The Miami Heat are in the middle of the NBA Finals so naturally the focus has shifted to discussing their upcoming offseason. This is not necessarily a complaint — it’s happening here, after all — and the possibility broached by Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein that LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Melo will all sacrifice money to bolster up a top-heavy lineup in Miami is tantalizing. This isn’t just true on the court, which was covered well at Sports on Earth by Sean Highkin, but is also fascinating because it would completely subvert the NBA owners’ intent to rid the sport of the “super team” in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
In negotiations with the players three years ago, the owners wanted and got more money for themselves (the percentage of money from “basketball related income” devoted to salaries dropped several percentage points) as well as the increasing of revenue sharing and luxury taxes. Repeat salary cap offenders, a category in which the Heat would purportedly find themselves this offseason, are severely penalized.
“The rules are in place to eliminate these star players from jumping from team-to-team, to end up on one big team,” said Charlotte owner Michael Jordan in 2013. “That kills the parity within the league.”
“We went through this lockout for a reason,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in support of David Stern’s nixing the trade which would have sent Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers (Paul would soon end up with Blake Griffin in the same big market), in 2011. “Again, I’m not speaking for Stern. He’s not telling me his thought process. I’m just telling you my perspective, having gone through all this. There’s a reason that we went through this lockout, and one of the reasons is to give small-market teams the ability to keep their stars and the ability to compete.”
The kicker in Stein and Windhorst’s report was that, in addition to the gobs of money LeBron makes in endorsements and other business and entertainment ventures, the Heat superstar’s equity stake in Beats By Dre realized $30 million in profits when the company was acquired by Apple. He makes so much more money off the court than the NBA’s CBA permits teams to bid for him, and it’s probable that any income he sacrifices en route to more titles would be multiply returned by later commercial opportunities.
Now, there aren’t and won’t exactly be too many NBA players whose off-court earnings can exceed the max contract. According to SI, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh made $11.5M, $5.8M, and $1.0M respectively in endorsements last year. LeBron reportedly earned $39M away from basketball in 2013 — more than twice his average annual basketball salary — so taking the lesser amount of money that would be required for the four players to team up without Miami incurring insane luxury tax charges would be a lesser comparative sacrifice for him than the other three.
(Still, the idea that we’re talking about this with LeBron, who is the best player in the world by so much, is bananas. To make the dreaded Michael Jordan comparison, MJ made over $30 million his last two seasons with the Bulls as Scottie Pippen never cracked $3 million in Chicago. What would LeBron command on a true open market with no cap or max restrictions? $50 million? More?)
If the “Big Four” signed for, say, $14 million per year each, it would cost the three current Heat players about $7 million and Carmelo about $9 million next year based on what they would earn if they didn’t opt out of their current contracts. Not that they’d definitely or even probably be inclined to, but the Knicks could offer Carmelo $129 million for five years right now. So, a lot of sacrifices would have to be made by them — again, especially by the three other than LeBron — but it’d be fascinating if it somehow happened. Four superstars taking pay cuts?
It’s not just the Heat who are building a team with max-worthy players taking less to play with each other. Though their core is homegrown, the Spurs could afford to keep that intact, and build auxiliary parts from other teams’ castoffs, because Tim Duncan’s made about half of his market value the past two seasons (and Manu Ginobili’s salary went from $14.1M to $7.5M this past season). Not every team can make this work — the Lakers are stuck paying a depreciated Kobe Bryant the max while the Thunder would not go over the luxury tax to keep James Harden.
Nevertheless, the stated purpose of the 2011 Lockout — to achieve competitive balance — remains unrealized as players continue to leverage control over where and with whom they play (see also: Love, Kevin). While the owners can take solace in the fact that they did succeed in clawing back money from the players — as the Clippers sell for $2 billion (pending whatever zaniness Donald Sterling still has left in store) and Adam Silver says the business of the league has “never been better” — the authority to curb willful player movement appears to be irrevocably lost.
[Display image via ESPN SportsNation]