Teams With Superstar Max Players Like LeBron Face Obstacles Under New CBA

Grantland’s Zach Lowe on the complexities the Miami Heat face in keeping their expensive Big 3 under new financial landscape:


In a time of hushed meetings and amorphous potential offers, the Rockets have transformed a thought exercise into a real thing by presenting Chris Bosh a concrete choice: take a pay cut to stay in Miami, or earn your full maximum salary over a four-year deal in Houston.

It’s not quite the ideal test case for a new collective bargaining agreement designed with perhaps one eye on engineering “competitive balance” by making it harder for teams to retain superstar clusters. Adam Silver trumpeted that catchphrase every chance he got during the 2011 lockout, but the league’s primary goal during that torturous offseason was to transfer cash from players to owners.

Silver is sincere in his desire for greater parity, and the easiest path to achieving it is to prevent in-their-prime superstars from teaming up. The new CBA attempted to do that by installing a super-harsh luxury tax. Spend a lot on players, and you’re going to face a crippling tax penalty that gets more severe as you add payroll. Superstars are expensive to sign and even more expensive to keep; the tax was crafted to make the “keeping” part prohibitive.

But that’s only part of the story. The league also beefed up that tax so more money would flow from big-spending teams to their (mostly) smaller-market brothers, who need those tax proceeds to pad their bottom lines. It is a revenue-sharing mechanism. Any impact on competitive balance would be a happy ripple effect.

If the NBA really wanted to blow apart superteams, it would pitch extreme solutions — a hard salary cap and the elimination of the ceiling on individual player salaries. But pushing for those changes might lead to another lockout and could produce unknown consequences that might sabotage the league’s goal of competitive balance.

The punitive tax hasn’t led to Silver’s “competitive balance,” but it has changed spending habits on the high end. Profitable juggernauts like the Lakers and Heat have made painful cost-cutting moves since the lockout. Even the Nets, who have spent as if their owner has no idea there are rules about spending, want to get under the tax for the 2015-16 season.

The penny-pinching isn’t all about saving owners’ precious scratch. There are basketball reasons for the frugality. As long as there is a salary cap limiting what teams can spend, there will be a real tension between players grabbing as much money as they can and their teams’ ability to sign as many quality players as possible.

This puts star players in an impossible position: accept a pay cut “for the good of the team” or look like a glutton. When stars take pay cuts to stay together, fans rail against their collusion and call the NBA product a rigged game. When stars chase the money, fans rip them as pigs.

Meanwhile, minimum-salary players and young guys on rookie contracts literally cannot take pay cuts, and the glut of cap room that comes with shorter contracts has created bidding wars for mid-tier veterans. Stars make the most, and they are the most obvious target for savings.

The stars can’t win, in part because the NBA has created a system in which a player maximizing his individual income makes it harder for his team to build a competitive roster around him. But are people — media, fans, GMs — overstating the difficulty of that challenge? Maybe the onus should be on teams to spend wisely enough so they can accommodate multiple star players without prodding those stars to “sacrifice” in pointed public comments.

Take what Miami has done so far in free agency. It had dreams of opening up enough cap space to make a run at a $10 million–plus player — Kyle Lowry, Marcin Gortat, or someone else. It’s unclear how real that dream ever was, but its mere existence represents a puzzling communication breakdown between the Heat and the Big Three.

It was just math. LeBron James wants the maximum salary, the Heat have to make Udonis Haslem whole, and Shabazz Napier and Norris Cole are due what they are due. If the Heat wanted to get $10 million under the salary cap — the only realistic way for them to sign an outside free agent at that amount — Bosh and Dwyane Wade could only earn something like $24 million combined next season. They were each due $20 million before they opted out.

A two-man pay cut of that scale just didn’t compute, and if Miami thought it was possible, it hadn’t done enough digging with the players and their agents.

So they appear to have moved on to Plan B, which might have been Plan A all along: stay over the cap and use the available exceptions for over-the-cap teams to sign useful role players.1 The Heat used the full midlevel exception, starting at $5.3 million next season, to nab Josh McRoberts. They used the biannual exception of about $2 million to bring in what remains of Danny Granger’s lower extremities.2

These are not exactly glamour signings, but they fit the Heat’s vision as a small-ish shooting and passing machine. Both players can fill the old Shane Battier/Rashard Lewis role as nominal “power forwards” who supplement LeBron by spacing the floor and banging with opposing bigs on defense. Sparing LeBron those bruises is part of the job description.

