Much to my chagrin, the era of the NBA super team will soon be coming to an end. Some basketball traditionalists lamented the transparent collusion among the game's biggest stars. They said Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would never have teamed up, they would have much preferred to beat one another.
I don't buy it. The NBA has undergone a renaissance due to the arms race mentality of the super team era. I see your Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and I raise you a Lebron James and Chris Bosh. Last season's NBA finals featured the two best players in the world, along with two more who easily crack the top 10. But there are only so many teams out there that can play the role of the USSR or United States in the bygone Cold War.
The large market teams, like the Knicks and Lakers, have the advantage of bottomless pockets and the ability to offer a metropolitan lifestyle to elite players. Then there are the rare small market teams who slowly and steadily built their way to elite status, like the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. Perennial losers see a ray of hope in these franchises, with the phrase "Spurs/Thunder model" endearingly popping up to describe the strategy of plucking budding elite talent from the NBA draft. But naturally, most owners around the league are more than disgruntled by the super team trend. Most teams cannot afford to assemble a super team and would not be able to attract multiple stars in the first place.
During the lockout preceding last year's shortened season, a new collective bargaining agreement was authored with the express intention of limiting the structural advantage of large market teams in the free agent market. The agreement features a soft-salary cap, meaning that a team's payroll is allowed to exceed the cap, but teams will incur financial penalties and restrictions on front office moves if they exceed the salary cap by about $4 million (this is called the "luxury tax" line).
When the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors last week, the basketball community could not help but wonder if the egalitarian-inspired collective bargaining agreement is actually exacerbating large-market and small-market inequalities. Rudy Gay's $15 million-a-year contract is the maximum he is eligible for, and it is hard to argue that he has given the Grizzlies anything less in return. They drafted him seven seasons ago, watched him grow into an elite NBA talent and were unequivocally part of this year's championship conversation. But he took a one-way flight to Toronto, ending any discussion of a late-season run for Memphis.
Rudy Gay is the canary in the coalmine. The NBA is about to see a slightly more even distribution of talent throughout the league, but the mechanisms in place to enforce this parity are going to disproportionately impact the small market teams. Even as large market teams trim their spending habits, they will continue to absorb financial penalties more easily than small market teams. But the real controlling factor will not be the difference in spending between large and small market franchises, but rather the willingness of players to accept a smaller share of the pie. The lure of endorsements and improved quality of life in America's biggest cities will continue pushing the NBA's stars to the most attractive markets, even if they have to take a pay cut.
The NBA elite are starting to understand this landscape. This week, Lebron James acknowledged that the revised agreement distorts his market value.
"What I do on the floor shows my value," James said to reporters in Indianapolis. "At the end of the day, I don't think my value on the floor can really be compensated for, anyway, because of the [collective bargaining agreement]."
Even more, NBA stars are coming around to the fact that sacrificing a portion of their contract could pay dividends. James decided to forgo a max contract to play in Miami and he grasped a championship within two years. Even he realizes that future rings will continue to require financial sacrifice.
"I think teams understand that you need three guys to do big things," James said. "The big three' thing is pretty cool if you can get it. To keep teams like this together, you may have to take even less because of the new [agreement]. I guess we'll find out."