Since the lockout in 2011, there has been a renewed emphasis among NBA management to be cognizant of the more restrictive salary cap. The latest Collective Bargaining Agreement included a more punitive luxury tax, more restrictions to teams over the cap, and it caused teams to encourage star players to take less than the maximum they could earn in order to build a contending team. This was because during negotiations, NBA owners claimed that they were losing money because of exorbitant player salaries. Since then, we've seen only two different NBA Champions, and both of them featured stars that took much less than they were able to get in order to afford better teammates. LeBron James notably took less than the max to team up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form a “Big 3” that represented the Eastern Conference four years in a row. Tim Duncan also took a major pay-cut to facilitate the Spurs’ financial flexibility, and he was rewarded with his 5th NBA Championship in 2014. On the other hand, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant bucked that trend and took a two-year max deal while the Lakers have floundered on the court due to significant injuries and an overall lack of talent on the roster. Critics and analysts alike all lauded the likes of Duncan and James using words like selflessness and sacrifice while Bryant was called selfish and greedy. At first glance, it’s clear to see who made the right decision, right? The guys who made the necessary sacrifice to give their team the best chance of winning. Is that really the case?
Negotiations for the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement are supposed to be done in good faith, so the NBA Players Union had little choice but to believe the owners when they said they were losing money. In the wake of the new TV deal that the NBA agreed to with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting worth 24 billion dollars over nine years, it seems that the Players Union was misled. Kobe Bryant took to twitter to express his displeasure with the current state of things in the NBA:
With this new infusion of money into the NBA, a salary like Bryant’s will not be financially crippling to a team. In all honesty, it never was. NBA superstars generate far more for their teams and the league as a whole than they receive from their salaries. A “Bryantesque” salary may have kept a team from adding multiple stars via trade or free agency before the new TV deal, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing either. The way the Heat dominated and weakened the Eastern Conference at the same time made the Eastern Conference far less watchable and exciting than the Western Conference. A league with its stars spread around it is more likely to have more competitive balance and less predictability.
Bryant objected to the thought that he had to decide between being properly compensated and being competitive. In truth, he didn’t actually have to decide. The owners created an environment that tried to force that narrative while vilifying players who opted for more financial stability. The NBA owners essentially embarked on a PR campaign to reduce cost for themselves while turning fans against the players that they spend their hard earned money to see perform. Kobe wasn’t having it. Now, superstars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James are primed to follow suit. Let’s see how negotiations go next time they meet at the bargaining table.