Did the SuperMax end the SuperTeam?
A back door to competitive balance
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Every few years, the NBA gets itself into a snit about superteams: the Nets of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce; the Lakers of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol; the Warriors, often, but especially with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. And, of course, the Heatles: LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami.
Fans and media, worried about small-market teams, proclaim that the league should make rules to prevent all those stars from gathering in one place.
The league buys it. One of the key behind-the-scenes tirades from the 2011 lockout came from Michael Jordan, who wanted the league to protect his Hornets from the Lakers, who could afford to spend many times as much as his team.
That story came from an NBA bigwig making the point that the league had no choice but to impose harsh measures. Competitive balance is why, he explained, the league needs a draft with the worst teams near the top, hard salary caps, and all the other stuff the league was pushing.
Competitive balance is everything!
British economist David Forrest, who has studied the phenomenon of parity across sports, doesn’t really buy that. He says billionaires prefer to invest in leagues with salary caps and drafts is because they want protection from expensive arms races. For example, drafting college players into the game has the reputation of being around to help bad teams improve, but actually they were invented in response to NFL rookies touching off bidding wars. They keep players cheaper by allowing them to negotiate with only one team at a time.
Soon after I wrote about Forrest and his findings in the 2011 lockout, one of the NBA’s smartest GMs reached out and made his own interesting point.