We’re early in the season, when every team, except the Knicks, seems chipper and optimistic. Thus far, it seems that this optimism is well placed. For the first time since the 1999 lockout, multiple teams from both the East and West think that they have a solid shot at winning an NBA Championship and, perhaps most importantly, they’re correct.
In the case of the ’99 season, the reason for the wide open nature of the championship had to do with two key factors: The end of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, which dispersed talent across the league, and a 50-game season that gave less time for teams to gel. The season was fun, if ugly, with every regular season game mattering, and the aforementioned Knicks’ historic playoff run â€“ barely making the eight seed and ultimately emerging in the NBA finals. Plus, everyone remembers that season as the beginning of the Spurs Dynasty.
But there was more to it than that. The Houston Rockets tried to incorporate Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen. The Lakers had a young and spry Shaq, Kobe Bryant, added Glen Rice at midseason, and fired Del Harris before promoting Kurt Rambis. They also still played in the Forum which had a mysterious quality that made watching Laker games, at least on TV, more fun than the airbrushed Staples Center. The Trail Blazers were young and talented, Miami had perhaps its best shot at a ring in the Alonzo Mourning Era and the Pacers were possibly an incorrectly called Larry Johnson Four-Point Play away from going to the NBA Finals and winning it all.
It was, from top to bottom, one of the most exciting seasons that the NBA has had in recent memory, even if the collective lack of training camp resulted in some ugly, unwatchable basketball at the same time.
But this season could match that lockout shortened ’99 campaign without the ensuing bricks and turnovers that came about as a result of that lockout.
Out in the Western Conference, there are now six teams that are far more likely make it to the NBA Finals than that ’99 Knicks team: Oklahoma City, Houston, Memphis, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors all have the chops to emerge in the Finals. In the Eastern Conference, the glamor is in Miami, but Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana are all possibilities to come out as well.
Yet this lack of an established pecking order exists for a significantly different reason than that which caused the undifferentiated 1999 season. It can be explained by three letters: CBA.
The vast complexities of the salary cap are too long to be adequately explained here, but for those looking to set themselves apart as potential NBA management material or to troll people who propose outlandish trades on message boards, I’d highly recommend Larry Coon’s FAQ.
When you peel away the various nuances of the salary cap, what makes the NBA so wide open this year, and potentially for many years to come, is actually rather simple: fear of the luxury tax. The perfect example is Oklahoma City. The organization had done a fantastic job of evaluating and drafting talented players. With the exception of the Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins trade â€” the rare move that has hurt both teams â€“ OKC was the shining example of a smaller market team that became title contenders by drafting smart and building from the ground up. Yet â€” instead of retaining the talent they’d drafted, thus being unquestionably the dominant team in the West for several years â€” James Harden was sent packing to Houston.
Paying Harden what he deserved (max money) would have put OKC over the cap and thus subjected them to a harsh tax penalty. Instead of OKC’s ownership trading a few years of paying a hefty luxury tax bill (we won’t even get into the decision not to amnesty Kendrick Perkins‘ awful deal) in order to win rings, at a time when the franchise they’d purchased had dramatically increased in value â€” ownership cut costs to fall under the luxury tax. This is not endemic to smaller teams either, as the Lakers have quietly indicated they may pursue a similar strategy this offseason despite a lucrative local television deal.