Kevin Durant to Golden State: A by-product of the NBA's parity push
The majority of NBA basketball, its executives, and its fans subscribe to an ideal; that of ‘parity’. ‘Parity’ is the idea that every team has a chance, that no team - or teams - dominate year in and year out, and that every franchise has a chance to build a title-winning team. In practical terms, it means that we have to try and level the playing field for all 30 NBA teams in every way possible.
We in the United Kingdom need not look very far to see what a league not subscribing to this idea of parity looks like - we need only look at our football leagues, particularly the English and Scottish Premier Leagues. The absolutely spectacular story of Leicester City is as remarkable as it is because it flies so emphatically in the face of the precedent. They were the team that broke the monopoly. The duo of Manchester United and Arsenal won ten of the first eleven titles, their stranglehold was broken only by the billions of Chelsea and Manchester City, creating a Big Four. Leicester and Blackburn Rovers before them stand out as anomaly champions in a well-established status quo, Leicester particularly. And that status quo is one without even an illusion of parity. In Scotland, it is even more lopsided - Celtic and Rangers have won every Premier League title going, and 101 of the 120 top division titles ever in history - nine other teams combine for the other nineteen.
The British football club standard, however, has always been diametrically opposed in its construction to the franchise model of American sports. With only very rare exceptions, football teams are representative of, and built by, their communities. Teams do not fold or move - they grow or shrink, and have done for generations. With generally at least a century of history behind them, the big players are now firmly entrenched, and only the occasional implosion (Leeds, Rangers, Aston Villa) or very occasional fairytale (Leicester, Blackburn, Aberdeen) infringes upon that.
In contrast, NBA teams are business decisions. NBA franchises are just that – franchises, the products of business over community. Free to move where the money takes them, not overly betrothed to any one location, and letting market matters (often specifically stadia) dictate where they play. They have a license to operate, and any contract to a city is in moral form only once that stadium lease is terminated. Because of this, the demands for parity are different. Parity is a requirement for business.
The NBA has steadily increased its number of franchises over the years, and through simple maths alone, it is immediately apparent that it becomes theoretically harder for any one team to win. When it is further considered that different franchises exist in different markets, and different markets mean different revenues on and off the court, it is ever less of a level playing field. Various Collective Bargaining Agreements over the years have instilled and developed rules to create and protect parity - the NBA Draft, revenue sharing, escrow, etc – but the idea of 30 franchises in 28 cities having 30 entirely equal opportunities is not ever going to happen.
The reality of this market inequality is an unavoidable one, founded in socioeconomic factors far outside of the NBA’s control. It is what it is. Nevertheless, that never stops this ideal being pursued. The NBA’s self-imposed duty is to equalise the opportunities within its control as much as possible. And that self-imposed duty comes from the very top.
In February 2010, NBA commissioner David Stern spoke ominously of the league’s forecasted $400 million loss that financial year, as well as hundreds of millions more in losses over the previous few seasons. His words were one of the earliest warnings of an impending lockout, a threat that became a reality 16 months later. Financial inequalities and a broken system supposedly saw 22 out of the 30 NBA franchises losing money, and something had to be done to install some parity.
Three months after Stern spoke, the NBA ratified the sale of the New Jersey Nets to Mikhail Prokhorov. A team struggling financially was now suddenly a large market, and the operating losses underwritten by the benefactor, whose strategy was to make back his losses when he cashes in on the franchise’s accumulated value down the road. Now, it seemed, the football club model was the way forward to parity.
Between the Prokhorov model (echoed in subsequent NBA franchise sales, especially by that of the L.A. Clippers to Steve Ballmer, the spectacular price he paid rather undermining any pleas of poverty from franchise owners), the new CBA and the Draft, what we have now is a system designed in some ways to discourage super teams, while also armed with more money than ever before, the knock-on effects of which have taken player movement via free agency to all-time high levels. However, this last part is only true after a certain number of years.
Star players are essentially locked up for their first seven years by their first NBA teams. They are definitely locked up for their first four per the guaranteed length of contracts signed via the rookie salary exception, and essentially locked up for a fifth due to the nature of qualifying offers (rare as it is for players, especially good ones, to take their one-year qualifying offer deals after their rookie scale deal expires, it is the only way they have of being an unrestricted free agent within the first five years of their career unless they do not make it to the end of their rookie scale deals, or somehow convince a team to rescind it; see also, Ben Gordon, never a star but as close of a comparison as there is here).
After the fourth year, players are, for the first time, free to negotiate with any team. But restricted free agency comes into play – should they wish to (and why would they not?), their incumbent team retains the right to match the terms of their next contract, whichever NBA team they signed it with, and keep them. Between a combination of restricted free agency, and the fact that the maximum starting salary for any player increases significantly once they have accumulated seven years of experience, we now see with increasing regularity star or future star players signing three-year rookie scale contract extensions, as opposed to the maximum of five they could sign for, so as to give themselves that freedom to determine their futures in their prime years, as well as to earn more money.
