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How a hard salary cap could hurt team play in the NBA

Sep 14, 2011, 2:59 PM EDT

basketball shot AP

We know what a lot of you think — the NBA is filled with a bunch of ball-hogs playing isolation hoops every time down. There is no team play.

Wrong. Certainly not true of your NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, where teamwork make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or there is Phil Jackson, who has more than two handfuls of rings as a coach because he got players to buy into and follow his system (which involved a lot of passing and off-the-ball movement). Basically, if you think the NBA is all isolation, you are still stuck in the 1990s listening to Right Said Fred.

But a hard salary cap in the style that NBA owners want could change that.

Right now the owners are demanding a hard cap in addition to a larger part of the overall pie, which is why labor negotiations have stalled out. Owners — or at least some of the owners, it’s pretty clear there are divisions — want a system that looks a lot more like the NFL. There would be a hard salary cap and your biggest stars (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant) would get a large chunk of that along with guaranteed deals.

But the average or bottom rung players would have non-guaranteed deals. They could be cut on a whim, for play or for salary reasons. Much how NFL rosters work. The owners like that because they could get out of bad contracts faster and rebuild more quickly.

But this is the NBA — you get paid for scoring. Veteran center Jermaine O’Neal, talking with J.A. Adande of ESPN, said putting guys on non-guaranteed deals would lead to guys looking out for themselves and not the team on the court.

“So do we accept a deal that totally butchers our game? Because what they don’t understand, if you take out mid-tier deals and say, ‘Fend for bare minimum at the bottom,’ they’ll be individualizing our game so severely.”

That’s something I hadn’t thought about. Take away guarantees, turn most rosters into extremes of max guys and minimum guys, and you’ve got a squad full of guys trying to get their numbers to get paid. I saw that dynamic in play with the Clippers before, when Donald Sterling didn’t extend the contracts of any of his free-agents-to-be and it was every man for himself.

In baseball, a guy wanting to get paid is going to try and get more hits and field more balls, which helps the team. In football, a running back will bust it on every play to get his future payday and linebackers will be trying to get more tackles. All that is usually good for team play. But in the NBA, if everyone is out to score team play is crushed. And the team loses a lot more games.

It’s called unintended consequences — actions taken can have reactions nobody expects. A hard cap could have an impact on the NBA in a way a lot of owners looking at their bottom line don’t see.

And we’d all suffer for that. As if the lockout wasn’t enough.

  1. thelucasjj - Sep 14, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    Stereotypes…Just becuase you are rocking out to Right Said Fred doesn’t mean you are stuck in 90’s. It just means you know good music when you hear it. Well that and mesh muscle shirts are where its at.

  2. thenetsfan - Sep 14, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    The answer is partial guarantees. Enough to provide a player with significant security, but also provide owners/GMs flexibility in staying under a hard cap & tweaking rosters.

    What I would think is a fair compromise is contracts being guaranteed for the greater of a)100% of the remaining annual salary up to $2mil or b) 35% of the remaining annual salary. Low salaried players would have fully guaranteed deals, while owners have the ability to get out of albatross contracts, albeit at a significant price. The only players truly impacted are high priced, severely underachieving players. Owners/GMs will have to decide if they can get equivalent performance to their current player at less than 65% of his salary. The players in question typically have some talent, else they would have never earned that contract to begin with. They would likely be able to recoup a significant portion of that lost 65% on a subsequent deal.

    • Kurt Helin - Sep 14, 2011 at 11:29 PM

      This kind of logic is not allowed in actual NBA player/owner negotiations. Otherwise they’d reach a fair deal.

  3. emerson12345 - Sep 14, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    Kurt this would be a half way intelligent post if the only thing to do in the NBA is score…. if you think that’s how NBA owners dish out contracts you need to stop writing for a NBA page… might not be a bad idea anyways, since anyone that thinks Jermaine Oneal is a man to take ideas from needs a new job

    • leearmon - Sep 14, 2011 at 5:19 PM

      Actually Kurt is dead on. Ask yourself why Gilbert Arenas is getting paid so much, then ask if its because his tenacious defense. Or why Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Andray Blatche, Kevin Martin, Maggette, Monta Ellis etc. You think they get paid because of their Steve Nash type passing? Doubt it. Then ask yourself why guys who rebound well and play good team ball like Batum, Battier, Carl Landry and a list full of others get paid significantly less. NBA owners fall in love over guys who put up huge PPG numbers. Often times despite themselves and their franchise. So if thats the way you get big/guaranteed contracts what do you think the next season will look like?

      • Kurt Helin - Sep 14, 2011 at 11:28 PM

        There are studies out there that show this, but the bottom line is scorers get paid in disproportionate levels. Points certainly matter, but guys who can just shoot get overpaid.

  4. flionlion - Sep 14, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    Kurt this is getting ridiculous. You and the players really need to open your eyes and face the facts….the NBA is broken and the owners who spent hundreds of millions to buy their teams are going to fix it. If they want non-guaranteed deals to protect themselves then so be it because they OWN the teams. If the players don’t like it then go play in Europe forever. At least the players have an option to play somewhere else unlike the NFL players.

    Now to address your delusional post.

    You honestly think the 5th string CB on a NFL team just jumps routes all day to pad his interception numbers in hope of landing a more secure contract? Yeah…Belichick would really stand for that…or Phil Jackson for that matter.

    Or maybe just maybe the guy tries to listen to what his coaches actually want and tries to do his job right….and….wait for it…..EARN a more secure deal.

    Heck I think the cap would improve regular season games because guys like Jermaine Oneal would actually be motivated to play for once.

    Give it up Kurt…..the old broken NBA is over with…..embrace parity and the new dynasties it will deliver.

    • n2thaizzo - Sep 15, 2011 at 10:48 AM

      Here is where your arguement fails. While the owners might OWN the teams, the owners and the players association ARE PARTNERS IN THIS BUSINESS. This is why a deal cannot get approved without the players’ consent. So if the players don’t like it, yeah they go to Europe, but the league stays shut down and the owners are losing out also…

      The problem with paying people based on numbers is numbers sometime lie. Wanna know why Kobe leads the Lakers in scoring? Because he gets the most attempts. That’s why Arenas led the Wizards in scoring, why Dirk leads the Mavs and so on. In the NFL, the 5th string corner plays very few plays, and on some of those plays, the ball doesn’t even come his way, so you can compare the 2. When joe scrub comes on to the floor in NBA, you better believe the offense is going at him.

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