On the eve of the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat matchup in the NBA Finals, the perfect stage for his sermon, commissioner Adam Silver extolled the wonders of parity.
“Whoever wins this year, it will be the fifth year in a row that we’ve had a new team win,” he said. “When you think about a 30-team league, and it’s not just the fans in those markets, but fans increasingly all over the world, you want to have a league where everybody feels that if the team they’re rooting for , is well managed and gets a little bit of luck – it’s necessary – for them to really compete for championships.”
After his speech, two mid-major teams that had been built from the bottom up, with two unselfish stars at the helm of equal offense, under the watchful eyes of two of the longest-tenured coaches in the NBA, would battle for a ring. The league may have entered a new era of parity and roster stability.
“I think this increased parity we’re seeing around the league is fantastic. That’s part of the design as well,” Silver continued. “Through successive collective bargaining agreements and the one we just negotiated, there are also some new provisions in that , which we hope will help even the playing field to some extent.”
The new CBA, which takes effect in 2023-24, is particularly punitive for high-spending teams, especially those that exceed the second tax bracket ($17.5 million above the luxury tax, about $179.5 million total). Some of its provisions, such as those preventing teams above the second berth from consolidating multiple salaries in a trade, appear to not just make it harder to form superteams, but to prevent them altogether.
Just two months after the new CBA deal became public, the Phoenix Suns decided there were merits in it word by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, to “smash” the new rules to pieces.
Since Mat Ishbia bought the team in December, the Suns have faced a crossroads between continuity and stardom twice, choosing the latter each time. They traded Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Kevin Durant before the trade deadline, and now they’ve traded Chris Paul and Landry Shamet for Bradley Beal and his four-year, $208 million deal. They preserved Monty Williams, the architect of the no-nonsense culture Devin Booker craved but couldn’t build on his own. In the wake of the Beal deal, Deandre Ayton (a perennial trade candidate) and Booker are the only players under contract remaining from the Suns’ Finals run just three years ago.
The Suns now have $161.5 million locked up between Durant, Booker, Beal and Ayton. In 2025-26, their collective salary cap hit will total $199 million. Even if they do trade Ayton, it’s hard to imagine a version of this team that won’t be above second place for several years.
That means, among other things, the Suns won’t be able to sign bought out players, collect salary in a trade, send cash in trades, use their non-taxpayer mid-level exception or trade their first-round pick for seven years. If they are above the frontcourt in the next five years, that pick will fall to the bottom of the draft. Defying the league’s new rules is an incredibly high-risk proposition: If the Suns don’t win a championship, imagine how it will feel if a rebuilding Phoenix team ends up drafting 30th eight years from now. Good thing the Suns don’t care about the draft anyway. Plus, when your CEO dad is an agent, building your team through trades is just leaning on your strengths.
Superteams have, for most of NBA history, been expensive and difficult to build, but the story remains the same: If you have free-spending and a magnetic superstar, then imagination, ingenuity and a certain tolerance for recklessness can help do whatever preferably happen.
The Suns have surrendered historic levels of roster flexibility to compile the Durant-Booker-Beal trio, but one thing they able to do is re-sign Torrey Craig, Cam Payne and the slew of role players they have bird rights to. They could also potentially use those players’ salaries in one-on-one trades, revealing a potential loophole in the new CBA that other high spenders could use as well.
I don’t know how much “fuck it, we ball” energy Joe Lacob has moved on from him, but if the Warriors are looking to upgrade and the Warriors owner can stomach more exorbitant luxury tax bills, Klay Thompson’s expiring $43 million contract would make for a fascinating piece of trade bait. After the new rules take effect, the Warriors, despite having $211 million on the books next season, could still trade Thompson for a superstar within 110 percent of his salary.
A team that has the draft capital to make an offer could use this strategy to put together a reasonable package for a disgruntled star, especially if the alternative is letting them go for nothing. For the Heat, Kyle Lowry’s expiring contract ($29.6 million) could essentially serve as a trade exception that allows them to absorb a star.
The Celtics have been worried about giving Jaylen Brown a massive contract, but maybe they shouldn’t sweat it so much: One day, they might be able to trade for Giannis Antetokounmpo using Brown’s contract.
