Two ways to fix NBA superteams

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The degree to which the Golden State Warriors have “ruined basketball” has been dramatically overstated of late. Golden State is far from the first star-studded dynasty to reign over the NBA for half a decade, and many more will come in the future. Basketball has survived numerous Celtics and Lakers runs, the mid-‘90s Bulls, the general sustained excellence of the Spurs, and other mini-dynasties like the ‘10s Heat and early-‘00s Lakers that could have kept going for years had they held together. Despite the evidence that multi-year streaks by good teams do not in fact represent the basketballpocalypse however, there’s just something about these Warriors that seems different.

I have three theories:

1.) The Warriors have changed how basketball is played in a way that perhaps no other dynasty has before. Individual teams and players have altered the style of the game at various points in history, but Golden State – as a unit over the course of several years now – has done something radical. It perfected existing ideas about offense to the extent of establishing something that can look almost like a different sport when it’s done well. In this sense, the Warriors almost literally did ruin a certain kind of basketball, or at least surpassed it.

2.) It’s Kevin Durant’s fault. The Warriors were fun and beautiful and glorious through 2015-16, unquestionably the best team and yet beatable, if only by the greatest player in a generation. They were still likely on their way to a dynasty, and one that we all could have enjoyed or, at minimum, appreciated. But then Kevin Durant happened. Adding an MVP after a Finals berth is pretty much a public statement of intent to be villainous so far as most NBA fans are concerned, which means in one stroke the Warriors became more unstoppable and less likable. It got easier to say they were messing everything up.

3.) We’re just ridiculous. Or at least, we are at the complete mercy of hot takes and recency bias, because 2018 just works that way. The current Red Sox are the best baseball team of all time; the 2017 Villanova Wildcats were the most college-y college basketball champion in all of college; Novak Djokovic is back; Fallout is the best Mission: Impossible movie. I’m not saying any of these things are demonstrably false, but it’s incredible how certain we tend to be of this sort of stuff these days. Accordingly, because they’ve won and pissed us off recently, the Golden State Warriors must have won and pissed us off to a greater degree than any other team in history. Therefore, they ruined the sport.

Whatever the case may be, it’s because of the Warriors and some combination of these theories, that there’s renewed talk about how to fix NBA superteams. With the Warriors comes not just one dominant franchise that renders the regular season seemingly unnecessary (minus that, you know, it’s fun to watch basketball), but also a slew of ambitious general managers attempting to assemble superstar collections of their own. No one has quite succeeded, but the domino effect has been clear: A superteam emerges, GMs scramble to catch up, and star players become more focused on partnering up in order to compete, inevitably resulting in less top-to-bottom competitive balance.

Or so it seems at least, in the vacuum of our aforementioned recency bias. Following this chain in reverse back to the top – the establishment of the Warriors – “fixing” superteams really isn’t about preventing individual star partnerships so much as removing the incentive for them to form all around the league. That is, it’s about stopping the Warriors from happening, not dissolving the Rockets and Thunder that follow.

There are two fairly interesting ways the league could do this, establishing both an immediate fix and a new model for the future. Granted they’re a little bit radical (as in: not going to happen), but I’m writing an article, not running for Commish.

The first idea is to expand the NBA by two teams and hold an extremely aggressive expansion draft. There’s no question right now that the NBA could support at least two more franchises. The league’s popularity is sky-high, and the amount of talent on its fringes – in the G-League, overseas, and in high school and college – appears to be as strong or stronger than ever.

So the league could expand, say to Seattle (which very much deserves a team after being robbed of the Sonics) and Louisville (which apparently has a sort of expansion campaign going on that nobody has noticed). And instead of repeating the ultra-conservative draft we saw with the Bobcats in 2004 (each team protected its top eight players), the NBA could aim to break up its best teams, just a little bit. For the first round of the expansion draft, every NBA team could only protect three players. Golden State would have to leave one of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green unprotected. The Celtics would stand to lose one of Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving, and Gordon Hayward, and Houston could be out James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, or Eric Gordon.

This would serve as a one-time strike against the Golden State era, yet it still wouldn’t cripple the top teams completely by any stretch of the imagination. It would also jump-start the expansion franchises with at least one borderline All-NBA player each. (By comparison, the best players the Bobcats were able to select in 2004 were Gerald Wallace, Lonny Baxter, and Jason Kapono.) Potential riots in Golden State and one of Houston or Boston aside, it feels like a win-win.

The second idea would be for the NBA to change its rules regarding max contract players. This is a very complex part of the league’s structure, with max deals arranged in tiers according to players’ experience and team loyalty. But things could theoretically be re-worked in a couple of different ways. One would be to mandate that no one team could have three players in any phase of a max deal (with an exception for teams that drafted three players worthy of max deals). This actually wouldn’t have prevented the Warriors because this particular superteam came together in such bizarre ways, and players could conceivably manipulate this rule by signing just under the max. But it still wouldn’t hurt to have the rule in place. The other contract-related fix would be to simply do away with the max deal, as some players have wanted for years now. This would force teams to pay superstars something closer to their true worth, and would likely result in those stars spreading out to take massive deals.

It could well be that in a few years’ time we’d get something fairly close to the top 16 players in the league each leading their own teams into the playoffs with sidekicks and role players around them. Whether or not that would be better is anybody’s guess, particularly given what a good product the NBA is right now. But these changes would fix the so-called problem.