So why is it, as the NBA’s annual convention otherwise known as the Las Vegas Summer League continues this week, that the dominant theme among the league’s movers and shakers is the strong possibility of a work stoppage next summer? Ironically, many of the same reasons for the league’s current vibrancy and health could lead it to the brink of labor strife next July.
More Money, More Problems
The first point of contention is an age-old issue whenever there’s a pile of money to divide: both sides want a bigger share.
In the last lockout in 2011, the NBA significantly cut into the National Basketball Players Association’s share. The league managed to reduce the players’ share of basketball related income (otherwise known as BRI) from 57 percent before the work stoppage to a band between 49 and 51 percent under the new CBA.
That doesn’t mean the league is satisfied, though.
“They want one thing,” said one player agent, referring to the owners. “They want a higher percentage than 50 percent [of BRI]. That’s it.”
But while the owners will want a bigger cut, so will the players. Since Michele Roberts became the executive director of the NBPA, she’s made it clear she’s going to try and give the union more of a backbone than she believed the organization exhibited in the past. This will be her first chance to prove it.
The idea that someone of Durant’s caliber was able to join Golden State without the Warriors having to tear up their roster is something that’s left many teams around the league unhappy. Silver admitted as much when he said of this week’s Board of Governors meetings, “Of course we discussed the activities from the last two weeks for free agency. I would say we had a robust discussion in the room of various views of player movement that we’ve seen.”
Silver also made a point to circle back to one theme multiple times during his press conference Tuesday evening: that the NBA needs to try to ensure all teams have a chance to be competitive, provided they are managed well.
“I do think to maintain those principles that I discussed in terms of creating a league in which every team has the opportunity to compete, I think we do need to re-examine some of the elements of our system so that I’m not here next year or the year after again talking about anomalies,” Silver said. “There are certain things, corrections we believe we can make in the system.
“Of course we’re not going to negotiate here with the union; it requires two parties to make those changes. I think we’ve had very productive discussions with the union so far, and we will continue to do so.”
One of those elements to be re-examined will likely be the proposal of an NFL-style franchise tag, an idea tossed out by several executives in Las Vegas this week. If the Thunder had the option to retain Durant with such a designation, he would have been prevented from leaving via free agency. Similarly, if it existed now, the Thunder would have the option to use it on Russell Westbrook after next season. Instead the Thunder face a current situation in which Westbrook is presumed likely to be traded by General Manager Sam Presti to ensure Oklahoma City doesn’t lose a second star for no return.
Player opposition figures to be strong against a franchise tag. From their perspective, Durant spent nine seasons playing in Oklahoma City and had earned the right to test the open market. The topic could be one of the most contentious during any collective bargaining.
No more maximum salaries
The sheer dollar amounts of the summer’s free agent contracts to middling players has been a popular talking point in Las Vegas, but some of that amazement at the big-dollar figures comes out of context. If contracts were measured as a percentage of the salary cap, rather than a total dollar amount, these contracts wouldn’t look much different than past pacts, given the $24 million jump in this year’s salary cap ceiling.
But that cap jump and the artificial ceiling for max contracts meant plenty of players were given hefty contracts this summer simply because they could peg their demands to a max salary, and know multiple teams would give it to them. The most obvious example is Harrison Barnes, who went from being the fourth or fifth option with the Warriors to getting over $90 million guaranteed over the next four years on a max deal from the Dallas Mavericks.
“If I was the owners, why wouldn’t I want to stop this?” one talent evaluator asked.
One easy way to both prevent these kinds of contracts and to eliminate the ability for teams like the Warriors to have several stars team up would be to eliminate max contracts. If players like Curry and Durant could each command, say, $50 or $60 million per year instead of the $26.5 million and change Durant will earn next season on his maximum allowed salary, it would be difficult – if not impossible – for them to play together without agreeing to take gigantic pay cuts.
Unlike many of the topics on this list, however, this one could gain some traction. Roberts has previously talked about the possibility of eliminating them, and with the union’s executive committee now full of names like Chris Paul, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony — who all would likely command more than a maximum dollar amount in an open market — perhaps it’s something they would be interested in pursuing.
The problem, though, is that such a decision would significantly diminish the NBA’s middle class. Those artificial maximum limits for players like Curry, Durant and James mean players like Barnes, for example, benefit by hauling in the dollars the league’s stars aren’t allowed to collect for themselves.
Bring on the hard cap
The idea of a hard salary cap has been something the NBA has always wanted. There’s no better way to prevent teams like the Warriors from accumulating a disproportionate amount of talent than a fixed spending limit teams are forbidden to exceed.
But just as it’s something the NBA has always wanted, it’s something the players union has always fought. The idea surfaced during the last lockout and it was a non-starter for the union. Eventually the NBA relented, and pulled it off the table.
When Adam Silver said Tuesday that, “I think we can make the system even better,” this is one of the things he undoubtedly had in mind. It’s also something the players will fiercely resist.
With so many issues for the two sides to hammer out over the next 12 months, and with NBA teams apparently determined to find ways to prevent moves like Durant joining the Warriors, settling on a new CBA will not be an easy task. And the incredible amount of money up for grabs won’t make the task of dividing it any easier.