Having Balance Issues

The NBA is facing a big competitive landscape problem. The solution? Pay its stars more.


By Charlie Zegers

The Donald Sterling saga has yet to reach its third act, but another crisis with league-wide implications is already hurtling toward Adam Silver with the speed of Russell Westbrook on a fast break.

And LeBron James will get most of the blame.

In case you’ve been holed up in a sound-proofed chamber where Stephen A. Smith’s blather cannot penetrate, let’s quickly recap. According to a number of ESPN reports last week, the Miami Heat are working on a plan that would bring soon-to-be free agent Carmelo Anthony to South Beach, augmenting Pat Riley’s “Big Three” into a colossal four.

Putting aside, for a moment, the indignity of such a proposition, the scenario seems unlikely, at best.

In order for Miami to sign ‘Melo, they’d need James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to each opt out of their already below-market contracts and re-sign for even less. The Heat would also need to dump every other contract on the books — everyone but Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem — and cast off their impending first-round draft pick. Oh, and they would need Anthony — the same guy who ramrodded his trade from Denver, putting his need a few extra million dollars ahead of the fiscal well being of the team he was “coming home” for — to cut his salary in half.

That the Melo-to-the-Heat rumor is even theoretically possible shows just how big a problem competitive balance has become for the Association. And that’s something Silver will have to address, and soon.

It is important to understand that competitive balance is harder to achieve in the NBA than in other professional sports, due to the structure of the game itself. A dominant baseball player like Miguel Cabrera is just one of 25 players on a roster; an NFL star is one of one of 53. Elite players in those and other sports simply cannot impact their games as consistently as someone like LeBron James, who is one of just 12 active players, on the floor during nearly 80 percent of every contest.

The NBA’s overall depth of talent is another factor. At any given time, there are but a handful of truly great players in the league. If your roster has just one of those, making the playoffs is a long shot. Two can get you to the Conference Finals. Three, and you’re a dynasty in the making — which is why dynasties are so common in the league. In the “Salary Cap Era” — beginning in the 1984-’85 season — just eight franchises have won the championships. Seven of those eight — the Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Heat, Rockets, Pistons and Celtics — have multiple championships in that span, which also includes three-peats by the Bulls (twice) and Lakers. What did those teams have in common? Multiple stars.

In a perfect world, to achieve competitive balance, the league’s superstars should be distributed as widely as possible. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening.

LeBron’s move to Miami created a new paradigm, one in which superstar players give up some of their “max money” to play in the city — and with the teammates — they prefer. The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement compounded that problem by cutting the dollar value of top contracts, meaning that today’s superstar contracts are closer in value to lesser players than the max deals under the last CBA. Teams can no longer blow free agents away with unique offers, so other factors — like the market, local taxes, and, most importantly, the existing roster —play a larger role in players’ decisions.

Unless something is done to level the playing field, we are likely to see more and more players emulate LeBron, Bosh and Dwight Howard — and possibly Carmelo — in a league-wide consolidation of elite talent in the most desirable markets. Maybe Anthony won’t land in Miami — but he certainly isn’t going to Milwaukee.


The NBA’s overall depth of talent is another factor. At any given time, there are but a handful of truly great players in the league. If your roster has just one of those, making the playoffs is a long shot. Two can get you to the Conference Finals. Three, and you’re a dynasty in the making — which is why dynasties are so common in the league. In the “Salary Cap Era” — beginning in the 1984-’85 season — just eight franchises have won the championships. Seven of those eight — the Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Heat, Rockets, Pistons and Celtics — have multiple championships in that span, which also includes three-peats by the Bulls (twice) and Lakers. What did those teams have in common? Multiple stars.

In a perfect world, to achieve competitive balance, the league’s superstars should be distributed as widely as possible. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening.

LeBron’s move to Miami created a new paradigm, one in which superstar players give up some of their “max money” to play in the city — and with the teammates — they prefer. The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement compounded that problem by cutting the dollar value of top contracts, meaning that today’s superstar contracts are closer in value to lesser players than the max deals under the last CBA. Teams can no longer blow free agents away with unique offers, so other factors — like the market, local taxes, and, most importantly, the existing roster —play a larger role in players’ decisions.

Unless something is done to level the playing field, we are likely to see more and more players emulate LeBron, Bosh and Dwight Howard — and possibly Carmelo — in a league-wide consolidation of elite talent in the most desirable markets. Maybe Anthony won’t land in Miami — but he certainly isn’t going to Milwaukee.


So how can we level the playing field? By paying top players more.

The cap on player salaries means the LeBrons of the league are wildly underpaid, even when making the max. James made $17.5 million this season, but his actual economic value is estimated to be closer to $40 million. Shouldn’t teams be able to pay him whatever they want while still maintaining a reasonable cap? By eliminating caps on individual player contracts, but keeping a cap on overall team salary, part of the problem is solved.

How would the numbers work? First , let’s assume there’s no cap on individual player salaries, but team salaries as a whole are capped at about $63 million — which is the projected number for next season. Under that system, a team with lots of cap room might be willing to offer LeBron a contract for something much closer to that “actual economic value.” Under that system, the Sixers might be on the phone with LeBron’s agent right now, offering $36 million a year and the chance to play with Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams and the third pick in this year’s draft.

Under such a system, the Bucks or Jazz would be enabled to become real players in free agency. Players like ‘Melo might not limit their options to Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. Kevin Love might not be so eager to ditch Minnesota. Meanwhile, general managers would have to get a lot more creative. The “couple of superstars with minimum-salary veterans” rosters might take a back seat to deeper, more versatile teams — like the Larry Brown Era Pistons or Dirk Nowitzki’s championship Mavs.

Of course, there’s a down side to all this. It is entirely possible that more “James Harden to Houston” deals would occur as teams likely won’t be able to keep multiple young superstars on a roster. Oklahoma City, for example, could pay big money to Kevin Durant, but the risk of losing Russell Westbrook to a team with more money to spend would be very real. Similar scenarios could unfold in Portland, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Dame Lillard.

Then again, every team’s relative loss would hypothetically be Milwaukee’s, Utah’s or Orlando’s significant gain. And if Adam Silver is telling the truth, isn’t that what the NBA wants?

@CharlieZegers is a sportswriter whose work has appeared on Rotowire.com, About.com, NBA.com and NYTimes.com.