If you’ve found this free-agency period — with its fractured long-term relationships and newly formed ominous alliances — to be unsettling, maybe it’s because your concept of the NBA doesn’t fit the NBA’s concept of the NBA.
The NBA sent out a definition of itself last week. It was at the bottom of a news release about the new, high-tech shot clock. At the end of many news releases is a paragraph called the boilerplate, a one-paragraph summary describing the team or company. Think of it as the corporate equivalent of a detailed Twitter bio. In this case the boilerplate read:
- “The NBA is a global sports and media business built around three professional sports leagues: the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association, and the NBA Development League. The league has established a major international presence with games and programming in 215 countries and territories in 49 languages, and NBA merchandise for sale in more than 125,000 stores in 100 countries on 6 continents. NBA rosters at the start of the 2015-16 season featured 100 international players from 37 countries and territories. NBA Digital’s assets include NBA.com and the NBA app, which achieved record traffic during the 2014-15 season, as well as NBA TV. The NBA has created one of the largest social media communities in the world, with more than one billion likes and followers globally across all league, team, and player platforms. Through NBA Cares, the league addresses important social issues by working with internationally recognized youth-serving organizations that support education, youth and family development, and health-related causes.”
Notice it didn’t read: “The NBA comprises 30 teams featuring the world’s greatest basketball players who compete through an 82-game regular season, then four rounds of a best-of-seven playoff series format to determine an annual champion.” That’s how we view the league. The NBA has moved far beyond such limited terms. This is about content, merchandising and property.
“A global sports and media business” with heavy internet traffic, vast social media reach and, yes, societal impact (see Adam Silver’s stance on LGBT rights in North Carolina). Given that scope, the minor details of who plays on what teams are the equivalent of those terms of agreement that you click past without reading when you download software. Brand takes precedence over ball.
“The NBA is consumed with perception and PR more than anything else now,” a team executive texted me during the playoffs. “They follow social media and articles, always taking the [temperature] on their popularity.”
When the NBA isn’t describing itself in press releases, it implicitly lets you know its priorities during collective bargaining negotiations with the players’ union. The owners know they are on a collective bargaining winning streak and are confident they’ll get what they’re after. They also realize they must make compromises to reach an agreement. So they hold the line on what matters most to them. And they care about the money a lot more than they care about competitive balance. (Repeat: global sports and media business.)
The owners went after the revenue split during the 2011 lockout and successfully drove the players’ share of leaguewide income from 57 percent down to 50 percent. They stopped short of a hard salary cap, which would have made player movement more difficult and/or forced talented teams to dismantle before they could form a dynasty. The players agreed to take less money collectively to preserve individual opportunities. That created the structural framework for Kevin Durant to join the Golden State Warriors — and created all of the wailing that followed the move.
Saying that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird wouldn’t have made that move is pointless because Magic and Bird couldn’t have made that move until unrestricted free agency entered the NBA in 1988 — after they had won eight rings between them and had no need to leave to pursue championships. And don’t forget, the collective bargaining agreement back then was designed to facilitate stars staying with their current teams — hence the nickname “The Larry Bird Exception” for the rule that allowed teams to exceed the salary cap when one of their own players re-signed.
Changes to the CBA as well as changes in players’ attitudes brought us to the player movement we’ve seen in recent years. Increasingly shorter contract lengths, implemented so owners wouldn’t get stuck with “bad” contracts, also increased the turnover rate for stars who couldn’t be locked up long term anymore. And the maximum contracts instituted in 1999 minimized the difference between staying and leaving. Yes, there would still be a benefit to signing with the home team, but it wasn’t enough to keep Dwight Howard with the Lakers or LaMarcus Aldridge with the Trail Blazers or Durant with the Thunder.
The owners chose cost certainty over asset control. Trying to legislate parity was too elusive a goal to burn capital to chase. Near the end of the last lockout, a Western Conference owner said the proposed agreement wouldn’t help his team beat the Lakers (who were just a year removed from three straight trips to the Finals), but he was willing to sign off on it to get the season started.
Every time there’s a dramatic free-agent shakeup, it reminds us there isn’t a parity scheme the players can’t subvert because of their willingness to take less money. It’s interesting when that is or isn’t considered noble. Notice how you rarely hear praise for stars taking less money to move to a new team, only when they take less than market value to help their current team bring in new players. Part of that is due to the NBA’s success in creating such a character-driven sport — “a superhero, comic-book world,” Durant called it at his Warriors news conference. So the analysis focused more on the reflections of Durant’s moral fiber for leaving Oklahoma City to join a superior rival than the actual logistics of how the new-look Warriors would function. As much as analytics have reshaped the methods of team construction and game strategies, storylines still sell the league to the public at large. A global sports and media business.
“Notice how you never hear praise for stars taking less money to move to a new team, only when they take less than market value to help their current team bring in new players.”
And such is the business model that at some point it puts the onus on the players to make the financial sacrifices in pursuit of victories. They do so despite the warning that the money is guaranteed, the results are not. For Dirk Nowitzki, taking hometown discounts has brought him respect but no more rings since he brought the Mavericks a championship in 2011.
Things worked out better for Tim Duncan, who went to the 2015 All-Star Game on a $10 million salary — about half the going rate for stars, and half of what he made during his peak earning years in San Antonio. He made two more trips to the NBA Finals in the late stages of his career and got another championship. He also has made almost $240 million in salary over his career. Then again, if money meant nothing to him, he would not have sued a former financial adviser for over $20 million in misplaced investments.
Money always matters. Especially when it counts against a salary cap and luxury tax. That’s why Dwyane Wade is no longer a member of the Miami Heat, a once unfathomable concept. Neither he nor Pat Riley were willing to make the financial sacrifices to keep their union together.
The economic landscape of the league and the players’ increasing awareness of their power make the concept of the long-term, single-team career seem outdated. It makes for a nice story, but remember that Durant said comic book, not fairy tale.
Or maybe the proper tale is a cautionary one. Other teams saw what it meant for the Lakers to give Kobe Bryant both his money and the opportunity to finish his career with the Lakers. Yes, Kobe and Lakers fans got their fond farewell, with a 60-point performance in his final game followed by a mic drop at half court. But the rebuild was paused for two years — and the missed chance to hunt for bargain free agents in the retrospectively cheap summer of 2015 looks extra painful now amid the free spending of 2016. Meanwhile, the Lakers just finished with the worst record in franchise history.
Then again, the Lakers also sold more than $1 million in merchandise on Kobe’s last night.
One thing we do know about the league is that the NBA’s global sports and media business has never been better.
More NBA articles on GYSN:
July 9: TIM DUNCAN ANNOUNCES RETIREMENT
July 8: NBA Free Agency: The Latest News