Kevin Durant is going to make 25 million American dollars in 2017-18. That’s a lot of money. It’s also significantly less than Durant could be making. And that’s totally fine.
Durant is taking a sizable pay cut to apply an extra layer of superglue to any potential fissures in the Golden State Warriors’ superteam, and, if hundreds of angry people on the internet are to believed, this further solidifies his status as a villain. That anger not only represents a ludicrous double-standard in an age when players are often criticized for prioritizing money over other motives; it’s also just silly. Durant can do what he wants. He’s earned that right. He has now taken advantage of it multiple times. And that’s totally fine.
It’s important to get that out of the way, because this column will argue that what Durant is doing is dangerous; that it threatens the NBA and the ideals the league has acted upon, namely that competitive balance is good. It’s important to clarify that Durant is not at fault for any of that.
But his decision does imperil every single mechanism the NBA and NBPA have collectively bargained into place to curb superteams and foster parity.
Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of Durant’s decision, his “My Next Chapter” announcement that rocked the NBA and eventually changed it. His leap to Golden State irritated many around and within the sport. “I don’t think it’s good for the league,” opined commissioner Adam Silver, and he wasn’t alone.
So he and the NBA’s 30 owners did something about it. They went to the bargaining table with the goal of stamping out superteams in the new CBA. They targeted them with mechanisms such as the Designated Player extension that they hoped would entice stars to stay at home; that they hoped would dissuade stars from emulating Durant.
But there was nothing they could do about this. And, at least for the foreseeable future, there is nothing they can do. The entire CBA is predicated on players seeking out and getting what they are worth, within the confines of team-wide and individual salary caps. It does not, and probably cannot, answer a simple question: What if players don’t do that?
Durant didn’t. He prioritized winning and lifestyle over money. He was financially unselfish. He took less money to fortify his superteam. And there’s nothing stopping other superstars from doing the same.
That doesn’t mean others will. Steph Curry wasn’t going to take a discount after being criminally underpaid for four years. LeBron made it clear in 2014 that he wanted the max after he himself took a pay cut in 2010. Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union, has fought for bigger contracts for players like himself; you think he’ll be taking anything less than the max next summer?
But the potential cause-and-effect here could alter the landscape of the league. Will others feel more comfortable eschewing their market value to take pay cuts of their own?
Or, even more ominous for Silver and the league: Will some players feel like they have to?
Durant set the precedent, and the Warriors will set the pace. The rest of the league must keep up. We’ve seen how that pressure has affected front office decision making and risk taking. We’ve seen how teams like the Rockets and Thunder have made drastic moves to try to keep up, and how others feel they must follow suit.
But what if it’s not enough? What if the Warriors are still head and shoulders above the James Harden-Chris Paul backcourt? What if they sweep through the West again, and roll over a retooled Cavaliers team in the Finals once more?
If general managers can’t solve the Golden State problem, the onus shifts to the players. Taking less might be the only solution. And if Durant can do it, why can’t others? Why won’t others?
And if one or two others do, will the arms race begin to spiral out of control? Could pay cuts become an essential aspect of building a championship contender? Could these ripple effects extend beyond the era of Warriors dominance and have a lasting effect on the league?
Now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But Durant has brought the idea to our attention. He’s not the first to do so, of course. LeBron did so in 2010. Spurs stars have taken pay cuts over the past decade. So has Dirk Nowitzki. But Durant is the first to do it in an era when the NBA has so actively tried to hinder the formation of superteams. In that sense, his decision is a threat to a league that champions parity, even if it often fails to achieve it.
And the scary part is that there is no obvious counter for Silver or the NBA. When Durant made his initial decision, Silver and the owners conveniently had a collective bargaining agreement that they could opt out of within the year. If there is a similar reaction to this Durant decision, they will have no such luck.
And they would have trouble writing a reaction into the next CBA anyway. In theory, they could draft some sort of provision that prevents All-NBA players from signing a contract that pays them less than, say, 80 percent of their previous annual salary. That could be adjusted for cap inflation, and amended in other ways to close loopholes. But such a rule, or any rule intended to prevent players taking pay cuts to form superteams, would likely carry problematic side effects.
Tens of thousands of words could be written about other potential solutions to the NBA’s parity problem. (Side note: Parity is not inherently necessary, nor is a lack of it necessarily a problem; the NBA, however, clearly thinks it is.) But the bottom line is that almost all those solutions hinge on players desiring more money rather than less. For example, you could eliminate max contracts and allow LeBron James to make $70 million per year, leaving LeBron’s team with, in 2017-18 cap terms, only $29 million to fill out the rest of a roster. Durant and Steph Curry could make over $50 million each. What would that do to superteams?
Nothing, if stars don’t accept contracts that pay them what they’re worth. Durant took a $9.5 million pay cut. There is nothing stopping a player from taking a $25 million pay cut. There just isn’t.
Players wield tremendous power in the NBA, and that’s generally a good thing, both in theory and in practice. It’s part of what makes the NBA so wildly entertaining. But the players haven’t even realized the full extent of their power. That’s what could ultimately begin keeping Adam Silver up at night.
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