The Golden State Warriors have been the model franchise for how to keep a core group together. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were able to stay united for a decade for a few different reasons — salary cap increase, luck, well-timed contracts — but No. 1 on that list is they spent money.
The Warriors have lived over the cap for a few years now, and owner Joe Lacob was fine footing the tax bill. It’s not super complicated, and was easily replicated by other contenders trying to squeeze a title out of that fleeting window of opportunity. Well, that is until the new CBA kicks in, which hammers teams who egregiously overspend.
There’s now a vaunted second apron that kneecaps franchises, and a few of the loopholes that contenders once employed to get around a bloated cap — mid-level exceptions, buy-out guys, how much you can take back in salary, etc. — won’t be available to them. So instead organizations will have to be extremely shrewd and callous with how they spend their money.
In order for a team like, say, the Denver Nuggets to prolong this run, and try to establish a dynasty, they’re going to need good, cheap players. Good and cheap rarely, if ever, commingle in pro sports, but there are two places to find players who fit that description: Old guys chasing titles, or rookies and undrafted talent.
The Nuggets maneuvered into the first round of this year’s draft, and it’s not by coincidence. It’s no longer reasonable to overpay role guys, and that’s why Bruce Brown opted out. Denver got a larger boost in the playoffs from Brown than rookie Christian Braun, but now the defending champs will likely have to cycle Braun up to Brown’s spot, and try to fill the void that creates with the pick they just acquired from the Indiana Pacers.
The Boston Celtics’ trade Wednesday night may have netted Kristaps Porziņģis, yet the late first-round selection they also received in the deal could turn out to be just as valuable as the Zinger if Brad Stevens can hit on it. The C’s are currently facing a situation with Grant Williams where they can’t afford to get this wrong/overpay him.
Bad contracts are going to be even more glaring under this new CBA; it’s a little NFL-ish only if it was a million times harder to excommunicate a bad signing from the books. The holy grail scenario that gets NFL writers going like a teenager who just learned what you get when you Google “boobs” is one in which quarterbacks and wide receivers are on rookie deals.
They utter the word “value” as if saying it too loud will prompt premature ejaculation, and we’re going to see a lot more of that sort of thought process once NBA teams discover the sweet spot for team building around superstars.
The drawback is while NFL teams can win a Super Bowl with young players in key positions, it’s extremely rare for that to happen in the NBA. (Look at how long it took for Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Nikola Jokić, and other transcendent players to reach the sports’ pinnacle.) Even when a club only needs one or two cheap rookies to play at a high level, it doesn’t always pan out. Why do you think James Wiseman is in Detroit, and Jonathan Kuminga couldn’t find the court during the Dubs’ second-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers? And those are high-lottery guys. Now imagine having to do that using selections in the 20s, 30s, and beyond.
It’s funny to me because franchises competing for championships have historically treated their first- and second-round picks like vouchers to exchange for a proven asset at the trade deadline. That’s been the MO for LeBron James teams since he was a Cleveland Cavalier the first time around, and it’ll be interesting to see how stars react to this shift.
Will they start rethinking those cap-unfriendly deals and take less money? Or will they be OK with a new allotment of others deciding their fate year after year? Money is no longer the catch-all salve for NBA teams trying to consistently win a title as we’ve entered a new phase of parity, one that requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice and patience, and one that I’m not sure the league or its players are prepared for.