Kevin Durant applauded LeBron James‘ decision to return to the Cavaliers when speaking to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne during Team USA tryouts in Vegas yesterday. He also said some nice things about returning to play in his hometown when his Thunder face the Wizards. Now everyone is freaking out about KD’s possible move to Washington DC when he becomes a free agent after the 2015-16 season. The instances of star free agency have become more frequent and speak to the irony behind the 2011 collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
After training camp on Tuesday, Durant said he thought it was “pretty cool” LeBron is joining the Cavs this summer. Via ESPN.com:
“I thought it was well-thought-out. It was classy. It was a great move to do it as a letter. That was pretty cool. It’s funny seeing guys think about more than just basketball for once. He thought about the city where he comes from, about Northeast Ohio and how he can affect so many of the kids just being there playing basketball. I love that. So many guys get criticized for making the decision that’s best for them, instead of what’s best for everybody else. He’s a guy that did that. You gotta respect that. I applauded him, I texted him and told him congratulations on the decision and told him I was happy for him. As a fan of the game, it’s going to be pretty cool to see him back in Cleveland.”
Durant grew up in Seat Pleasant, Maryland inside Prince George’s County just outside Washington DC — a place he thanked profusely after he won his first MVP award this past season.
When KD was asked whether he might follow the same path as LeBron and sign with the Wizards when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2016, he was somewhat cagey with his answer, not dismissing the notion, but speaking effusively about returning home every time the Thunder travel to play the Wizards:
“I’m going to do what’s best for me. It’s hard to talk about that right now when I’ve got two years left in Oklahoma City. I’m just going to focus on that. I’m not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does. I grew up watching the Bullets/Wizards. I grew up taking the train to that arena, all the time, to watch Georgetown, the Bullets, the Washington Mystics. That whole city is a part of me. It’s in my blood. I love going back home, seeing my family and playing there, but I love Oklahoma City too.”
Quotes like that one have a tendency to perk the ears of Wizards fans, which explains the fervid excitement in the reaction by SB Nation’s Mike Prada — as talented a writer as there is when breaking down game film. Prada ended his fawning and tongue-in-cheek piece by concluding, “I can’t wait to keep doing this for the next 23 months. Embrace the chase.”
And that’s where we’re at after the 2011 CBA put a five-year limit on player contracts — and that’s only if a team re-signs their own player. If a player changes teams in free agency, he can only sign for four years.
When the 2011 CBA was agreed upon the coverage all agreed the owners had gotten a resounding win. They effectively put structures in place — like the length of the contract, a harsher luxury tax penalty to impinge on spending bonanzas — that kept themselves in check. Basically, the new agreement prevents them from mucking up their own teams. We could wax poetic about how odd it is too see strident capitalists like NBA owners cozying up to socialist structures like those in the new CBA, but that’s for another piece.
No, we’re concerned with the ironic effect the CBA has had for the owners. They’ve effectively turned themselves into pawns for NBA free agents every summer.
In the new CBA, NBA owners got back a 7 percent differential in the BRI (basketball-related income), so now the players and owners split that money 50/50, rather than the 57/43 cut it was before. Except the owners — and the general managers they employ — are effectively being held captive by the whims of their star players, who are the foundation for any team — not including the Spurs, and who knows if that continues when Tim Duncan retires — looking to compete for a title.
Anybody who thinks the NBA should reward the players, and not the owners, might look at the CBA and it’s harsher tax penalties with a soft cap — that’s really more of a hard cap for all but the largest media markets — as a way of crippling the earning power of the workers (players). While this is somewhat true (mid-tier players get rewarded with larger salaries after a max limit is imposed on a star’s contract; e.g., Channing Frye‘s deal with the Magic), it also allows NBA stars to pick and choose where they want to play every time they can opt out.
LeBron held the entire NBA hostage during the opening weeks of free agency before deciding he was going back home. He also made it clear whichever team got him better pay him the max (he had only made the max three times over the first 11 years of his career). He could do this for two reasons:
1) LeBron makes enough off the court that re-signing with the Heat for that extra year was easy for him to pass up; in fact, he passed up a four-year deal with Cleveland so he might renegotiate a larger deal when the TV revenue kicks in and significantly increases the cap line.*
2) He knew teams would do anything to get him signed to a max contract since it meant the best player in the world might join their squad — witness all the wheeling and dealing by the Cavs, and others, just to open up enough cap room for a max deal.
Kevin Durant is in the same boat. When he says anything positive about his hometown, Wizards fans justifiably swoon at the prospect of KD going home. Durant was the MVP last season and he appears to be the only player capable of out-performing LeBron over the course of a full regular season (playoff success is the only way he’ll leapfrog LeBron as the best player on the planet in the minds of most NBA heads). Teams will do anything to get enough money to offer him a max deal, and he can pick among them. Obviously, like Cleveland was for LeBron, the Wizards hold more sway than every team not named the Thunder.
Because of Durant’s abilities and his star power — his KD line with Nike is on par with Derrick Rose‘s signature line with adidas, LeBron with Nike and the Jordan Brand athletes — in the summer of 2016 he will pick and choose just like LeBron did his summer. In fact, the summer of 2016 could also be the end of LeBron’s contract in Cleveland if he doesn’t opt out next summer to sign a bigger deal.
While the mid-tier players lap up the leftover money stars can’t make under the current salary structure limiting their maximum earning power year-to-year, the limit on the length of contracts gives star players more opportunities to hold the cards and decide where they want to play.
For a team like OKC (and any small market teams in colder climes), who were supposed to benefit from the measures imposed by the new CBA, it’s actually hurt them, and could again if Durant heads to Washington. The Thunder have already lost James Harden because they couldn’t afford to pay him, Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka their market value. Unlike the Lakers and their massive local television contract which means they can afford to pay any luxury taxes, going over the tax line simply isn’t something the Thunder can afford to do, even if it penalizes the product on the court.
Now OKC might miss out on keeping Durant in two years’ time if the lure of home, and a pretty impressive supporting cast — particularly in the backcourt with John Wall and Bradley Beal — proves too tempting to pass up. The money is nearly the same in OKC or Washington, with the Thunder only able to offer an extra year and a slightly higher yield per year. As we saw when Dwight went to Houston, for some stars, that extra money isn’t worth as much as an environment that makes them comfortable.
The CBA was supposed to even the playing field by creating more parity similar to the NFL. Instead, it’s hindered smaller market teams like the Thunder and put more agency, with less moolah, in the hands of NBA stars like KD and LeBron.
Since NBA stars aren’t getting what they deserve in an open market (LeBron, KD, ‘Melo and players of their ilk could all make more than double what they’re being paid now as max players if there was no cap on individual salaries), the least we can do is let them pick a team based on what makes sense for them as individuals. If that means KD goes to Washington in two summers, so be it. We know Wizards fans will finally be happy.
If the billionaire owners of NBA franchises, who continue to harvest incredible profits as their team’s value increases every year (why do you think Donald Sterling was so hesitant to sell?), don’t like catering to the whims of NBA stars, too bad. This is the CBA they fought for, so they wouldn’t be penalized after being idiots with their own business decisions while operating a team. The least the players can do is make the best choice for themselves regardless of what the bigwigs deign to offer them in a contract. There’s no real financial incentive to stick with a team anymore if you’re a top-10 player, and the stars in the NBA know it.
*The new TV money might increase the cap too much, where it would penalize any player that was locked in on a larger deal, so it’ll be interesting to see what the league does with this discrepancy.
What do you think?
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