Wednesday morning on Mike and Mike, Charles Barkley criticized the state of the NBA, saying it’s “awful” right now. The pair of main takeaways were A) He should have said the NBA was “turrible,” and B) He thinks a full game is only worth watching if the Warriors are playing the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, or Cavaliers.
Barkley might be overstating it, because this NBA regular season hasn’t been that bad in my opinion… Or maybe I just think that way because the Celtics have been such an exciting team to watch this season. Either way, I agree with Barkley’s larger point, which is that the NBA is a league without much parity now. The NBA has always been a league of the Haves and Have Nots, especially compared to the NHL and NFL. But this year, you can barely have a conversation about the NBA without someone saying “Well, there are really only 4… mayyybe 5 real contenders this year.” It’s more clear than ever that 25 teams are playing for a consolation prize.
It’s not going to get much better, either. I don’t put much stock in the Kevin Durant to Golden State rumors, but it’s a real possibility. Regardless, the Cavs will still have LeBron, Love, and Kyrie for the next few years (or whatever assets that they trade one of those guys for), the Spurs are the Spurs, the Clippers should be in the mix for the next few seasons, and the Thunder might be an elite team if Durant stays, or they might drop off a cliff. The Celtics are the only team that I’d say are likely to jump to contender status within the next 2-3 years, and only the Raptors, Lakers, Heat, and Pelicans have even a tiny chance of jumping up to that level over the same time frame. That means that it’ll likely be only 5-6 teams with a real shot of contention for the next few years.
This summer and next, the NBA’s salary cap will rise. It’ll likely go from $70 to $92 million in 2016 and up to about $108ish million in 2017, which will increase the NBA’s achievement gap a lot more than you might think. Sure, the Atlanta Hawks will have a ton of cap space to get someone to go along with Al Horford and whichever point guard they choose in the future… or that superstar could choose a team who is guaranteed to play in the conference finals year after year, because those teams will have cap space to add to their already great foundation.
The summer of 2017 is intriguing for another reason. The players have the right to opt out of the current CBA that year, and while Larry Coon predicts that the negotiations will be pretty easy, the league could see a significant change that summer.
Specifically, the owners will likely view the new CBA as a way to guarantee more parity in the league. Owners HATE the idea that they don’t have a good chance to get a superstar and
win championships make money. Just ask Dan Gilbert in 2011, who had so quickly forgotten that his franchise had the best player since Jordan for 7 years.
The players would only opt out to get a bigger piece of the NBA revenue pie that has grown due to the NBA’s massive TV deals, so there’s no way that the owners could increase parity in the league by lowering the salary cap. There are a few other ways to accomplish the goal of more parity, however.
Let’s start with the most obvious remedy, which is raising the level of the max contract. When you really think about it, the concept of a max contract is pretty strange. The NHL and NFL both have hard salary caps, and they don’t have max contracts. After all, we’re only a few years from some quarterback demanding $35 million per year… and probably getting it. The NBA doesn’t allow something like that to happen, which is inconsistent with the fact that their stars drive the product more than in any other sport. If there was any league in which the stars deserve a high percentage of the team’s salaries, it’s the NBA.
I’m guessing the players’ union wouldn’t have a huge issue with raising the max contract line. The league’s superstars run the union more than in previous years, led by Chris Paul and LeBron James as President and VP. Pretty sure they’d be OK with increasing the max salary rate. With such a move, teams wouldn’t be able to hoard 3 or 4 superstars, and the rest of the league would be able to get their hands to a franchise player.
The other option has to do with draft picks. The Association could introduce the MLB model of giving extra draft picks to the teams that lose their free agents, meaning that Golden State would give their 1st round pick to Oklahoma City if they signed Kevin Durant this summer, for example. Or, there could be compensatory picks after the 1st round of the NBA draft.
Ultimately, the NBA should increase parity through the first proposal, because the NBA’s middle class of players has been getting a higher proportion of the players’ revenue than you would suspect, given who really earns money for the league. Players on rookie deals barely make anything compared to the veterans, and superstars are underpaid compared to their worth. We’re only a few months away from NBA role players making $15-17 per season with superstars in their 5th-7th seasons will make “only” $25.3 million per year. It would only make sense for the superstars, who really put money in the owners’ pockets, to get a higher percentage. More importantly, it’ll accomplish the task of narrowing the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots in the NBA, which will be a major issue for the next few seasons.