The NBA’s Got 99 Problems, but…
Here is a few fixes for a few of the Association’s major problems on the horizon
In recent years the NBA has dealt with a few major problems that have stood in the way of the league becoming the best it’s ever been. Though the league is thriving in terms of popularity, ratings, and money, current issues the league is facing will get progressively worse if they are not dealt with soon. Don’t get me wrong, the NBA is in a great position as of now. The 2017 championship averaged 20.4 million total viewers, up from 20.2 million viewers for last season’s seven-game series, despite the series being less competitive. The NBA is more popular than ever, but the issues of tanking, the viability of small markets, and competitive balance all pose significant challenges for the NBA in coming years.
It is nearly impossible for an NBA team to win a championship without a superstar. Over the past thirty-five years, only two teams have been able to win the title without a top 10 player in the league, and both the 04' Pistons and the 14' Spurs were historically well functioning teams with 8 All-Star level players between the two teams. Unlike the NFL, where almost (sorry Browns) every team enters the season at least thinking they have a remote chance to win the Super Bowl, NBA teams without a top 10 player can effectively rules themselves out of title contention. This destroys the hope of any fan base without a superstar or a player that will one day can reach that level. This harsh reality has caused teams to go through desperate measures to try to secure a player that could conceivably lead their team to title.
There are three basic ways to acquire a superstar, or any player for that matter: free agency, via trade, or the draft. Over the years, player friendly markets such as Miami and LA have been able to entice the cream of the free-agent crop, while others such as Huston with James Harden or more recently with Chris Paul, have kept their teams competitive and hoarded assets until they were able to acquire a superstar by trade. However, for small market teams, Free agency is almost out of the question as a means to acquire a top ten player, unless the player has some special tie to the city as in the case of Lebron, though even a hometown advantage couldn’t get Washington a meeting with Kevin Durant in 2016, or Oklahoma City a meeting with Blake Griffin a meeting this year. Often, small market teams have no shot trying to get a superstar by free agent signing.
Trading for a star is possible for a team that is not a major destination, with the Pelicans, Thunder, and Timberwolves, all trading for All-Stars within the last six months. However, these players only come available at the end of their deals with their previous team and are often a risk to turn right around and leave via free agency. At that point these teams have gutted their roster for all of one year from Paul George or Demarcus Cousins. Occasionally, this works out like the James Harden situation did for Houston, but it’s a high-risk high-reward play, that often leaves teams talent-less and directionless.
This leaves the draft as the best bet for those small to midsize market teams. OKC, Golden State, and the Chicago earlier this decade have all built through the draft by nailing multiple top draft picks and acquiring that top 10 player or players necessary for title contention, though Chicago would lose theirs to the injury plague. But unlike the NFL, where top talent can be found throughout the draft, only the top 5 NBA picks have a significant probability of becoming a top-10 level player. Of the leagues current top 10 players (LeBron, KD, Russ, Harden, Steph, Kawhi, AD, CP3, Wall, and Giannis) only 2 were drafted outside of the top 5 and only one outside of the top 7. And the only realistic way to receive a top 5 pick is to be a truly awful team, and with multiple teams wishing to at the top of the draft every year, teams are pushed to intentionally lose games.
Nobody, except for Mark Cuban, will admit to tanking, but every year teams are intentionally playing worse basketball in the hopes of getting a higher draft pick. They are playing inexperienced players in roles beyond their capabilities, holding out players that will help them win by claiming the need “rest”, taking on terrible players to acquire draft picks. Unfortunately, tanking does work, at least in raising the chances of winning a championship for the tanking team. Sam Hinkie understood this, and took taking to its logical conclusion. If getting one top 5 pick raises your chances of winning a ring by a percentage, then getting 4 top five picks must raise it by an even higher percentage, but the NBA doesn’t want its teams throwing away multiple season in the hopes that one day they will compete for a ring. This is obvious due to the way they pushed Hinkie out of Philly, but with the way things are currently setup, this is how teams “should” operate. The rules currently reward the wrong kind of behavior from both the fan’s and the NBA’s perspectives. Basketball is better for everyone when teams are well run, and when the right kind of behavior is rewarded. So if the NBA wants to change the way things are, they can’t just make teams play coy about tanking, or fire those that take it to the extreme. They must change the rules.
