The National Basketball Players Association had two choices heading into the 2016 offseason regarding the salary cap, which was due to spike dramatically on account of a huge revenue influx: Smooth out the cap and increase it incrementally over the course of several years, or take it all in one lump sum. The union chose the latter, and the NBA is still dealing with the aftermath of that decision.
With that, the cap jumped from $70 million to a whopping $94 million for the 2016-17 season, by far the largest single jump in NBA history. That gave teams a whole lot of money to make a whole lot of dumb decisions, like signing Evan Turner for four years and $75 million; Timofey Mozgov for four years and $65 million; Matthew Dellavedova for four years and $38 million; and so on. That inflated cap also allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant in 2016, while keeping their core largely intact, as well as DeMarcus Cousins this week.
Because of the various albatrosses, on Monday night, only eight teams had the requisite space to sign Cousins above the mid-level exception. Some of those teams, for one reason or another, were not in a position to gamble on a big man recovering from an Achilles injury, and none supposedly showed any direct interest. As Cousins tells it, he had to shop himself around at a discount until finally, the same Warriors that could sign Kevin Durant in 2016 took Cousins on an absurd one-year, $5.3 million deal.
The union’s stance at the time made some sense. It felt as if the owners and league commissioner Adam Silver were trying to screw the players by artificially suppressing the amount of money they could make in the short term. In a press conference after the decision, NBPA President Michele Roberts expressed concern over the effect smoothing the cap would have on “players with a limited shelf life.” But in attempting to serve those middling players who happened to have their contracts end at an opportune time, the NBPA decidedly fucked more worthy players whose timing wasn’t nearly as fortunate.
Take point guard Marcus Smart as an example. If Smart’s current iteration were on the open market in 2016, he would have fetched a fat, multi-year contract. This offseason, he’s now likely going to have to take an artificially deflated one-year deal, then hit free agency next season when more teams have cap space.
The precise proposed smoothing plan has never been released (though estimates showed it increasing by around $10 million for two years), so it’s possible that the deal could have artificially lowered the amount of money players received over the long run as well, especially when factoring in for inflation. However, as part of the CBA, when the NBA doesn’t end up paying 51 percent of Basketball Related Income (BRI) to the players, the league writes the union a check for the difference. Unless the NBA proposed a smoothing out of the BRI as well, the players still would have gotten their money for the year.
And even in the very unlikely chance that the league did ask for a BRI smooth out, the NBPA could have easily negotiated. There was no negotiation from the NBPA on the matter entirely, however—the union simply rejected it and moved on.
The NBPA gambled on the fact that revenue would continue to grow at a rapid pace, enough that the spike from the 2015-16 to 2016-17 seasons wouldn’t be an anomaly. But, the 2017-18 cap figure was lower than expectations, with an original $107 million evaluation actually becoming $99 million. This year, the cap went up only $2.9 million, to $101.9 million.
If the NBPA had agreed to smooth out the cap in 2016, a lot would’ve obviously changed, most of which is entirely unpredictable, but one thing is for sure: The Warriors would be a far worse team. Both Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston would have had to been purged in 2016 after Durant chose to sign, unless KD took a massive pay cut from the $26.6 million he made that season, which would only enable Golden State, in that situation, to retain one of the two for just that 2016-17 season. That’s in addition to the other role players—Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, to name a few—that they had to let walk anyway.
In this alternate universe, Cousins isn’t going to the Warriors either. If more teams had the requisite cap space to pay him what he’s worth, there’d be a lot more interest in the big man, and he’d get more money than what he actually received. He may be recovering from a torn Achilles, but he’s worth more than what Josh Smith is making this year to stay the hell away from Detroit.
The Warriors would still be the favorites to win it all, yes, but they’d be extremely top-heavy. Instead of Iguodala—who’s due to make $14.8 million next season, with three years remaining—and Livingston—$7.7 million, three years remaining—manning a respectable second unit, the team’s roster would have had many more minimum-salaried ring chasers and raw draft picks. Hell, Kendrick Perkins would have been a reasonably viable contender for their starting center position. The NBA would still be an arms race to dethrone the Warriors, which, who knows. But at least other teams would have better means to give it a shot.