If a small market or mismanaged team lands a star, then, they have seven years to get it right. The tools designed to realise the ideal of parity gives them the chance to win the golden ticket via the NBA Draft – let us not forget for a minute that the Draft, mostly overlooked in this piece, is a bizarre system that essentially confers mulligans to teams who normally do not deserve them, and a system in which failure is rewarded. And if a franchise does win the ticket, they have the best part of a decade to cash in on it.
This correlation between the parity ideal and the placement of certain individual players is due to the nature of the game of basketball. Stern’s successor Adam Silver continues his predecessor’s parity theme, and spoke last month on where parity is, could be and will never be in his eyes:
“We're never going to have NFL-style parity in this league," Silver told reporters in advance of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. "It is the nature of this league that certain players are so good that those teams are likely almost automatically, if that player remains healthy, to become playoff teams, and especially mixed with other great players.”
This makes sense. There are five basketball players on the court at any one time, and 11 American Football players from a squad of up to 45. With numbers so large, any one player’s individual brilliance is more diluted. If you have not got one of the players so good that they immediately make your team competitive on their own, you are going to need quite a cohesive mix of other talents to get by, or to get lucky yourselves.
Or, alternatively, there now seems to be a third way. You could try and sign one of those elite few. That brings us to the modern test of parity.
The renewed outcry towards parity this decade was fuelled by some particular instances of player movement. Most significant of these was, of course, LeBron James’s decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers after seven years, the outrage being especially fuelled by the painfully self-aggrandising way in which he did it. But this week, we have also seen Kevin Durant do the same. The best player in the NBA and his long-time number two have now both left their teams via free agency in a way that, with the exception of Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, has barely ever been seen before.
Durant leaves the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, with whom he had spent the first nine years of his career, to join the Golden State Warriors, although it is not official at the time of writing. He leaves a team he had no control over initially joining, and a city he had no control over moving to twice, but to whom he was fully committed, and whom he brought very close to winning a title of their own. He gives that up to join a team that won a title two years ago and who were a couple of made baskets away from repeating this year. It was the kind of move you would feel a little bad for doing even on NBA 2K. You would feel as though you were being fantastical, overloading a team in an unrealistic way. And yet here we are. It has happened.
With Durant, the Warriors are now a super team. They are as good on paper as any team ever constructed. They just won an all-time best 73 games in their previous guise – stripping out their two weakest starters, adding an all-time great player and picking up quality cheap veteran contributors in pursuit of their own glories is going to make them astronomical. But they have become a super team in an era where – and with parity, in large part, the reason behind why – super teams were supposed to be impossible.
One of the changes made in 2011 was the significant modification of the rules for sign-and-trade deals. Sign-and-trades were how the Miami Heat were able to build their team in the summer of 2010 – although essentially free agency decisions, both LeBron and Chris Bosh technically joined the franchise via such means, and the steps were unsubtly implemented to prevent a repeat of that. But with the massive salary cap spike that has come this season, such measures are redundant. Players can now walk much more freely between teams – maximum contract lengths are shorter (and thus there are more free agents every year), extension rules got no more useful, money is much more freely available (the luxury tax will barely be a factor on anyone’s spending this year – it is too unattainably high), and armed with this knowledge, many players and teams targeted this offseason and next for their free agency with this in mind. The sign-and- trade may be harder to pull off now, but it is also far, far more redundant.
Similarly, Bird rights, once upon a time the great equaliser in free agency, no longer mean much. Bird rights are in their purest and simplest form a way for teams to spend more on their own free agents than any other team can. In practical terms, although the maximum starting salaries would be the same, teams can offer larger raises to their incumbent free agents with Bird rights, as well as longer contracts. However, the cap spike and the much increased free agency turnover have negated both of these advantages as well. The contract length no longer regularly comes into play at a time when contracts are shorter than ever, and the salary cap spikes far exceed the maximum growth of any contract.
The playing field in free agency has thus been levelled. The money matters less in free agency decisions – between Prokhorov, Ballmer, and the TV deal, everyone has money now. Now, it matters more what makes you happiest.
Durant leaves a team that did not quite do enough to win a title, to join a team that already has. He leaves in pursuit of titles because he knows he will be measured by titles, and because he simply wants them. The Warriors will be ridiculously good, and that seemingly is what makes him happiest. So here we are.
However, beyond that, let us disregard for a minute most of Durant’s own reasons for doing so, the validity of them, the motivation behind them, and what that says about him and his legacy. Those topics are for different column inches.
Disregard also the factors behind why this came about, the months-long conversations between KD and the Warriors’ stars, even as they competed against each other in an all-time calibre Western Conference Finals series (although for what it is worth, the informal but acknowledged :we cannot prevent player-to-player tampering so we have given up the pretense of trying"; policy of the NBA’s might need review after this).
