CLEVELAND • Adam Silver said something before the NBA Finals that came back to mind as the Golden State Warriors were sitting on the chest of the Cleveland Cavaliers and making them punch themselves with their fists.
“We have a soft cap system,” the commissioner said. And the effect of that was unfolding on the court at Quicken Loans Arena, after LeBron James and the Cavs had put up a bit of a fight through 18 minutes or so of basketball in Game 4, before the Warriors got back to business.
There was Steph Curry bombing a three-pointer from 10 feet beyond the line, here was Kevin Durant hitting a fadeaway mid-range jumper that could only be defended by someone with the power of flight. All around them were Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and a succession of Warriors who ran around and harassed Cleveland’s shooters enough to make life difficult.
It is a formula for utter dominance, and the only drama in the second half of the 108-85 win to complete the sweep came when James checked out with four minutes to go, and one wondered if the Cleveland crowd would cry out in anguish or just go straight to the jersey-burning. There were an awful lot of LeBron jerseys in the arena; it would have been quite the conflagration.
But back the soft cap. Silver noted that the Cavs and Warriors are the two highest-payrolled teams in the league, once luxury tax penalties are included in the final bill. And they have just met in the Finals for the fourth straight year, the first time that has happened in any of the four major North American leagues. What a remarkable coincidence, that.
Silver did not go as far as saying he wants to fundamentally change the way the NBA does business, with a hard cap in the spirit of the rules in the NFL and NHL that force teams to jettison players once they become too expensive. The commissioner would just allow that a more restrictive system is “something we’ll continue to look at.”
But the thing about the Warriors is, they haven’t just blown up the system the NBA has now, they could be just as much of a problem in a new system that aims to depress salaries.
The key to Golden State’s enormous luxury of talent is that the players have agreed to take less money to make themselves something close to unstoppable. Durant, for example, was paid US$25-million this season. He has already said he intends to re-sign with Golden State, and he didn’t include any of the usual qualifiers about “if we can work something out.” Now, US$25-million is a lot of money. Durant is not making a crippling sacrifice. But he is a nine-time All-Star, has been on seven All-NBA teams, won an MVP and two Finals MVPs. Andrew Wiggins, to pick just one comparison, recently signed a five-year, US$150-million contract extension. He has not yet made an All-Star team.
At the other end of the scale, LeBron James made more than US$33-million this season. James Harden will make $30-million next season and then has a contract extension that will pay him US$169-million over four seasons. Not a typo: that’s an average of $42-million per year.
Golden State could yet see their carefully constructed salary picture fall apart, especially if the NBA moves away from a soft cap, but for now it seems as though this guys are willing to leave great piles of money on the table in order to keep the team whole.
They sound very altruistic when they explain it.
“We all want something that’s bigger than ourselves,” Durant said after the win on Friday night. “I think we love to see each other succeed. We love to come together and figure stuff out on the basketball court.”
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in the locker room that don’t care about anything but just being better basketball players every day and winning. It makes the environment great.”
That may be true, but NBA salaries, bolstered by a huge influx of television money that is spread out over a small roster, have risen to the point where it’s easy for a player to forego literal millions of dollars. The Warriors may be leaving great piles of money on the table, but they still get even greater piles of money. The franchise will also move from Oakland to San Francisco after next season, into a sparkling new downtown arena. One can see why the stars might want to stick around.
This is the challenge, then, for the rest of the league. While everyone is imagining a Harden-LeBron-Chris Paul superteam in Houston, are the latter two going to take dramatically less than the money already committed to the former one?
If anyone is going to challenge the Warriors, the task is two-fold. You don’t just have to assemble a roster that can challenge Golden State, but you have to do it at close to their price.
It will, if nothing else, make for a busy summer for the number crunchers.