The Clippers, owned by Steve Ballmer, the only person in the league for whom luxury tax bills are true chump change, could follow a similar path. Los Angeles can no longer consolidate its many reasonably paid role players into a superstar, but it can use the salaries of its older players to make rotation upgrades. Marcus Morris’ expiring $17 million contract could be attractive to a team looking for the cap. Same for Eric Gordon’s deal.
Any team that decides to go this route will flout everything the league is trying to encourage: long-term development through the draft and less player movement through trades. It reminds me of when the NBA decided not to call shooting fouls on defenders covering a rip-through move. Eventually, cagey rules manipulators like Paul learned to work around the change, saving moves for when their teams were in penalty kicks and most needed a call. The rule change limited, but did not eliminate, the move.
The same could happen here. The Suns made another bold, expensive plan. In 12 months, if they hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, just weeks before the CBA’s new second-apron rules go into effect, it will be clear that the CBA’s consequences are nothing more than a porous deterrent. But success is far from guaranteed. In fact, the Suns’ title odds jumped from plus-800 to just plus-650 after the trade.
Review NBA history and you’ll realize that the configuration most likely to win multiple championships is the one we just witnessed earlier this month: a generational superstar and a reliable complementary sophomore surrounded by a host of fit role players. This has been the natural order for most dressing rooms and caps. Kobe and Shaq. Bird and McHale. Magic and Kareem. Jordan and Pippen. Jokic and Jamal.
The reason? Superteams are difficult to construct and harder to keep together, and they come with inherent structural risks. They are top-heavy and loaded with minimum wage players, which counterintuitively requires the stars to take on an even greater burden. This transforms their roles and makes them do the dirty work usually reserved for lesser players. As a result, damages can be borderline catastrophic.
There have been exceptions, like the Heatles and the Durant-era Warriors. Miami completed its Big Three because Chris Bosh transformed into a floor-stretching defensive lynchpin while LeBron, in a way only he could, absorbed every other responsibility, from scoring to playmaking to rebounding to guarding the opponent’s best player to filling the positional hole. the moment. He also missed a total of just 18 games in four years.
In contrast, Beal and Durant have missed 111 and 171 games, respectively, over the past four seasons. Combined, Phoenix’s new Big Three have missed a staggering 321 games over the past four seasons.
Durant, 34, has played 42,906 minutes (including the postseason) in his 15-year career. He’s also the most versatile and the best rim protector and rebounder of the three — the best equipped to make the kind of transformation that has allowed past super teams to thrive. In his first two seasons with the Warriors, he blocked nearly 1.7 shots per game. game, protecting the rim for stretches when Draymond Green was unavailable. He discovered and leaned into his versatility, perhaps because he was no longer required to score all the time.
There’s a version of the Suns that mimics the early days of the Kyrie Irving-KD-James Harden Nets blowing up cards, but that team’s fate points to more omens than reason to believe. Durant has now been a part of so many hastily built super teams that the decision to go all-in on another feels more like a cautionary tale than an imposing threat to the rest of the league. As soon as the Suns brought Durant onto the court, the jokes about him joining another super team started flying. The irony is that when Durant tries to follow an “easier” path, he ends up carrying a greater burden.
Since leaving the Warriors, he has carried a huge burden for three straight postseasons because his superteam teammates have been unavailable. In 2021, he was without Kyrie and Harden at different times. In 2022 it was Ben Simmons. This year it was Paul.
The responsibility has led to some incredible performances from Durant — his 49-point triple-double will go down as one of the best, most inspiring performances in a loss in NBA history — but eventually it becomes too much to bear.
Was Phoenix — the only team to push the Nuggets to six games this postseason — better off just screwing around and running it back? Perhaps a full season with Durant, Paul in his new role and the addition of a reliable, physical backup big man would have delivered this team to the promised land.
But recent Sun history tells us it wouldn’t have guaranteed anything either. After losing in the 2021 Finals, the Suns opted for continuity, bolstering their frontcourt depth and moving into the development of Bridges and Johnson. They won a franchise-record 64 games the following season, only to lose embarrassingly to the Mavericks in a second-round Game 7. The next year, those guys traded away one of the greatest scorers of all time, and the result was yet an embarrassing elimination loss in the second round.
The only real answer to team building is that there are no answers. There is no proven formula for winning, no configuration that is destined to fail. In the end, a super team on paper doesn’t amount to anything. Success comes down to what happens between the four lines of the court.