November 17, 2017

One of the effects of Kevin Durant’s choice to move to the Golden State Warriors as a free agent is that a lot of people have raised the question, ”didn’t we have a lockout and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 that was supposed to prevent super teams and increase parity in the league?”

Yes, we did, and it works. Sort of.

First, we haven’t seen any super teams until now, and that has very much to do with the penalties on repeating luxury tax payers that were introduced in the CBA in 2011. Oklahoma City, ironically, was the first team to feel the consequences when they had to decide between Serge Ibaka and James Harden, if they wanted to avoid becoming chronic luxury tax payers without wiggle room.

In another ironic and rather cruel twist, the Thunder probably planned to keep them both before the current CBA introduced “the Rose provision,” that gives players on the rookie scale a 30 percent max extension if they meet certain criteria.  During CBA negotiations it was decided to give it to Durant retroactively even though he had signed his extension the summer before, and suddenly the Thunder were luxury tax payers. Three years later, the NBA reimbursed the Thunder for part of Durant’s provision, but by then the damage was done.

The Thunder chose their defensive anchor, which led to Harden’s rise to superstardom with the Houston Rockets instead of with the team that drafted him.

So how did we end with four current All-NBA Team players, including the reigning MVP and his predecessor? “The perfect storm” is probably an overused allegory, but in this case, it’s very fitting. The conditions that lead up to this situation were in no way predictable, or reproducible.

In the center of the storm is Steph Curry, a sharpshooting phenomenon with a history of injuries in his first seasons in the league. Without his injuries, he might never have gone on the strengthening regimen that has given him the physical tools to break one three-point shooting record after another.  The injuries also prevented Curry from getting a max contract, which has been a very lucky break for the Warriors.

Injuries also gave the Warriors the possibility to trade Monta Ellis for center Andrew Bogut, who otherwise would have been a much costlier acquisition. And a David Lee injury led to a spot in the starting lineup and more playing time for Draymond Green, which unlocked his full potential, something that might never have happened if he didn’t get the opportunity. Everyone knew that the Warriors had a steal with Green, but who knew that it was the mother load?

Second, the Warriors might not have drafted in the top five for several years in a row, like the Thunder or the Philadelphia 76ers, but they hit the jackpot with Curry, Klay Thompson, Green, and to lesser degrees, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli. Great evaluation skills in the organization, yes, but also a lot of luck that no one picked these players earlier.

So just like the Thunder, the Warriors were able to draft three of the key players on this super team. The main difference is that none of them were considered superstars until after they had signed their second contract, so they’re all currently well below their current market price. If Curry, Thompson, and Green were free agents this summer, the Warriors might have had to let one of them go instead of luring Kevin Durant!

The discrepancy between the Warriors’ core players market value and their current contracts have increased greatly this summer with the jump in the salary cap due to the new TV deal. Without the extra cap room, or if the players had allowed cap smoothing, Golden State would probably not even have tried to fetch Durant. And while a new TV deal was predictable, neither it’s unprecedented size or it’s structure was—so again, a factor that you can’t plan for is key.

These are just the basics on how the Warriors created a great team and were still able to create the cap room to add an MVP-level player in his prime on a maximum contract. Andre Iguodala and others taking discounts play into it, too, but every contending team has great veteran players who took less money because they know an opportunity when they see it. This is not particular to the Warriors.

When you string all of the above together, it’s obvious that it takes more than cunning to create a super team, it takes a great deal of luck. But even with their core players on bargain deals, the Warriors have to give up two starters on a championship team, and a couple of bench players, to make room for Durant. And while it’s easy to imagine the positives of adding him to an already great team, it certainly comes at a cost:

Chemistry and trust. Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Bogut, Green, and Ezeli have all played together on this team since 2012. Now the three of them are gone and they will leave a hole, no matter who comes in. The Boston Celtics 2010-2011 is an example of what can happen when you mess with chemistry. Kendrick Perkins was not considered a huge factor on that team, but he had been in the trenches with the rest of the starters since 2007. When he was traded to the Thunder at deadline 2011, the Celtics lost something they never found again with that core.

Depth and versatility. With both Bogut and Ezeli gone, the Warriors lose depth at the center spot, and at least some of the playmaking and elite defense that Bogut provided. The playoffs proved this could become a weakness. Bogut is also one of the toughest players on the team, which can be hard to replace. Zaza Pachulia is not the worst replacement, but he has some seriously big shoes to fill (I know you’re wondering: Pachulia wears an impressive size 17, Bogut is the bigger man, though, wearing a size 18).

Balance. Harrison Barnes was a quality third or fourth option, and didn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. Enter Durant, who is more of a first option as a very efficient high-volume scorer, just like Curry. They both have the capability to be the team’s best player, but who will end on top? Hierarchy might not seem that important to last season’s Warriors with Curry as the floor general and Green as the vocal and emotional leader. But Durant is also a leader, and compared to Barnes, he’s a ferocious alpha dog. The Heat showed in their 2010-2011 season that it can be problematic if the team’s best player defers too much.

The “disease of more,” is an ongoing issue among winning teams. Everyone knows how to sacrifice in order to win, but once you’ve reached the top, people start wanting more and get unsatisfied with their role, their money, etc. The Warriors have been able to hold it at bay, but with major changes in the lineup, it might not be that easy.

So while the CBA didn’t stop Durant from joining the Warriors, it sure hampered them a bit. And it’s way too early to say whether Durant’s move has destroyed the competitiveness of the league. It’s another thing when we talk about the Thunder, though. They’re definitely out of the small circle of true contenders for the championship. And they may remain out for quite a while. A devastating turn of events for the Western Conference finalists.

And this is where the CBA, and free agency in general, falls short. There is no compensation for Oklahoma, who might even lose Russell Westbrook for nothing next summer, which more or fewer forces them to a rebuild unless they can trade him for another star.

Oklahoma can’t blame their current problems solely on the CBA, or the fact that it’s a small market, but it’s very understandable if the team, the organization, and the fans feel that the NBA hasn’t delivered what was promised. Even though Oklahoma was able to offer him a bigger and longer contract, they weren’t able to hold onto their biggest star.

This situation will definitely be a huge subject for discussion among the team owners, and could lead them to terminate the CBA from 2017 if they can agree on how to address it. The biggest battle could very well be inside the owners group, rather than between owners and players.

One thing that the owners might insist on would be a more gentle rise in salaries when revenues jump. The players union, NBPA, said no to that when the owners suggested this during last season.

A compromise could be that all contracts become (partly) scalable with increasing revenues – or at least when the jump is as big as this summer. Not every owner would like that because planning becomes harder, but for the players, it would make a lot of sense.

If the owners want to reform the salary structure, they might also find the players very responsive. A new super-max at 40 percent of the salary cap (or no max at all) and/or higher minimum wages would make it even tougher to create super teams. But the players union might be split through the middle over removing the max.

A small compensation for teams who lose players in free agency would be extra draft picks. How that should work could get rather complicated, though.

But none of this would prevent the player’s free choice in free agency, or teams from dealing their way into a super team. Unless the league wants to take away free agency, the only way for the league to go about this would be to grant the commissioner or a committee the right to veto a contract or a trade for the sake of parity. “For basketball reasons” would come alive again, stronger and more controversial than ever.

Torkil Bang

I'm a journalist from Denmark, so if I write something strange on my Twitter, it's probably in Danish.
I am the editor of NBAinfo.dk, a blog about the NBA in Danish.

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