In an ideal version of the NBA, each of the following tiers of teams would exist:
Tier 1: Championship Contenders (6–8 Teams)
The problem with “Super teams” in the NBA has never been their existence, just that aren’t enough of them. In the perfect version of the NBA in any given year 6–8 teams going into the season believing that they have a real shot to win the title. Going into this next NBA season, if KD were magically moved from the Warriors to the Wizards, we would have pretty close to this ideal with Golden State, OKC, San Antonio, Houston, and maybe Minnesota in the West, and Washington, Boston, and of course the Lerbons in the east. With 6–8 teams in this tier, at least five very competitive, high stakes playoff series would take place, but due to the dominance of the Warriors, and to some degree the Cavs, its more likely that we only end up with one or two.
Tier 2: The Challengers (6–8 Teams)
The teams in this team may not expect to be in the Conference finals, but go into the season with the belief that if one or two players develop in the right way, or if the team gets hot at the right time that they have a solid chance of putting up a fight against one of the contenders. Due to the superiority of Cleveland and Golden State last year, this group really didn’t even exist, but the NBA does not want the teams playing for the title to enter completely unscathed. The teams in this group should push the contenders and be only a season or two away from joining them.
Tier 3: Up and Comers (8–10 Teams)
Teams in tier three go into the season pretty much knowing that they won’t compete for a championship, but should be in the mix to compete for the 7 or 8 seeds (or 5th in the East). These teams should be focused on getting their players playoff experience, building chemistry, and establishing good habits. They may be a move or two away, but they are headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, the way things are set up now, this is more often a dead end than a stepping stone. The treadmill of mediocrity, as some have termed it, has lead to stretched of semi-competitive basketball with no clear path forward until these teams eventually decide to tank or strike gold with a mid first round draft pick, like Milwaukee has with Giannis with the 15th pick. This tier needs help from the NBA. Trying to make the playoffs shouldn’t be punished. Competing every night shouldn’t be a roadblock to eventual success.
Tier 4: Rebuilding and Restarting (4–8 Teams)
Even in a perfectly run NBA, there is always going a few teams at the bottom. Whether its due to the decline of a star player or giving major minutes to very young players, there are going to be bottom feeders, but even these teams should have some hope of success in the near future. Being at the bottom of the league should be a short term situation and teams should never be more than a couple of years away from competing.
1. Eliminate the draft
The first step in fixing the issues of tanking and competitive balance is to eliminate the draft entirely and instead of a draft, allow incoming players to be treated as rookie free agents. The draft is a bad system for all. It results in the unhappy marriages of many franchises and players, and it incentives losing. Under the current system, due to rookie scale contracts and NBA stars don’t realistically have a chance to choose where they play until at least year 7. This is not a healthy system for the NBA.
Others such as ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz and Amin Elhassan have each proposed versions of a Rookie Contact Exception, and my proposal, though different in its execution, would be roughly the same idea. Both of their proposed systems allow for the highest level of player freedom, but do nothing to help small to midsize market teams that are unable to attract top level free agents.
I would propose three levels of rookie cap exceptions similar to the Room Exception, Full Mid-level Exception, and the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, but with different values associated with each level. The Full-Rookie Contract would be set at $14.5 Mil. that teams would be free to distribute to multiple players, or spend all on one player. Players on this contract would be eligible to negotiate deals from 3–5 years with up to 8% annual raises. Teams over the cap, but not in the luxury tax would have access to the Mid-Level Rookie Contract, which would be set at $8 Mil. that once again, teams would be free to distribute to one player or multiple. These contracts could range from 2–4 years, and players would be eligible for raises up to 5% a year. And finally, teams in the luxury tax would only be allowed $2.5 mil. to negotiate with incoming players, and players on these deals would only be eligible for 2 year contracts with 5% raises annually, and teams in the repeater tax would have no exception for incoming players. Under this system teams would also be unable to trade draft picks for cash considerations (looking at you Gar-Pax).
