Much has been made of post-Collective Bargaining Agreement days of the NBA, which, with all its new tricks to managing salary caps and free agency, have even the most casual of fans thinking more often like businessmen than as fans of the game—assessing the success with which a team handles this new landscape on a season-to-season basis has become at least as popular as complaining about defensive effort.
And there’s plenty of truth to the thinking: the new rules make individual players into franchises in a way quite fitting to the personal-brand-affirming Facebook Era, as more of them are journeymen than ever before, and must constantly fight for another salary. The Houston Rockets’ core trio is made of players who, one year ago, were considered untouchable by their franchises. The Dallas Mavericks start O.J. Mayo, one of many short-term salaries they’ve taken on since disassembling its championship team after Mark Cuban decided that the CBA made them too expensive to keep together—and Mayo is playing the best basketball of his career; probably because he knows he’ll have to, if he wants to sign good contracts (he is playing considerably below market value on a two-year, 4 million/year deal).
It’s easy to consider Mayo’s situation an expression of the new circumstance for most NBA players, who (excepting maybe twenty of them, depending on how you manage this slippery term) are not superstars.
The vast majority of teams are hard-pressed to play the field of available players, and balance its internal budget, in a way that assembles a long-lasting team of exceptional talent. The league is, more and more, resembling a neighborhood court, its collective talent practically interchangeable, and largely subject to the whims of its superstars, who can change the championship vision of the next half-decade any time they decide not to re-sign, to demand a trade, or to partner up with some of their best buddies. Almost any franchise is ready to gut and stumble over itself, the minute a bonafide elite-level player becomes even remotely available, and the rest of the ballers are dangerously close to penny-trader flotsam.
Is this a bad thing? No, not necessarily. We shouldn’t be asked to have too great of professional sympathy for the 1%, especially when they get to their tax bracket playing a game that they love. And as many have said before, superstar-dense teams (however few there are) make for legendary basketball. LeBron James has even called for contraction, which, in theory, makes for a more talent-rich cast of franchises.
Plus, of course, the situation (as always) is a more complicated one. Going into the season, it seemed that the only competitive teams would be the ones willing to accept the new reality of the league, in financial terms, and pay a gross luxury tax by going over their salary caps to pay at least three glitzy mega-stars—or the one team (Oklahoma City) who was lucky enough to have drafted such talent, but was faced with the crisis of having to continue paying them. The new SuperTeams of the Lakers, Heat, Thunder, Clippers, and to a certain extent the Nets, were considered the favorites to make noise, and the biggest off-season winners. Mid-season hindsight, however, inspires a certain universal slap to the forehead; coaching, chemistry, and age, and countless intangibles always seem to be forgotten in the pre-season speculation which fails to recognize teams as cultural units.
While there’s a certain (and, for many franchises, grim) accuracy to the SuperTeam-or-bust mentality, there are plenty of teams admirably bucking the trend. The Pacers, Bulls, Grizzlies, Warriors, and Spurs are all reaping the benefits of investing in ambitious coaches who create winning cultures, and in players who work as hard, and are committed to their team’s vision of success. All are considerably better than the Lakers. Among these five teams, there are maybe three of what we call superstars—Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker—one of whom (Rose) hasn’t played yet this year, and another (Duncan) who, while tremendously impressive this year, has limited minutes due to his age. The rest of these teams’ success can be attributed to building schemes with the right players (who they actually drafted and/or developed) over multi-year campaigns, and each of them can expect to give anyone hell in the playoffs. Only the wildly under-experienced Warriors would be an absolute shock to represent their conference in the playoffs—so long as Miami fails to prove that it owns the East in its somewhat dismal championship defense, the doors look somewhat open for Indiana and Chicago.
The makeup of championship contenders hasn’t much changed. There are franchises who pull trade and free-agency miracles, like the Heat and Clippers (and like the Lakers are wont to do but have failed at), and there are those who draft committed players into hard-working, committed systems. Large and warm-weather markets, willing to pay a large salary tax, will always favor the former, and the latter will always have to be what smaller markets hope for.
What’s different is the rest of the pack, and the ways they try to catch up. There’s an increasingly blurry line between rebuilding projects and teams merely acting as salary bays, until the next chance for a player-movement coup arises. Also unclear is the best path for respective markets, with Dallas as the prime example. Recent NBA champions with a historically elite scorer in their lineup—and playoff presence for over a decade—the team is now struggling to promote itself as a feasible landing spot for superstars on the move. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that the team’s activity since its title does not project a winning culture, and that this is why they failed to acquire Deron Williams, and will likely not draw Chris Paul or Dwight Howard away from SoCal. Or maybe not. Mark Cuban has the personal wealth to go over the luxury tax, and he could have kept Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, and Jason terry in town. What he lacked was the wisdom to see that such expenses to the franchise’s bankroller would become a staple of maintaining success, for most teams, in the new NBA. Just ask Mickey Arison, whose willingness to exhaust his deep pockets (aided by a certain amount of superstar salary sacrifice) is the only way that the current Miami heat are a feasible project. Big and famous a product as LeBron James has become, Miami is not a huge market, and does not make anywhere near the television of profits of the Knicks and Lakers—the only two franchises’ whose guaranteed incomes systemically proof them against luxury tax issues. More than ever, franchise success is seen to be beholden to the wealth of its market, or to its only true substitute of an extremely generous ownership, which is extremely committed to winning.
Here’s to hoping that this year’s champion relies on neither, and defies the state of the power structure in winning with a formula harder-earned.