Fixing the NBA: A Hard Cap and Freer Agents

Considering that the NBA is a long, long, long, ways away, I thought I would helpfully add my suggestions for fixing the league. Today, we tackle the best ways to create competitive balance: a hard salary cap and the elimination of max contracts.

First they came for the preseason games, and I didn’t say anything, because I don’t care about preseason games.

Remember the football lockout? They solved that, and it seems like everything is pretty much the same as before. The kickoffs are marginally different. Cam Newton got way less money than he would have last year. Although this is the guy who regretfully (uh, allegedly) chose Auburn over Mississippi State because “the money was too much,” so we don’t need to throw him a pity party just yet.

But the NBA lockout is important because unlike the NFL, this league is not maximizing its potential with fans. The biggest problem: the NBA is set up specifically to create competitive imbalance.

Football is different than basketball for a number of reasons. It requires a lot more good players to have a good team, and the players do not have anything approaching equal value to opposing team–a Tom Brady for Drew Brees trade would make both teams worse. But football does have two things the NBA does not–a hard salary cap and a free agency that is, in fact, pretty free. At least freer than the NBA’s where the best players are paid a fraction of what they are worth. Less valuable players, such as Al Harrington are rich enough to afford a monkey and Rashard Lewis pretty much just throws up his hands in disbelief at how overpaid he is.

The reason for that, of course, is that a team such as the Denver Nuggets cannot overpay for a star. They can overpay for the Rashard Lewises and Al Harringtons of the world, but when it comes to a bonafide star, they’re not allowed to. The NBA has a cap on how much individual players are paid.

So even if there were teams willing to pay LeBron $50 million a year for the next decade, they would not be allowed to. They were only able to offer the same contract as everyone else, at which point the player’s choice is about where he wants to play and who he wants to play with, which, surprise surprise, did not turn out to be a somewhat untalented team in a cold weather market (this could apply to the Cavs as well, of course).

And given that basketball is very much a star-driven sport, the contenders in the NBA traditionally have at least 2 if not three, while most teams have none.

But that’s kinda the point. The NBA doesn’t want LeBron to be making $50 million while his team can only afford to surround him with a bunch of scrubs. They like for the finals to be a battle of the stars.

And so, we get what we always have where it’s basically the same few teams that are contending every year. Three teams have produced the last 13 Western Conference champions, with the Lakers and Spurs accounting for 11 of them. The NBA has decided it puts a better product out there when it allows its stars to be on good teams. And those Lakers and Spurs teams were very,very good. They are more memorable as dynasties than anything the NFL has produced in the last 13 years, even the Brady/Belichick Patriots. Which is nice. But it leaves out much of the league.

For those of us who don’t have an especially good team to follow (or in my case, the sad-sack Golden State Warriors), it would be nice if there were some reason to believe our team might become a contender at some point, even if by accident. In the NBA, a team that does not have a star, but is otherwise managed very, very well is the Houston Rockets / Portland Trail Blazers model, which is to say, either just outside the playoffs or a high (as in bad) seed and getting smoked in the first round. Woo.

But wouldn’t it be fun to see the Bucks or someone actually have a chance to land a free agent like LeBron if they budgeted very carefully. The Heat couldn’t have signed their three stars, I don’t think, if they were all giving up 60% of their potential earnings instead of closer to 10%. Free agency could actually mean your team has a chance to bring in a big name.  I don’t think my beloved Warriors have signed a legit* All-Star as a free agent in my lifetime.

Crappy teams in other sports at least have the opportunity to overpay the best players. The Rangers were allowed to give Alex Rodriguez (and less famously, Chan Ho Park) more money than anyone else. But in basketball, owners are only allowed to overpay the Chan Ho Parks of the world. The good teams get better and the bad teams get to hope they hit the lottery.

As a sport, basketball is the hardest to create competitive balance. There isn’t wild variation in performance the way there can be in baseball. There aren’t a million moving pieces that comprise each team the way there are in football. And it will likely never produce the kinds of mystery about who will win the championship that those sports can. But that doesn’t mean it can’t try.

*Because David Lee… no.

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