I’ve made no secret about my preference for the NBA’s product over college basketball’s. The quality of play is obviously better, the personalities are more entertaining, there’s more scoring... and today’s NBA sits in a golden age of popularity fueled by star power and a worldwide fan base fueled by a smart digital distribution strategy.
And yet, despite all of my defending the league in recent years in this space, yesterday forced me to admit (temporary) defeat.
All-star big man DeMarcus Cousins will join the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors for a paltry $5 million and change for 2018-19. That makes five all-stars on the roster now. It does’t really matter what the Lakers do even with LeBron James in the fold. They’re not beating the Warriors this year, and no one else is either.
Just as the NBA detractors here have claimed, the season’s over before it’s started. For as much as I love the NBA’s product, there will be little reason to watch other than to marvel at what Golden State is able to do with that sort of talent on the floor all at once. Cousins will be out until January or so, which I guess holds off the inevitable march to a championship until then.
This sort of development is a bummer for those willing to defend the NBA’s long-standing perception of predetermination.
Since the league began, the annual champ is almost always a top-two seed in either conference. And more often than not, that top-two seed has also been one of a handful of teams. For the longest time, that honor belonged to the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers (33 titles combined). In the 1990s, the Bulls won six titles in eight years. Since 2000, the Spurs have won five championships in six tries, while the Lakes also got in on the act (five titles in 10 years).
And then, of course, the recent Warriors/Cavaliers run of four straight Finals meetings seemed to break the league, especially as the most recent iteration ended in a sweep. While a fifth straight Finals between the teams is virtually impossible without LeBron in Cleveland, the Warriors signing Cousins all but assures they’ll return once again.
How does this happen?
Of late, you can point to a unique confluence of events that caused this.
To start, the Warriors built the core of their roster largely on homegrown talent. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were all draft picks, foolishly overlooked by other teams for one reason or another. Steve Kerr arrived and installed a system that worked for these players far better than the one his predecessor Mark Jackson had. I lived in the Bay Area during the early days of Curry’s Warriors tenure and the player he was then is a far cry from the player he is now.
That, plus the injuries he sustained back then, is what led him to signing an $11 million deal despite becoming one of the game’s five best players. The cap space that provided allowed for quality supporting contracts, and then the summer of 2016 saw a $24 million cap spike the players voted to be implemented all at once, versus smoothing over time. The move opened the door for Kevin Durant to sign that offseason. Durant signing for less than the maximum contract this year allowed the Warriors to go out and get Cousins.
Golden State shouldn’t be scorned for pulling this off. They’ve exploited not just the league’s salary arrangements, but the ineptitude of most opposing GMs as well. The $24 million bump didn’t force teams to spend wildly two summers ago, but they did anyway, leaving little cap space for this offseason. By their own poor decisions, (most teams are now trying to shed those inflated salaries), the NBA’s collective failure set up the Warriors’ success.
This is the long way of pointing to what (beyond the obvious) differentiates the NBA from college basketball. In the NBA, roster construction features like the stretch provision, rookie pay scale and max deals are designed to save bad executives from themselves. By limiting what the best players can earn, it allows for a team like Golden State — with stars who are willing to take discounts for the greater good — to construct this particular brand of juggernaut.
The NCAA, by contrast, combats this feature in numerous ways. No salary helps, for starters. But there’s the sense of impermanence, the randomness teenagers playing basketball provides, and the lack of a safety net for a series of poor decisions. Any coach that creates a roster as poorly as teams like the Kings, Knicks or Magic have would be fired within three years. There’s no hard reset button beyond the built-in one that recruiting provides. College hoops also provides zero incentive to be bad (while the NBA has a draft that rewards the worst teams with top picks).
Now, the NBA can’t remove salaries from the equation, but removing max deals could go a long way toward more parity and fewer “superteams” forming. As mentioned, features like the max deal are made to save bad GMs from themselves, while also tamping down the value of labor. You can still have a salary cap without max deals, but then you’re forcing teams to be strategic. If the Suns want to offer LeBron $60 million a year, that’s cool. They’re just going to have to construct a pretty good team with the remaining $41 million (per this year’s cap). That’s actually more feasible in many ways, since the max deal also drives up how much lesser players are worth in the current system (and wouldn’t here).
Was this a roundabout way for me to talk about the NBA here? Yes. Does it still have some actual relevance to college basketball? Also yes. The beauty of college basketball comes from its traditions and fan support — but also its penalties for failure. There is only an incentive to succeed. Failure gets you fired, and most times, mediocrity does too (this allows it to differ from even European soccer, which is designed to let most clubs tread water while raking in cash as long as they’re not relegated).
That doesn’t mean college hoops has any more parity than the NBA does (everyone knows who the annual contenders and bluebloods are). But it does find better ways to reward smart and innovative people.
The NBA’s unlikely to get rid of max deals because that shines a spotlight on the owners and executives. But if they’re going to complain about what the Warriors have accomplished here, perhaps they should be looking in a mirror first and foremost.
Even with max deals sticking around though, I hope my concession here is only temporary. Next year’s offseason has a lot more teams with room. Warriors players could get bored with three straight titles, and numerous players on Golden State could head elsewhere. Green wants a max deal and could command one on the open market. Klay Thompson is also due for a lucrative extension. Durant will have a player option and could opt out for max money. Cousins’ one-year deal will also be over.
In this way, the NBA would — for once — act a bit like college basketball. Success begets departures and roster shake-ups. The best teams adjust. The lesser ones don’t. Golden State has shown it can construct the best rosters the league has ever seen. But what happens when everyone wants to get paid all at once? With luck, it all ends this time next year.