Kevin Durant, a bonafide superstar still in his prime, has agreed to join the Golden State Warriors, a team that last season won more regular season games than any in league history. Greenie this morning said this would be the equivalent of Charles Barkley joining the mid-1990s Bulls. It might not be *quite* at that level, but it’s pretty damn close. With Durant in tow, the Warriors enter the 2016-17 as the overwhelming favorites to win the NBA title and are certainly a reasonable bet to break their own single-season wins record. It’s a remarkable development.
It’s also worth asking whether it’s good for the league. Now, that’s a loaded question and there are a number of ways to try and answer it. Golden State was utterly dominant last season, and that didn’t prevent ratings both for their games and for their playoff series to be excellent. The league itself is awash in cash – hence the bonanza of blockbuster contracts being doled out to middling players this off-season. So, it’s certainly very healthy in that respect. Fan and media interest seem greater than ever, with only the NFL receiving the kind of off-season coverage the NBA garners these days.
I am of the belief that a sport that has a clear king-of-the-hill that everyone else is trying to knock off makes for good drama and thus enhances fan interest. But that might only be true if, however good that team is, it seems as if there is at least a *chance* that someone could beat them. If when the 2016-17 season unfolds Golden State is whipping the “competition” every night, perhaps that drama begins to dissipate. That’s not KD’s problem, nor is it the Warriors’. As the fan of a pathetic franchise that’s going nowhere, my interest in the sport primarily derives from drama created elsewhere. I didn’t really think anyone could beat the Warriors this past season, until the Thunder gave them a serious run for their money. And I didn’t think the Cavs had any shot in the finals, but I watched all the games regardless (not knowing, obviously, that the Cavs would come back until they actually did). All of which is to say that, since you never know, I will surely watch next year, too, even as I consider the outcome of the season already to be a foregone conclusion. Injuries can happen, of course. Perhaps Steph Curry will regress some from his extraordinary 2015-16 season. They lost good contributors in Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli (and a meh one in Harrison Barnes). So, you never know. In this case, though, I think we kind of do.
Ever since LeBron left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 to create what has been regarded as the first player-driven super team, many have wrung their hands at the prospect of the athletes themselves, not management, driving team-building. In the case of the Warriors, management did construct a lethally good team before Durant arrived. But the nature of the sport – what Dave Berri describes as the short supply of tall people or, more broadly, the limited supply of true superstar talent – means that a delicate equilibrium exists, one whose shifting can lead to a circumstance in which one team has a substantial and enduring advantage over others. Other sports have had dynasties, of course. But one can make the case that in no other sport does a small number of great players so clearly determine the outcome of games (I know people will say this is true of quarterbacks in the NFL. The actuality of who wins the Super Bowl each year belies that argument). Talent – relatively predictable and stable year-to-year – wins out in basketball more than is true in other sports, where injury, randomness and other factors play more of a role.
All of this is by way of saying that many people have complained in the past 24 hours that Durant signing with the Warriors is somehow unfair, or “weak” as Stephen A. bloviated yesterday, or otherwise contrary to the idea that it’s the players’ responsibility to maintain “competitive balance” when the owners’ own ill-conceived and disingenuous efforts to do so go awry.
Durant decided, reasonably it seems, that his best chance of winning a championship lay with Golden State, not a return to his own (formerly) very good team. And in weighing pros and cons, incentives and disincentives, his decision was given a big boost by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners. Specifically, a provision in that agreement that owners insisted upon, namely that there should be a maximum individual salary. That provision has created what was surely an unintended consequence from management’s perspective. The very best players in the NBA are making less than they would were they operating in a free labor market. LeBron, by some estimates, is making tens of millions a year less than he would were it not for the individual (and team) caps. But because individual salaries are capped (at unfathomably high levels for normal people), superstar players who hit free agency no longer weigh financial considerations, at least not heavily, when deciding where they should sign. This is not true of lesser players, for whom variation in monetary offers are substantial.
But at the top of the wage ladder, if you are going to make $27 million here, versus $24.5 million there, other factors will become more important. The most obvious of those, other than the location itself, is whether a team has a real shot to win it all. Durant’s former team would have been very competitive in 2016-17. But after nine years in the league, perhaps KD was not prepared for another near-miss, in a conference loaded with excellent teams. Had he been weighing the prospect of a $45 million annual salary from somewhere else, versus the 20-something million Golden State could offer, he might have chosen differently. That path, though, is foreclosed by the CBA. So, presented with the possibility of joining a great team which, with the addition of Durant is a prohibitive favorite to win it all, the prospect of championship glory won out. The onus is not on Durant to be mindful of a more competitive distribution of talent in the NBA. My own sense is that, once the initial novelty of watching so many great players together wears off, the drama and tension of the season will attenuate and will be less interesting for *me* than it would had Durant stayed in OKC or gone elsewhere.
Somehow, though, I imagine the NBA will survive my mild disappointment.