We look at an option to allow the NBA to find a competitive balance
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competitive balance
Eliminating max contracts would eliminate big paydays for players like Bismack Biyombo.

(Hopefully), no one roots for an injury. But you could hear an undercurrent among sports fans when Kevin Durant went down for a month: “hey, at least the regular season just got interesting.”

Should we accept that world we live in? That, barring injuries, there’s absolutely no drama to the NBA’s 82-game regular season? Aside from a few spots in the #7 or #8 range (which ultimately translates into a playoff cameo and a 4-0/4-1 loss), we know who’s making the playoffs. There’s some intrigue about the order, the #1 seed, and home court advantage, but it’s mild at best. Teams know this as well. At times, it feels like the contending NBA teams don’t play the regular season with the intention of fighting tooth and nail for every win as much they’re going through the motions, managing minutes, and trying to avoid injuries.

And hey, maybe that’s fine. Maybe the NBA is content to make their regular season (and even their early-round playoffs) a long, extended foreplay to an inevitable showdown between the Cavs and Warriors. In a sense, it’s like watching Rocky IV — we’re all waiting for the final fight vs. Drago, but we just have to watch a little build-up first.

If the NBA actually wants its regular season to matter — if the NBA actually wants a majority of the teams go into the season thinking they have a shot –if the NBA wants competitive balance… there’s an easy solution. (I imagine this has been written plenty of times before, but that only stresses the obviousness of the solution.)

Eliminate the “max” salary

Restricting all players to a “max” — even one that’s climbing due to new rules — inherently creates an imbalance in the league. Here’s why:

Superstars (like LeBron) are worth MUCH money than the max. Therefore, restricting how much these superstars can make automatically gives their clubs a huge — and unfair — edge over other teams. All max players get paid the same when they shouldn’t be. If my max player is LeBron and yours is Mike Conley (no offense to him), chances are I’m going to beat you.

The fact that the max is so artificially low also allows for the creation of super teams. When Charles Barkley and old schoolers complain that they would never have joined forced and formed super teams — it’s because they never had the chance. There was no max back then. Now, these days, you can somehow slide 2 or 3 “max” players on the same roster. That unfair advantage (of being able to underpay a guy like LeBron) gets doubled and tripled when you can pair him with other star players.

How would a world with no “max” look?

I’m not suggesting pure fiscal anarchy, with the Knicks or Lakers doling out a $200 million payroll while the Bucks only cough up $60 or 70. We can make this formula work by keeping the salary cap/luxury tax in place.

In fact, it’d make the system all the more interesting if there was a salary cap (let’s say $100 million for the sake of argument), but no max for individual players. Suddenly, GMs would have to formulate the best way to build their roster around those parameters. Would you want one great player making $50 million? Or two good players for $25?

Let’s take that to the extreme. Let’s say you’re the Charlotte Hornets, who have been decent here and there but largely get ignored by the NBA at large. Suddenly: LeBron James becomes a free agent. How much (of your $100 million) would you offer him? Statisticians may formulate a reasonable answer of $60 or $70, but couldn’t you see a GM saying “fuck it” and offering $90? A team with a $90-million LeBron and a bunch of minimum level players may not win the title — I suspect they’d be around a #6 or #7 seed — but at least they’d be relevant. At least they’d be interesting. For many NBA franchises out there, “relevant” would be an upgrade.

In fact, the entire league would be relevant again. If you presume that NBA GMs could correctly gauge a player’s value (which is a big leap) then every team in the NBA should be equal. Literally. If talent could be properly weighed and salaries paid accordingly, we may see every team in the league at .500. Now, that obviously wouldn’t play out, because players don’t always perform at their expected level. Teams wouldn’t always make the perfect decisions. But let’s reward the teams that make the best decisions rather than the teams that stumbled into a superstar.

In the “no max” world, GMs jobs get a lot harder, but a lot more liberating. You can remake your roster in any way you want. Maybe LeBron + the minimum turns out to be better than a team of 8 solid $10-million-dollar rotation players. Maybe not. It’d put a lot of onus on the GMs to evaluate talent properly, and engineer a roster properly. If everyone’s talent base is about equal, then the roster fit and complementary skills would be all the more important.

What I like about this system is that: it gives every team a fighting chance. If you’re a franchise in need of a jolt, you don’t need to tank for years and hope you hit a home run in the lottery. You can still do that — if you want — but you can also reshuffle your roster and your spending in unique and interesting ways.

the potential downside of no max

In my mind, there’s no compelling reason to keep the max, but here are two that you’ll hear:

The max is a way to protect teams from themselves. Let’s say you go “all in” on a Paul George and offer him $65 million a year for 5 years. Then, all of a sudden, PG tears his ACL. That would create such a chasm and hole on your roster that it’d be near impossible to compete in the meantime.

That’s a potential problem, but to me, still not a compelling reason to keep the current system. Teams would have to weigh the risk in their major signings and act accordingly. Big risk, big reward.

The other downside — and the real reason this system is unlikely — is the players’ union. Obviously, the majority of players are not LeBron. They’re not making the max — and wouldn’t make a $70, $80 million salary that we’re discussing here. They don’t want those super-duperstars sucking up all the available cash in the system. The idea of an average rotation guy like Bismack Biyombo making $15+ million sits well with the rank and file. They’ll vote to keep that type of system in place because it benefits the majority of their players.

But it doesn’t benefit the NBA. It doesn’t benefit the fans. It doesn’t benefit competitive balance.

If that’s something we care about — and maybe we don’t… — then we need to eliminate the max.

 

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