Heading into the NBA playoffs, there were only four teams with any shot to win the title: Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. People in Toronto maybe thought they had a chance to win the East, and a healthy Clippers team might have convinced themselves they were good enough to compete in the West, but in a league with 30 teams, there were basically four teams with a chance to win the NBA championship.
Now there are three.
Kevin Durant got tired of losing, so he joined the team with the most wins in NBA history. The Golden State Warriors lost the NBA Finals in seven games, sure, but after a record 73 regular-season victories last year, the Dubs are projected to NOT LOSE A GAME next season.
Which leads us back to Sam Hinkie, and his assertion that the NBA is rigged.
That might not have been the actual term Hinkie used in his press conference outlining the latest iteration of The Process last year, but the point remains the same. The NBA system is rigged, and there is no way to win a championship without one (or three) of the game’s biggest stars.
Oklahoma City still has one of the top 10 players in Russell Westbrook, but the rest of that team is hardly championship caliber, and Westbrook has made it clear he has no interest in re-signing with OKC before he, too, can become a free agent.
Durant spent nine years with the Thunder franchise before deciding to leave. He absolutely earned the right to become a free agent this season.
The same goes for LeBron James, and his move to Miami, then back to Cleveland, where he has opted out of his contract again this season to cash in on the insane increase in the NBA salary cap.
Every NBA player deserves the right to be a free agent, and with the increased cap and the impossibly low salaries of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — they’ll combine to make just $44 million this coming season — the Warriors could afford to add one of the three best players on the planet to the best team in basketball history.
Now can we finally stop bitching about the NBA Draft Lottery?
In all seriousness, Hinkie’s concept of tanking has led to years of discussion about Draft Lottery reform, to the point where the league’s owners have actually voted on refining, or flat eliminating, the NBA lottery.
Meanwhile, the increased revenue and ballooning salary camp which was supposed to bring more teams into the championship conversation and lead to parity in the league has done, so far, the exact opposite.
The elite teams in the NBA are shrinking. Already there’s talk that Dwyane Wade, angry at a lowball offer from the Miami Heat, may want to join LeBron James in Cleveland.
This entire off-season was set up like house of cards, waiting for Durant to come through and knock things over. Tim Duncan is reportedly retiring. That word came a few hours after Durant’s decision to join the Warriors over the Spurs. Westbrook is counting the days until he can opt out, and the moves by OKC to bolster the roster to retain Durant look like nowhere near enough to keep either star.
The Celtics got better without signing Durant, adding Al Horford in free agency, but even that move was made primarily to entice one of the top players to go there. Dallas collected the Warriors scraps, nabbing Andrew Bogut (dumped by the Warriors to clear cap space) while signing the suddenly superfluous Harrison Barnes — a reported target in Philly — to a max deal.
The Sixers, now led by Bryan Colangelo, have more money than anyone in the history of free agency, but all they’ve signed so far is journeyman combo guard Jerryd Bayless and European star Sergio Rodriguez.
Money doesn’t matter when everybody has money, and so the Sixers are left trying to find diamonds in the rough — the vast, enormous rough — while hoping the nascent core of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid (if healthy) and one or both of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel is enough to turn a moribund 10-win team into a squad that someone like Westbrook or Durant or, gulp, LeBron would want to join.
Hinkie knew that. He said it time and time again that the only way to ever win in the NBA is to have two or more of the best players in the game. And the only way to do that is to either pick in the top five in the NBA Draft or lure a top free agent to your team. And how is that done? With a talented team and lots of cap space…meaning young and cheap stars.
Hinkie will never not be right. His problem was delivery.
The NBA became, for lack of a better term, embarrassed that Hinkie tried to “game” the system by tanking for top picks, so rather than fixing the cause, the league set out to muzzle the effect.
Sam Hinkie’s process wasn’t the problem. The problem is that the NBA is rigged. By capping player’s individual salaries and slotting everyone else in neatly piled tiers — and by giving teams trying to retain players huge advantages in doing so — it’s easier than ever to create a superteam.
And yet, for most teams, it’s impossible.
Nobody begrudges top players for wanting to play with other stars. Durant should want the best opportunity to win a championship, and certainly Golden State affords him that chance. The way the NBA has set up the salary cap, good teams are essentially able to lock up three or sometimes four stars to max or near max deals. It’s been basically 10 years — the Detroit Pistons and maybe the New Jersey Nets — since a team made it to the NBA Finals without having at least two All-NBA stars or flatout Hall of Famers. But the only thing the NBA seems to want to reform is the Draft Lottery?
That fakakta rotating system that the NBA intelligentsia convinced itself is better than “worst team gets first pick?”
Seriously, there was a legitimate proposal to have every team rotate at getting the top pick in the draft over 30 years. Could you imagine if the Warriors had their turn in the wheel this year, and added Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram to that mix? Hell, any year, giving the best teams the best players is ludicrous, but it was a real proposal in the NBA because some owners and GMs were upset at teams like the Sixers saying “screw it” for three years in hopes of building a contender.
There is no other way. If Adam Silver forced the Sixers to hire Jerry Colangelo, who then hired his son to run the team, leading to the end of the Hinkie era, can Silver do more for the Sixers? Can he force Oklahoma City to trade Westbrook here?
All that would do is make the Sixers a powerhouse in the East while decimating OKC in the process. But remember, the NBA did that before, vetoing a Chris Paul to the Lakers deal, forcing him to the Clippers instead. All that did was set the Lakers back half a decade and turn the Clippers into an immediate contender. (Can the league do the same for the Sixers? Please?)
It’s not going to happen. And Hinkie knew that.
This isn’t an analytic conversation, either. It’s simple math.
- If there are 30 great players in the NBA and every team has one, there is competitive balance.
- If there are 20 great players and 2/3rds of the teams in the league has one each, there’s at least some competitive balance around most of the league.
- If those 20 great players partner up to make 10 great teams, that’s 20 teams without a star. That competitive balance sucks.
- But what if there are only 10 or 12 truly great players and they all join up to create 4 or 5 super teams? What are the other 25 or 26 teams supposed to do?
In 2015-16 there were six teams in the NBA with 50 or more wins and seven teams with 50 or more losses. There were just five teams within 24 victories of the 73-9 Warriors, and four teams within 24 victories of…zero victories.
Hinkie saw this coming and tried to put the Sixers in a position — like the Thunder a little less than a decade ago — to create their own super team. So did he exploit the system or break it? And for Sixers fans, or fans of parity in the NBA, should it matter which?
We’ll find out in a few years if Hinkie’s plan worked; or sooner if the Colangelos can convince two or three stars to come to Philly to create a super team here. That might be the only way.
But yeah, let’s talk more about that horrible Draft Lottery and how it’s ruining competitive balance. That’s the problem with the NBA.