The Solution to Superteams

Ask any fan what the two most exciting words in sports are.  You’ll probably get some answers that vary by person and allegiance – “Jets win!”, “Krzyzewski retired!”, and so on – but at a certain point, they’ll say “Game 7”.  This year, the NBA playoffs featured two game sevens:  Jazz vs. Clippers in the Western Conference first round and Wizards vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  But unless you are a fan of one of these four teams, these game sevens weren’t all that exciting.  They were formalities to see who would be slaughtered by the Warriors and Cavs.

The main storyline of these playoffs was not about who would be in the Finals, a foregone conclusion.  The storyline became “are super teams good for the NBA?”  One popular narrative is that super teams aren’t new, that the league has always been top heavy.  While it’s true that the NBA has traditionally had less parity than football and baseball, the outcome has never seemed more inevitable than it was this year.

Some argue that super teams have been around much longer than when The Big 3 formed in Miami

Look back at some of the legendary dynasties.  During the Bulls’ first three-peat, they beat the Lakers in what was considered a coin flip series in the 1991 Finals, needed 7 games to beat the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Semifinals, and were down by 4 points to the Suns, without the ball, with one minute left in game 6 of the 1993 Finals.  Without a miracle comeback they would have faced a game seven in Phoenix.  The 1996 Bulls were head and shoulders better than the rest of the league – but to win their 1997 title, they broke a 2-2 series tie with the Jazz with a 2 point win in the “Flu Game.” They then won game 6 by just four points.  In 1998, game 6 versus the Jazz was eerily similar to game 6 five years earlier versus the Suns. Bulls down three with less than a minute left, they came back and avoided having to win a game 7 on the road.  Out of their six titles, only the 1996 one could be considered inevitable, and it still took six games for the Bulls to top the SuperSonics.

The Lakers and Celtics combined for eight titles during the 1980s, but they always had each other to ensure that there was some suspense throughout the year and the playoffs.  Usually, the Rockets, 76ers, or Pistons kept things interesting as well.  Out of those eight championships, all of the Finals’ went at least six games.  The “Heatles” dynasty of the 2010s never materialized.  Each time a LeBron James team has won a title, they needed to win a game 7 at some point to do so: 2012 vs the Celtics, 2013 vs the Spurs, and 2016 vs the Warriors.  Besides the 1996 Bulls, the 2001 Lakers are the only other team that was truly untouchable by the rest of the league.

As good as Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics were this season, no one considered them serious contenders for a 2017 NBA Championship

Last year, the moment Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, objective observers knew it was much more probable than not that the Finals would end with the Warriors beating the Cavs, most likely in 5 games.  During the season, there were other compelling stories. Russell Westbrook’s quest to average a triple double, the 5’9” Isiah Thomas leading the Celtics to the one seed in the east, and the development of budding superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

But the inevitable Finals match-up loomed over these stories.  They were interesting, but they ultimately didn’t matter when in the back of my mind, I knew that these teams and players had no chance of making real noise in the playoffs.  This is a problem.  Maybe the NBA feels differently, as the ratings for these Finals were sky high.  But with Warriors vs Cavs Part III in the books, with no end in sight, people will start to tune out from the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs.  No matter how many people watch the finals, this isn’t a good model for the NBA.  The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but obviously the current system doesn’t work.  The good news is that there is a simple solution to prevent these type of super teams from forming: increase the maximum contract.

Many say that the only reason the Warriors had the cap space to sign Durant is because Steph Curry was on the books for just $12 million.  This is partially true, but the real culprit, if you agree that super teams are bad for the NBA, is the maximum salary.  Coming off of his 9th year in the league, Durant was only able to make up to 30% of the salary cap, or approximately $28 million.  In order to afford that, the Warriors had to trade Andrew Bogut.  But if Durant was able to make anything close to what he is actually worth – in the $55 million ballpark with a salary cap of $94 million – the Warriors would never have had a chance to sign him.

Take a look at the other two All-Stars on Golden State.  When Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were eligible for extensions, they were only eligible to make 25% of the salary cap.  Thompson is locked up through 2019 on a team friendly contract averaging about $17 million per year, while Green is on a practically identical contract through 2020.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that with maximum salaries at 25, 30, and 35 percent of the cap, teams will continue to be able to afford 3 or 4 stars.

The max contract also makes it easier for stars to accept even less than their max.  Assume LeBron would be worth about $70 million if there was no max contract.  It would be extremely difficult for him to take, say, $35 million so that his team could sign other stars.  It’s much easier to take a few less million when his contract is artificially capped around $30 million than it would be to leave tens of millions on the table.

The salary cap is supposed to promote competitive balance, but the max contract actively detracts from this attempt at parity.  The Players Association is very much in favor of the max contract, as it creates a much higher median salary.  But if the NBA is serious about having more teams in the championship mix, they need to look at either eliminating or increasing the max salary.

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