ROUGHLY 48 HOURS into the free agency period—24 hours after LeBron James announced his decision to move west—DeMarcus Cousins, the four-time All-Star center most recently of the Pelicans, sent another shock wave through the NBA when he signed a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the defending champion Warriors.
Golden State could now start five All-Stars next season, and this news sent fans and media into hysteria. The Warriors were compared to the Galactic Empire's Death Star and to Thanos from Infinity Wars; Knicks center Enes Kanter tweeted a photoshopped image of NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a Dubs jersey. And of course it revived the argument that drowned out this year's Finals: Is this team ruining the league? Should Silver intervene? Is the NBA broken? The dispute, however, wasn't really about DeMarcus Cousins. It was about a problem, not confined to one team, that has been three years in the making.
In 2015, while negotiating the collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and the players' association failed to agree on a proposal for "cap smoothing"—a way to respond to the influx of cash from the league's TV deal (its most lucrative ever) by prorating increases in the salary cap. The league suggested raising the cap gradually—i.e. "smoothing"—while the players preferred to realize all the gains immediately. The two sides failed to broker a compromise, and as Silver said in 2016, "[The new money] will be disruptive.... It's going to be disruptive in ways that we can't even predict. It's not the way we modeled the CBA."
The massive cap spike allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant without sacrificing anyone from a nucleus that had won 73 games the season before. (So, yes—that's not how the NBA had modeled things.) The teams that missed out on Durant then felt pressured to use their new windfall on second-class free agents. The players and the owners responded to the Warriors' signing of Durant by negotiating a new CBA that would allow teams to pay historic "supermax" money to retain franchise players, allowing the Thunder, for example, to pay $41 million per year to keep Russell Westbrook. Crucially, though, the owners didn't negotiate a provision that would have allowed some of the money to be excluded from the salary cap. So the Thunder and the Wizards are now at a disadvantage: They kept stars Westbrook and John Wall but can't build around them.
Thanks to the 2016 splurge, most teams have no cap space this summer, and the Warriors' challengers have no ability to bolster their lineups.
This predicament is not permanent. Twelve months from now, a combination of escalating luxury taxes and expiring deals could force Golden State to break up its core. That would occur just as cap space begins to free up around the league—as early as next July. In the meantime, a healthy Celtics team could provide a more interesting Finals than we saw in June.
Short-sighted collective bargaining made the latest edition of the dynasty possible while making it more difficult for other teams to catch up. As teams spend to retain talent, they are locking themselves into mediocrity. The Thunder are staring at a payroll that will end up between $150 million and $300 million for a roster that doesn't have a prayer against the Warriors.
Yes, there's plenty to enjoy in the NBA, regardless of who's winning. Also, parity is overrated. Basketball works best when there's a handful of great teams at the top of the league.
More context: Most of what people enjoy about the NBA happens on the Internet and is only loosely tethered to actually watching basketball. Tweets, Instagram, podcasts, burner accounts, memes—these have become a core element of the product. The NBA is great at providing fodder for jokes and arguments. That's the biggest reason the league is growing. How much more would it be growing if the competitive landscape weren't so hopeless?
Once-ascendant teams like the Blazers and the Wizards will take years to recover from front office blunders. The best thing that happened to the Jazz was that they couldn't offer Gordon Hayward a $200 million supermax contract because he was snubbed by an All-NBA team in 2017. The worst thing that happened to the Pistons was that Blake Griffin was available to be paid like an MVP candidate through 2022. The Rockets are about to become very expensive, and they've probably hit their ceiling. The Bucks are holding on desperately to Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the Pelicans are doing the same with Anthony Davis. At least four major-market teams are building their future around cap space that probably won't make a difference until 2020.
Among audiences aged 18 to 34, this year's Finals had the lowest ratings since '07. LeBron James went to the Lakers, his new team has a chance to get Kawhi Leonard, and all anyone can talk about is whether they will have a chance to compete in 18 months. Is the NBA broken?
Of course it is. The better question is how much longer the conversations surrounding basketball can compensate for the mistakes of the league itself.
"THE NBA'S PROBLEM IS NOT CONFINED TO ONE TEAM, AND IT HAS BEEN YEARS IN THE MAKING."
FACES IN THE CROWD
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
IN AN EFFORT TO EASE THE STRAIN ON MUNICIPAL WATER SUPPLIES, RESIDENTS OF THE WORLD CUP HOST CITY OF SAMARA WERE URGED TO SHOWER IN PAIRS.
THEY SAID IT
"JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE LIFE OF A MINOR LEAGUER."
CORPUS CHRISTI HOOKS OUTFIELDER CARMEN BENEDETTI, after a Double A game between the Hooks and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals was interrupted after a swarm of bees overtook a dugout. The delay lasted 85 minutes.