Instead, the question here is; how do we reconcile Durant’s decision with the parity concept? It must be remembered how bad the Warriors had been for a generation prior to this run. Between 1977 and 2012, the Warriors made the playoff only six times – between 1994 and 2012, there was only one solitary appearance. In that span, they had eight seasons of 29 wins or less, and only twice did they better a .500 record. The Warriors were awful for a long time and mediocre for a longer time, and now they are going to be so good that people are assuming it will be a boring procession of a season. Maybe, then, their current successes speak to the success of ‘parity’.
Think about it this way - our two great worries for super teams today are the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors just won only their fourth title in 70 years, their first for 40 years and only their second since the total number of NBA franchises hit double figures. Cleveland just won their first championship ever. Is the fact that these two teams are now the two best not a strong endorsement of parity?
Seven different franchises won the NBA Championship between 1980 and 2005, and seven different franchises have won it since. It used to be Celtics versus Lakers every year, and yet now the power balance is fluid. The dynasties have gone, taking the rivalries with them, but the upshot of it all is that with a stroke of luck, everyone truly has a chance. Which way is better?
Commissioner Silver’s own definition of parity seems to be thus: “I think the best we can hope for in this league is that every market, every team has the opportunity to compete for those great players, can obviously enter the draft and do their best, but then take those players they draft, take those players that they trade for or sign as free agents, build culture, coach those players well, strategically manage a system and build toward success.”
And with this in mind, if we reject the success of parity in modernity, what really are we rejecting? Parity in modernity is tested by free agency, and in a way, it passes. Super teams exist, but those super teams are housed at different franchises to what they were before. In saying the above, Silver lauded the Thunder as being a success of the ideal, their small market yielding a competitive team year in and year out because of what they built:
“Oklahoma City has the smallest market in the league, has the exact same ability to put together a fantastic team and create culture just like a team from the Bay Area, and just in the same way that Cleveland does with the Toronto team. And I think that was one of our goals in the last collective bargaining agreement”
Durant’s decision seems to fly in the face of this – it would seem ostensible that Oklahoma City cannot compete if the greatest player in their history leaves without recompense. But it matters here where he went. Durant bought what the Warriors were selling, yet the Warriors did not buy what they had – they built it, through the very processes designed to allow any team to, as Silver puts it, “put together a fantastic team and create culture.”
It may not be the ideal that super teams exist, and to be sure, it is a phenomenon born out of myriad factors, both business and sociological, that the league can only partly control. The league shifted towards a friendlier, more family-oriented product, and along with that and the rise of AAU ball, the players became friendlier. And as players became friendlier, they wanted to play with their friends more. When the CBA’s rules made it easier for them to do so, of course, they were going to. But they do. And it now appears that any team can be a super team.
Parity, as the NBA now holds it to be through its actions and the words of its Commissioner, is the ability for any team, whatever mismanagement got them to that position, to draft star and superstar players and keep them for about seven years. If they capitalise on this, they can win titles. If they do not, they should now expect to lose them. It is not a coincidence that the revered one-team players of the modern era – Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and, until yesterday, Dwyane Wade – won titles early in their careers. Did they win because they stayed put, or did they stay put because they won?
The NBA created rules that increased roster turnover, signed a new deal that sent the cap into orbit, and yet wanted to prevent super teams. The changing financial landscape described above made free agency no longer about money, but opportunity.
Everyone’s spending power increased, but not everyone provides increased opportunity. The super teams are drawn by opportunity, the opportunity to win alongside and as a part of all-time great talents and all-time great teams. Those opportunities are made possible by the spiked cap; the CBA’s mechanisms for preventing super teams are supplanted by the sheer spending power of all.
Those players and those teams were normally built by the Draft. The Draft exists to level the playing field. The parity of the Draft creates the foundations of great teams, the new-found parity of free agency develops them, and the parity of revenue sharing and market liberalisation ensures this could now happen to anyone.
The NFL’s idea of parity may be different in the sense that individual players cannot swing seasons as readily as in the NBA – although there is not a whole lot of evidence for that even being true in practice - yet it cannot mimic that. Hard salary caps and unlimited maximum player salaries may recreate the financial incentives in free agency that Bird Rights once proffered, but to what end? When looked at through the lens of parity, what, really, is the problem here?
The comparison is far from perfect, but there is a slight parallel between the Warriors and the Foxes of Leicester. Leicester triumphed in a system barely even pretending to provide parity, whereas the Warriors triumphed via a system designed to be seized upon in this way. Golden State did it by being able to spend as much money as everyone else, while Leicester did it on a budget in a league with wildly uneven spending power. Either way, the former also-rans both came good. Parity is here. Enjoy it, because it is here to stay.