A hard cap is the answer, except that it’s not


New Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis made waves last week for seemingly letting slip that the NBA owners are strongly leaning towards pushing for a hard cap similar to the one in the NHL, where Leonsis also owns the Capitals. After the unprecedented coup that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh pulled off this summer—one which signaled a major shift of the balance of power in the league from the owners to the players—it’s easy to see why owners want to wrest some of this control back. But I’m not so sure this will ultimately benefit the league in terms of how teams are able to grow and mature. At the very least, it would throw a stake into the continuing development of many franchises.

The question at the core of the hard-cap discussion is a simple one: is it more important for the NBA’s teams to have parity or to have an identity? Just recently, a friend of mine who is by his own admission only a casual NBA fan commented that every year, there are only a few teams with a real shot at contending for a title, and you can usually tell who they are before the season even starts.  It would be a significant shock if a team that isn’t the Heat, Celtics, Bulls, or Magic made it out of the East, and likewise, the only teams with serious hopes of contending in the West are the Lakers and (to a lesser extent) the Blazers, Thunder, and Mavericks. Sure, there other teams besides these eight that will be good and/or fun to watch, but these are the teams we expect to still be talking about in May and June.

When my friend put it to me like this, I didn’t really have an argument. He pointed out that in the NFL, a league he cares much more about and follows far more closely than the NBA, the season is three weeks underway and he still has no idea who’s going to be in the Super Bowl. The 2009 champion Steelers didn’t even make the playoffs last season despite keeping their roster intact for the most part. To a lot of fans, especially of small-market teams, the parity makes the game more interesting and less certain year to year.

I understand all of that, and yet I can’t quite get completely on board with the idea. I like continuity. The single biggest reason I can’t get into college basketball is because any time there’s a truly exciting and game-changing player—a Kevin Durant, say, or a John Wall—I know in the back of my mind that he’s only there because the NBA has a one-and-done rule. If someone got hooked on watching Texas or Kentucky when these players were there, the team would look completely different the next year.

I worry the same thing would happen in the NBA with a hard cap. I like teams that have an identity. I like teams that build around a star and grow together, like Portland and Oklahoma City. I like those teams and I like dynasties, and there would be a lot less of both with a hard cap. The Chicago Blackhawks had to trade away significant players shortly after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, because the NHL has a hard cap and they had a vast majority of their money tied up in a handful of players. What fan wants to see a defending champion have to blow itself up for financial reasons? Imagine if the Lakers had had to trade away Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest this summer. Didn’t the league create a salary-cap exception in the late ‘80s specifically so that the Celtics would be able to re-sign Larry Bird? It’s always better for the league if successful teams are able to stay together.

It is true that competitive balance is a problem in the NBA when compared to football and hockey. But there are other ways the owners should consider going about addressing it. For starters, way too many teams are unable to develop and build because they are tied down by overlarge, fully guaranteed contracts. Atlanta can be basically written out of the title-contender discussion right now because they’ll be paying a 35-year-old Joe Johnson $24 million in 2016 and there’s nothing they can do to get out of that, unless they find a taker for his enormous contract a few years from now. How huge would it be for team financial flexibility if the league put a limit on the amount of years on a contract could be guaranteed? Atlanta would be free to give Johnson a six-year, $124 million contract if they were so inclined, but the last three years of said contract would be team options. If he plays well, they can keep him around. But if he has a serious injury or a major drop-off in production, they won’t be completely handcuffed by this contract for over half a decade with no wiggle room.

I completely get why owners want a hard cap—it would help control costs and prevent another Heat-style superteam from forming. If Ted Leonsis is to be believed, we may very well be heading toward a hard-capped NBA as soon as next year. But is that necessarily a good thing? For at least some of us as fans, the personality- and team-driven storylines are just as compelling as the on-court action, and I worry that a lot of the NBA’s narrative-based interest would be lost with these rigid financial constraints.

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