The Golden State Warriors are what they are today largely because of a decision made by the National Basketball Players Association more than three years ago. After the NBA signed a nine-year, $24 billion broadcast-rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports, the league proposed a “smoothing” of the salary cap to the NBPA, which would’ve made the cap rise by smaller figures each summer rather than one giant leap from 2015 to 2016. The NBA’s hope was to make planning simpler for teams, maintain competitive balance, and allow more than just 2016 free agents to benefit from the influx of TV money. The players union, led by newly hired executive director Michele Roberts, was opposed to the idea. The NBPA felt that players would see more financial benefit by letting the salary cap explode. Roberts told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery earlier this year that the NBA’s smoothing proposal was a “disgraceful request.” Team reps voted in 2015 to unanimously reject smoothing. Then the salary cap spiked from $70 million in 2015-16 to $94.1 million in 2016-17, which allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant while giving up only Andrew Bogut and their rights to Harrison Barnes. The ramifications of the decision linger today; in fact, it’s what helped allow the Warriors to lock in DeMarcus Cousins on Monday night.
The Warriors have gotten much, much richer as a result, but that hasn’t been the case throughout the league. Other teams started spending carelessly in the summer of 2016, like spoiled teenagers on a shopping spree with their parents’ credit card. The Lakers signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng for four years and a combined $136 million. The Magic added Bismack Biyombo for $72 million over four years. The Knicks thought it was a good idea to give Joakim Noah a four-year, $72.6 million deal. Those were just some of the reckless contracts that have come back to bite teams over the past two summers. The sins led to a market correction this summer. Even though some players got paid, for example Ersan Ilyasova’s three-year, $21 million deal with the Bucks, there are still a wide number of talented free agents in the upper or lower-middle class of the league who will have to feed off the stale crumbs of the gluttonous feast of 2016. The money is all dried up.
As it stands, only six teams (the Bulls, Hawks, Kings, Mavericks, Pacers, and Sixers) can create more available cap space than the value of the taxpayer midlevel exception, which the Warriors used to sign Cousins for a measly one-year, $5.3 million deal. The discount was a result of the ruptured Achilles tendon Cousins suffered in January, which may prevent him from ever matching his prime-level production. If close to healthy, Cousins will help the Warriors as a scoring weapon and post passer. His rebounding and size will give them even more versatility in their lineup configurations. But even if he fully recovers, there are clear downsides: Cousins is a lethargic defender and a ball-stopper on offense who commits too many careless turnovers. If you thought Durant clashed with Golden State’s style, just wait until you see Boogie. Some teams also weren’t interested in adding a player with a toxic reputation to their locker rooms. The Celtics were the only other team Cousins considered, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported. With little competition, the Warriors, playing by the same rules and facing a greater tax than almost everyone else, swooped in. Rules changes by the league might be the only way to minimize the odds of a superteam stacking the deck with a fourth or fifth star.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked last month at his annual presser before the Finals about the league’s competitive balance, and he brought up the idea of a hard cap as something decision-makers will “continue to look at.” A hard cap would disallow any team salary to exceed a set number under any circumstances. Almost five years ago, in an interview with the New York Post, Silver admitted that the NBA went into collective bargaining negotiations seeking a hard cap. “For the long-term health of the league, we would rather do more to level the playing field among our teams,” Silver said, “so the teams that have disparate resources are all competing with roughly the same number of chips, so to speak.”
The NBA’s luxury-tax rules deter teams from overspending. And they may be what will eventually break up the Warriors once Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are due for max contracts in 2019 and 2020, respectively. But the tax doesn’t prevent them from overspending. Though, if competitive balance is the goal, a hard cap might not solve the problem, either. The nature of basketball would prevent a hard cap from creating NFL-style parity. One transcendent player—like Michael Jordan or LeBron James—automatically gives his team a chance for sustained, dominant success. A hard cap also wouldn’t stop players from taking pay cuts, much like they already do by passing on more lucrative supermax contracts to play elsewhere. Kawhi Leonard can make $219.2 million if he signs a supermax with the Spurs this summer; he stands to make only $139.3 million if he signs a max with any other team. I often wonder whether players share the feelings of Dave Chappelle, who explained his choice to quit Chappelle’s Show and leave millions of dollars on the table like this: “The only difference between having $10 million and $50 million is an astounding $40 million.” Chappelle’s point was that the difference in lifestyle once your income reaches eight figures is minimal. So even with a hard cap, players might take pay cuts to go play somewhere that makes them happy.
The Warriors are chasing what makes them happy, too. You can’t fault them for stacking their roster by signing Durant or Cousins. Bob Myers, Steve Kerr, and the players have done a masterful job of building a dynasty and taking advantage with Durant during the cap spike and Cousins during the correction. But there are always forces outside a front office’s control. “The disease of more” is an aphorism that Pat Riley coined in his 1988 book, Showtime. A few titles can change players. Suddenly winning isn’t enough. As natural competitors, NBA players itch for their next challenge. There’s always something different, something more. When will Durant feel he’d be happier leading the Knicks, and not being a member of a superteam? Will the combination of multiple titles and a constantly increasing luxury tax cause owner Joe Lacob to cut costs? Will Draymond Green be a casualty? If the Beatles broke up, the Warriors can, too. All supergroups split up. All dynasties fall. Golden State won’t last forever.
The NBA can install a hard cap to try to prevent another superteam as strong as the Warriors, but it’d need to get creative to stop a superpower from taking advantage of an opportunity like the Warriors did with Cousins. Perhaps one rule change to minimize the odds of such a deal could be to grant only veteran’s minimum salaries to teams paying a repeater tax, like Golden State will be again this season. Or if the NBA truly feels threatened by the Warriors’ dominance, it could move to prevent teams with three homegrown All-NBA players from adding a fourth one. That still wouldn’t stop all juggernauts. After all, the Warriors’ core developed internally.
Golden State’s success is a copy of the 1960s Celtics dynasty pasted onto the 21st century. We’ll look back at this era and think fondly about how we saw one of the greatest teams ever battle one of the greatest players ever for four straight NBA Finals. I love basketball more than I ever have in my life, and the journey each season seems get better and better, as basketball is the fastest-growing sport worldwide. I’m excited for a team to try to push the juggernaut Warriors to their limits. But I didn’t like how their dominance came so easily with a 16-1 Finals run in 2017, and I grew tired during their dominant sweep of the Cavaliers this past month. The Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven games, which is all the evidence you need that the end result isn’t inevitable, but it sure does feel like it to a lot of fans across the planet. With three championships in four seasons, and another likely on the way, perception isn’t far from reality.
The NBA has been ruled by a dynasty each decade. But the talent gap never seemed this large when it came to Jordan’s Bulls. The world is waiting for a less certain outcome, however it might take shape. Perhaps it will come soon. The Warriors will break up at some point, because of the luxury tax or boredom, but Silver and the NBA would be wise to continue pushing for proactive measures whenever the next collective bargaining negotiations come around. The NBPA might see things a bit differently then.