Image via Sports Illustrated
By Dalan Overstreet
This past New Year’s I made a resolution that I haven’t kept to this point (a person not committing to their New Year’s goals is, I know, unheard of). I promised to write more often. The goal was to write one article per week, to which I have failed miserably. Try not to judge me too harshly. It’s not entirely my fault.
The bulk of my content would be centered around the NBA. Truth be told, I have not bothered to watch much NBA Basketball this season. You see, the Association has not captivated me this season. I knew this was a possibility of the beginning of the season. In fact, I wrote about it. Still, the inability to tap into my irrational fan-hood isn’t the whole story.
The NBA has not been compelling this season. Sure, the Russell Westbrook triple-double thing was cool, but there was no doubt he was going to cross that milestone. It felt far more like a certainty than a chase. Russ’s season is directly related to the issue with the NBA: the lack of disparity.
After all, Russ’s season was made possible by the departure of Kevin Durant. The former NBA MVP and 4x Scoring Champ, with Westbrook, combined to form the best 1-2 punch in the league. They were worthy competition for the Golden State Warriors, the team that just won 73 regular season and were defending champs at the point. It was a series that the Thunder probably should have won in six games, but they faltered. OKC came up short, but I think everyone was excited about the prospects of a Thunder-Warriors rivalry for years. Then, Durant bolted for Golden State, causing a disruption in the competitive balance in the NBA.
Kevin Durant does not see it this way. “Like I’m the reason why Orlando couldn’t make the playoffs for five, six years in a row?” “Am I the reason that Brooklyn gave all their picks to Boston? Like, am I the reason that they’re not that good?”. That’s fair, but here is where it gets interesting to me. He continues, “I can’t play for every team, so the truth of the matter is I left one team. It’s one more team that you probably would’ve thought would’ve been a contender. One more team. I couldn’t have made the East better. I couldn’t have made everybody in the West better.”
To his point, he is correct that his move to Golden State didn’t disrupt every team’s chance of competing because they stunk anyway. Also, any criticism of the Nets is valid without any explanation or expansion. Where he fails in his assessment lies in his assumption that people care about the distance between the best team and the worst. The disparity between the best and worst doesn’t matter to most fans, but the disparity between the best team and the fourth and fifth best teams does.
The East hasn’t been a mystery for a while now. If your team has Lebron, it will be in the Finals. We have more or less accepted that. The West, on the other hand, has been less predictable. In these seven straight Finals appearances, Lebron has faced the Mavericks, Thunder, Spurs twice and Golden State three straight years. The Clippers and Rockets have also fielded some worthwhile teams in that span. When a player of Durant’s caliber switches from one contender to another, it is not “one less contender”, it becomes four or five less contenders.
The question becomes what can be done to combat the lack of parity. Well, the answer is nothing. There are few contributing factors, the first and most tangible being the NBA’s growing salary cap. The salary cap has expanded the past couple seasons and will grow again after this season. How much issue can you really take with the cap growing and player’s receiving a greater percentage of the NBA’s gains? Still, a cap growing larger and larger every season can distort player values. What players think they are worth have not caught up to what it is worth to GMs and owners to keep them on roster. So, when perceived worth aligns with actual worth, it will all go back to normal, right? Well, no.
NBA stars, the guys who actually make the league run, are no longer solely dependent on NBA contracts for revenue. Every star has some kind of endorsement, sponsorship, investment or side business. Their decisions are less concerned with NBA money, and they are increasingly willing to take a cut on a contract to team with the right guys. It is also a contributing factor in this disparity, in that teams are forced to overpay guys in order to make money an incentive again.
Mike Conley is making $30 million a year right now says enough. He’s good, but not a transformative talent that demands that salary, even considering the increased cap. The best selling point in the league now is contention. The best in the NBA are now in a perpetual state of ring chasing, and it is our fault as fans.
We have to go back to Lebron. He is truly the best player in basketball and has been for a decade. Being the best comes with nigh-impossible standards for success and achievement. If he didn’t win a ring, the season was a failure. So he created a situation for himself where a ring was an inevitability. It worked and he has collected three championships since.
The NBA stars made the adjustment. Howard went to the Lakers in a failed experiment, then the Rockets. Aldridge left a respectable Blazers team to join the Spurs. Gasol joined the Bulls after the Lakers’ implosion, and now hes’ on the same Spurs team as Aldridge. Then the most egregious case of KD, already on a ring worthy squad, moving to the Warriors. The guys are just taking the best route to what we as fans claim to be the measure of success: Titles.
The competitive balance in the NBA may return to a healthy alignment, but for now it seems like a dead end. We will have to take solace in what should be an amazing NBA Finals, which is a trend that should be prevalent as long as this imbalance exists. Until an incentive for players to fly solo is created, there’s not a damn thing you can do about the league being painfully predictable until the last round.