McRoberts is coming off a career-best year from 3-point range, and the Heat are betting it wasn’t an outlier, especially since outside shots tend to be open when you play with LeBron. McRoberts is an ace passer who can put the ball on the floor and keep the machine moving — Boris Diaw, but with better hair and no post game. He’s a natural power forward with experience in various defensive systems before Charlotte in which he blitzed pick-and-rolls far from the hoop — a key tenet of Miami’s defense.

He won’t protect the rim or improve Miami’s rebounding problems, but he can fit Erik Spoelstra’s system on both ends. The full midlevel seems a bit much — unless you’re convinced that McRoberts’s long-range shooting last season wasn’t a fluke — but the market for bigs suggests he was going to get this money from someone. Chris Kaman was out of shape and shot the ball damn near every time he touched it last season, and Portland is paying him nearly $5 million for next season.

Granger might be washed up. He perked up in Los Angeles, but he still logged only 10 minutes per game in the playoffs, and he’s coming off endless knee and leg issues. He’s been a stout defender, and he played a lot of small-ball power forward before Frank Vogel erased that alignment from Indy’s playbook. In a best-case scenario, Granger would start against power forwards who don’t post up, he’d hit open 3s, and he’d spend stretches defending some star wings to help LeBron and Wade save energy. In a worst-case scenario, he’s done — another uncreative Heat acquisition of a big name with aging legs.

Even these non-glam signings will require sacrifice from the Heat stars. If Miami was going this over-the-cap route all along, it could have asked LeBron, Wade, and Bosh to simply opt into their contracts, saving us the drama of tracking Dan Gilbert’s private plane and Savannah Brinson’s Instagram account.

But it asked for the opt-outs anyway, and it did so to save money. Here’s why: The new CBA includes an “apron” that is slotted $4 million above the tax line, which is projected at about $77 million for next season.3 That would put the “apron” at $81 million. Teams are banned from exceeding the apron, even by a single penny, if they engage in certain transactions after July 1. On that list: using the full midlevel, which the Heat have apparently just done with McRoberts.

If that proves to be the case, the Heat cannot go over that projected $81 million mark. Their three stars were slated to make about $61.5 million next season before they opted out. Tack on McRoberts, Granger, Napier, and Cole, and the Heat could see the apron fluttering just ahead of them before even thinking about what it might cost to bring back Ray Allen and Chris Andersen — incumbent players who, you know, actually helped last season.

In other words, the Heat asked for the opt-outs so Pat Riley could deliver this message to his stars: “You have to take pay cuts, otherwise we’re not going to be able to bring in Josh freaking McRoberts with the full midlevel.”

The apron becomes a hammer. It’s a multifaceted hammer too. Cross the line, and you can’t acquire a player in a sign-and-trade until the following July. Merely approach it, and it becomes harder to make trades that bring in more salary than they send out, or even sign minimum-salary players when injuries strike. It is a menace floating in the distance, the NBA’s version of that veil in the Department of Mysteries.

Putting the apron in play also conveniently hard-caps the Heat just above the tax line, reducing Micky Arison’s exposure to huge tax payments. Miami can spend only so much now.

The players’ union fears that teams are using the apron to force sacrifices from players who have already turned over so much to owners swimming in NBA cash — when other available tools might allow teams to spend more. “Teams are being exposed for what they are doing,” says Ron Klempner, the interim executive director of the players’ association. “It has been laid bare. They are hiding behind the rules. Teams like the Heat have the ability to bring back all their players, and give them raises, but they are choosing to go in another direction.”

He continued: “There is a misperception that players are being asked to cover for their teams. But I am concerned that the sacrifice they are making is not as much for the good of their teams as it is for the good of the owners.”


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Posted on July 8, 2014, in NBA, Sports Media World and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Teams With Superstar Max Players Like LeBron Face Obstacles Under New CBA.

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