The NBA season will begin next month, after the shortest offseason in league history. Just over two months will have passed from the end of The Finals in October to opening night on December 22. It’s hard to imagine that many are particularly pleased with this quick turnaround, especially the players who advanced deep into the postseason and are now being asked to report to training camps following the most cursory break from playing.
The reason for the quick turnaround is financial, though in this instance, it’s not just the owners making an executive decision due to avarice. The players agreed to start the season this early, however unenthusiastically, because, due to the structure of the CBA which guarantees players a percentage of league income, their money is at stake too.
The league’s owners, while taking a billion dollar hit would of course hurt them too, are not in the same exact situation as the players though. The franchises they operate are not their primary source of income, and none of them are in risk of actual bankruptcy or financial insolvency. There’s tons of stories of NBA players going bankrupt following their careers, but there’s no similar tales regarding the men who paid those players in the first place. The owners are on an indefinite timetable to recoup lost revenues while franchise valuations continue to rise even during a pandemic.
If the league did push back the season, accepting a potential billion dollar loss, the salary cap could drop by over $15 million. It’s difficult to imagine star players not demanding and receiving a maximum salary regardless of the cap so the rest of the league would take the brunt of the hit. While any team would consider themselves privileged to pay Giannis Antetokounmpo whatever is necessary to secure his services, far fewer would be willing to give Otto Porter Jr. $28 million per year, Dwight Powell a $40 million contract, or Eric Gordon nearly $80 million over the next four years. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that LeBron James was more vocal than anyone else about wanting the season to be delayed. Apart from the fact that his season ended just over a month ago, James, with his massive salary and bevy of off-court endorsement deals and other investments, can take the financial hit whereas others would be affected far more by a dramatic change to the cap.
This salary structure has long benefited the NBA’s middle class. By limiting the amount that superstars can make, linking it to a certain percentage of the salary cap, it opens up money that would not otherwise be available. It prevents LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Giannis Antetokounmpo from being paid their true value but it also keeps them from monopolizing a team’s payroll the way Michael Jordan did in the 1997-98 season when his salary was several million dollars above the cap itself. It’s the rare financial decision that is not weighted towards helping stars at the expense of others.
The union has historically been run by some of the league’s most important stars. Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, and Oscar Robertson were its first three presidents, all of whom were All-NBA players and future Hall of Famers that were talented enough to be irreplaceable, making them immune from the blackballing that may have been possible if, say, Frank Selvy had been running things in the early 60’s. This trend has been less pronounced in the last few decades, though for the last seven years, Chris Paul has been the NBPA president. While in the 60’s, the state of the league was precarious enough and the money so paltry that everyone had common cause. Even the stars often worked offseason jobs to make ends meet. Now, though, their goals are not the same. The separation in salary between the stars and the bench players is no longer just tens of thousands but tens of millions.
This gap not only leads to practical financial concerns but may also affect the balance of the on-court play as well. LeBron James infamously spends over $1 million per year on his body, employing trainers and dietitians full-time in the hopes of prolonging his career as long as possible. It’s clearly been a wise expenditure, one that is working tremendously and is functionally an investment since it has allowed him to continue playing at a high level while practically all his peers are now retired or forced to accept drastically reduced roles. Right now, it’s an advantage that belongs pretty much exclusively to him, though fans are also seeing Chris Paul perform at a level well above what most would expect from a man entering his 16th season.
It will be interesting to see if other stars follow James’ lead, investing millions of dollars into their body, enabling them to extend their careers past a point previous generations of stars have been able to. To a lesser extent, this is the same principle underlying Kawhi Leonard’s load management, that of career extension. This is a prerogative that only stars have access to though. If you’re making a few million dollars per year as opposed to LeBron’s tens of millions, it’s going to be much harder to justify spending such a large percentage of that money on trainers and nutritionists. Similarly, while Kawhi and Zion Williamson can take nights off to prevent risking injury, others whose standing in the league is not as secure cannot take the same precautions, making the likelihood of them having a lengthy career even smaller than it would be otherwise. There is also the collateral damage other players endure when a superstar seeks a trade.
There’s nothing really wrong with this -- of course, that does not mean it’s ideal either -- but it affirms just how selective, and rare, the player empowerment spoken of by fans and analysts truly is.
The life of a professional athlete is inherently precarious, and stars are justifiably doing what they can to reduce the element of chance in their careers. But what does it mean if the players already most insulated from randomness are the only ones able to take such steps?