The NBA, as we know it, is dead.
A thought crossed my mind as I watched Ben Simmons threading the needle in his summer league debut. Here's a prospect, pegged as a potential LeBron James-type superstar, on a team unwillingly to play the free agency game, and instead electing to build a team through the draft. The 76ers have built a team with players often compared to historic greats: Joel Embiid to Hakeem, Jahill Okafor to Tim Duncan (at least on offense), and Ben Simmons to LeBron. Some hope Noel can somehow turn into a DeAndre Jordan and Dario Saric a Draymond Green of sorts. Is it really too crazy to think these things can happen?
Quite honestly, maybe Sam Hinkie had it right all along. The only real way to build an NBA team is through the draft. Every team stretching to the year 2000 has been built upon a drafted superstar, or a contingency of stars ('04 Pistons). Yet, the reoccurring theme for most of these teams is this: one superstar is never really enough. Paul Pierce needed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Kobe needed Shaq and Pau. LeBron needed Wade, Bosh, Irving, and Love. The Warriors and Spurs made some fantastic draft picks and the Mavericks are perhaps the only outlier, with Dirk as their only true superstar. Still, there's no denying that the NBA is a superstar league, unlike the extent of what we've seen for any other major sport.
But then we have Mike Conley, a good but not great point guard currently with the richest NBA contract in history. Somehow, he's making more money than any of the top 10 players in the league. If the Grizzlies didn't throw a max contract at him, someone else will. This is the same amount of money Kevin Durant or LeBron James could've gotten with their respective teams. Let that thought sink in. When future hall of famers can make, at the maximum, the same amount of money as a tier 2 or 3 player, there has to be some realization that the system is broken. Any player who can contribute as a starter is slotted to make max or close to max money. Many of these players are good - Hassan Whiteside, Chandler Parsons, Mike Conley - but clearly aren't talented enough to transform a team. For the teams that draft well and land a superstar, there's no premium to keep a LeBron or Durant. They cost the same as DeMar Derozan.
For a team sport, basketball most punishes not having a star player or having a weak bench. All of that helps, a sixth man, value contracts, or starter-caliber role players, but it certainly isn't as easy to exploit a "poor" bench player in the NBA than it is to do the same in most other sports. There's a little bit of truth to Skip Bayless' all-time pick up team and it's no wonder someone like LeBron or Kobe can carry relatively talentless teams to the playoffs. That's the impact an all-generation player can have on a team and it doesn't make sense to have a system that values every player on the same scale.
This will forever create the need to develop superstars from draft picks and a continuous system where teams will tank for a shot at the next league MVP. At the same time, it's established that a team needs multiple stars to win in the NBA, which will inevitably lead to one drafted top-10 player to leave and join another with a drafted top 10 player. What if Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram both live up to their potential? Simmons can easily sign with the Lakers. Or if he wanted to go to the Timberwolves and their rising roster? The end result will always feature centralized talent on a few teams. In thins modern NBA, the only hope is really to pray a player decides to stay.
We see this issue with Kevin Durant. He had a few fantastic options laid out in front of him: play in LA with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, join a weaker eastern conference with a retooled Celtics squad featuring Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas, or stay with the Thunder. All of these teams can offer similar contracts, with the Thunder having a small advantage, but from a pure winning standpoint, the Warriors were the best choice. There is no incentive for Durant to pick anywhere else because the Warriors can somehow afford him due to a flawed system. Outcomes like these will become more and more profound when all players want to do is create a super team. The issue in a star-focused league with astronomical impact is that teams are actually punished by drafting players like Conley, who aren't bad, but will make the same amount of money as a perennial all-star. As the Grizzlies, it's hard to let go of a good player, but also tough to offer him $30MM a year.
Keeping players like Durant or LeBron should come at a premium - regardless of whether they stay with their current team or bolt for another. Teams filled with multiple all-stars only happen when they can only be paid a maximum amount of money. Rework how max contracts work, maybe remove them, and that disappears. The league becomes diversified, with talent on multiple teams, and the star players are paid fair market value. Hometown teams being able to offer more money and years on a contract helps remedy players wanting to leave but perhaps a better solution would be to create a small tax that counts against the salary cap for teams signing away an MVP-level player from another team. One way or another, the league and the team owners won't stand for the fiasco that was Kevin Durant's free agency decision. There is no way they can let that happen again, or else risk losing any credibility the NBA has.
Gone are the days of Allen Iverson and his singlehanded remarkable playoff runs and the team building of the mid 2000 Pistons. The last of that we saw were the '11 Mavericks. The NBA is now dominated by really one strategy: hoping a top draft pick or two pans out, and then hoping to be the team to steal, and not lose, a star player. If not that, then pray for multiple picks to develop into the next Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. To be quite frank, no one expected Klay Thompson or Draymond Green to be this good. Curry's contract, now silly looking back, was very reasonable when he signed it. Of course, all three of them were drafted by the Warriors and kudos to their staff for developing them so. Any middling NBA team has no hopes of signing a big free agent, maybe a mid-tier player at best, and any good star on the trading block either have an injury history or might just gut your team's assets. It's no wonder the 76ers decided tanking was the best strategy and the Celtics settled for gathering assets.
Multiple teams desiring to tank create an noncompetitive league, where we have the Warriors and Cavaliers, a few teams a notch below them, and the rest of the NBA either good but not good enough or lottery bound, with no hopes of contending for a title. Where do you go if you're the Jazz or Hornets? Both are good teams but will never have an opportunity to truly compete. If winning is truly the end goal, and with players forming super teams, the only real choice is through the draft. At the same time, they're forced to sign mediocre players to huge deals because of a salary floor, the same contracts top 10-15 players are getting. This constant cycle gives birth to 3 team league, where the other 27 teams have no chance and it all starts with the salary cap/max contracts. The NBA, as it stands, will never be competitive enough and it needs to change.
I guess it's time to trust the process.