This system would eliminate the need for teams to race to the bottom of the standings. In this system, even playoff teams would be eligible for top incoming talent if they have the cap space, and provide an enticing environment for the rookie to play in. Under these rules, players can make their own decision on where they want to work (like every other industry does in America) and teams would be encouraged to become organizations that are the kind of places that players desire. Players would still come to losing teams for more money, playing time, and opportunity to become a star, but would be able to avoid dysfunctional organizations all together. So often a players success in the NBA is determined by who they end up with. Given the choice to find the right system, opportunity, and roster fit, the NBA would see more success stories, and less disappointing rookies. As for teams, those in search of a Superstar would still be able to try to compete for wins, all while creating a team culture that would be enticing to top talent coming into the league.
Under this system, gone would be the loopholes allowing teams like the Warriors to obtain the kind of players that allow them to keep their dynasty going long after it should be financially feasible. Teams like that wouldn’t be able to acquire players like Patrick McCaw, that are able to contribute while taking a minimum salary slot. The NBA would see a more natural rising and falling of teams over time, and while dynasties will still exist, teams won’t be able to add even more talent after being the best team in the league.
2. Change the Designated Player Extension
The NBA wants it’s star players to stay with the teams that drafted them, and build a championship level team from there. Over the years the NBA has attempted to encourage this behavior, but with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), has actually hindered this cause. The recent change to the Designated Player Extension (or super-max) has actually had the opposite effect of what it was intended to do, as seen in the cases of Boogie Cousins, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler. Intended as a mechanism to help small market teams keep their All-Star level players, it has actually scared teams off from committing to these players, because of the huge salary cap percentage that this kind of contract takes up, and because it hamstrings the team as it looks to surround that designated player with top talent in seeking a championship. While I believe that allowing players to choose their initial team would help stars stick around longer, the rules also need to be changed if the NBA truly wants to encourage team loyalty.
I would change this rule to still allow the team to offer up to 30% of the salary cap to player for up to 5 years, but the salary would only count as 25% against the cap. Similar to the veteran minimum contracts, this new DPE would encourage teams to retain their own players, while still having the cap space to look for other star players to pair with their designated player. I would also allow players qualifying for the Designated Veteran Player Extension would only as 30% of the cap, instead of the current 35%. This would provide incentive for star players to stick around with the teams that drafted them, because those teams would have the ability to surround the player with other All-Stars.
3. Eliminate Exceptions for Teams in the Tax
The NBA has attempted to keep teams from going far into the tax by placing incredibly harsh repeater penalties the CBA, but the issue with these rules is that it often takes 3 years for a team to incur these penalties, all the while these teams keep their cores together and even improve. It took the perfect storm of luck (or bad luck if you’re the rest of the NBA) for the Warriors to be able to sign KD, but they should not be able to take a 67-win championship team and go out this off-season improve by acquiring Nick Young and Omri Casspi. The NBA should do away with Tax-Payer Mid-level, and the Bi-Annual Exception. Additionally, Bird rights should be capped at 120% of the players previous salary if their new salary exceeds the luxury tax.
The NBA is in a solid spot financially, and has the eyes and ears of the casual fan, but die-hard fan frustration will continue to mount if the rich are able to get richer, and small market teams develop superstars, only to see them bolt for Miami, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. With a couple of tweaks to the CBA, and an overhaul of the draft, I believe the NBA can set itself up for future, by helping both the players and the small to mid-sized market teams. Nobody wants the NBA to remain a two-horse race for the next five years, though there may be nothing the league can do about that now. But going forward, changes can and should be made to ensure that every year at least a couple of teams have a chance to win the title.