The modern NBA superstars are the most powerful genre of athlete in USA professional team sports history. They have it all: the wealth, the platform, the influence, the practicality about the league’s business and the audacity to use everything for their own good, no matter the consequences.
People are used to athletes competing, getting their money, enjoying their fame, trying to win their championships and leaving everything else to function mostly without their input. Now, though, 29 years since Tom Chambers pioneered NBA unrestricted free agency, the NBA superstar has figured out how to lead the show.
Prominent players understand their power now. Since the summer of 2010, when the greatest free agent class in league history contained LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joining forces in Miami, the biggest stars have learned to use their talent and popularity as an advantage to shift control of how organizations are built in their favor. Organizations still win championships, but not without superstars serving as unofficial members of the front office.
So, what do the stars want now? They want to combine their powers. It has been 25 years since the Dream Team graced the Olympics, and this generation has its own mentality, one where cooperation has more room. Stars understand each other better because they’re not always adversaries. But the pressure to win multiple championships if you want to be considered an all-time great, that remains. So, they’ve found a team-building cheat code, and they’re doing business their way.
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Second question: How to structure the league in a way stars have incentive not to make like Kevin Durant and create a super team? Remember, this is a collectively negotiated sport that is in good overall condition and making serious money currently. Dramatic change doesn’t happen when everyone’s pockets are bulging. And no change is on sight until 2024, when the new CBA is set to expire.
In the new CBA, under which the league will operate starting this season, the NBA has sustained its efforts to help teams hold their stars by allowing them to pay more. The league had already made max contracts worth more for players who decided to stay. Now it is instituting a super-max contract, called the designated player veteran extension, for essentially the game’s top 15 players. If players meet certain elite criteria, they’re eligible to sign extensions that can pay them more than $40 million per season to remain with their teams.
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In the future, the NBA is going to be forced to provide even greater incentive. This max-salary system is going to die, eventually, because too many players are getting max contracts. Anyone who is a top 15 free agent in each year will demand one. An even not-so-talented players of have-not teams are demanding more just to stay.
This structure, therefore, must change. Pat Riley, the former great coach and Miami Heat president, is among those who have suggested a franchise tag in which teams have a salary cap exception to sign its best player to whatever their owners want to pay. There would have to be some limits to keep owners from being stupidly aggressive. But if the NBA could do that and tighten its salary cap rules while being fair to the players’ association, there would be greater incentive for stars to stay.
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