest wanes around other NBA cities that hope to be competitive soon.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat