Pat Riley spoke to the media for nearly an hour on Friday. After a lot of conversation about Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, as well as general talk about the Heat going forward, Riley brought up an interesting idea that could be used to prevent the proliferation of superteams – an NBA franchise tag. However, this would work very differently than how it does in the NFL. Riley explains:
“I believe that there should be a franchise tag on one of your guys. My opinion of a franchise tag – this is why they don’t allow me to talk and give opinions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement – is that a franchise player to me would be a player in which you can pay him as much money as you want.
It doesn’t go against the cap. Everybody gets one player, that Kevin [Durant] you get 50 [million], LeBron you get 100 [million]. Somewhere along the way there are players in this league that are worth that kind of money. Or there’s a limit on that. But if you franchise somebody then you have the ability to protect [against your star player leaving for a super team.]”
There might only be four or five bona fide superstars in the NBA, but Riley, who was the architect of the most prominent assembled super team in recent memory, is absolutely right that very few of them would leave their present market if teams had a proverbial blank checkbook to sign them.
The problem is, take Durant. The Thunder wouldn’t need to offer him $50 million per year because after the current max contract (Durant signed for about $27 million per year with Golden State), they wouldn’t be competing with anyone else from a price standpoint. Nevertheless, they’d have to make it worth his while not to join a situation where he clearly felt he had a better chance to win. Also, when shoe companies get involved, there are incentives to play in larger markets.
While Riley points out that it’s not easy to put together a super team – to make room for Durant the Warriors had to let Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Andrew Bogut go elsewhere – the biggest facilitator to them is the existence of the max contract. Superstars like LeBron and Durant are way underpaid relative to what they could command on an open market, and their money trickles down to the players on the tiers beneath them. The easiest example to point to here is Mike Conley.
If the NBA kept a salary cap but also eradicated the max and let teams bid up the prices on superstars, there would be less of the pie available for them to join forces with each other. The risk of this is that what happened with the Wizards when they signed Gilbert Arenas to a six-year deal worth $111 million in 2008 – someone who was a star fast becomes a nuisance, and your hands are tied. Basketball players are human beings, not cyborgs, and there are enough variables that there’s never a completely sure thing.
Ultimately, NBA owners are going to have to figure out what they think is the lesser of two evils: the existence of superteams, or loading themselves up with risk for the biggest stars. The NBAPA is a union with backbone, and the owners are not just going to be able to assert their collective will in the next round of collective bargaining negotiations.