Professional basketball is truly the sport where the superstar thrives. Most team sports involve so many players that a single athlete can only do so much, no matter how good he or she is. In basketball, only five players are on the court at any time and the entire space-time of a game can bend toward one dominant player. In fact, most analysis of basketball team construction can be boiled down to one question: Can you win a championship with X as your best player?
There’s probably about a dozen players —and therefore, about a dozen teams—in the league right now for whom, in any normal season, the answer to that would be “yes.”
But this is not a normal season. The two teams about to play for the NBA championship, the Golden State Warriors, led by Kevin Durant, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, ran through the rest of the league’s best competition in the playoffs like the Kool-Aid man busting through walls. The Cavs lost just one game, to the Boston Celtics, on an improbable buzzer-beating three-point shot. In the games they won, the Cavs outscored the Celtics by an average of 25.75 points, which is pretty much insane.
The Warriors have swept all three rounds so far, joining only the 1988-89 and 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers to go undefeated in the conference playoffs. They’ve also outscored their opponents in the playoffs by an average of 16.3 points per game, the largest differential in history.
From casual fan to NBA lifer, there’s been a consistent complaint: after a regular season that seemed transcendent in terms of overall league talent, compelling team style of play, and individual statistical excellence, these playoffs were just incredibly boring.
So what happened? Are James and Durant just so much better than the rest of the league’s superstars that we need to change the lodestone of punditry to “do you have LeBron or Durant?”
Maybe. But there’s something else that sets the Warriors and Cavs apart from the rest of the league—and might explain their dominance in this postseason: Both teams have manipulated the NBA’s labor market to their advantage in ways no one else has.
First, the Warriors. I mentioned Durant as the team’s uber-player, but as any Warriors fan knows, Stephen Curry might be the real alpha here. The MVP of of both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons is arguably more valuable to Golden State than Durant (even though Durant is usually considered the better overall player). For those who want to make that case, perhaps the best piece of evidence to bring to the table is Curry’s salary, about $12.1 million for the past season.
Of the players to make the All-NBA team—an annual award given to the top 15 players in the league, in three tiers (first, second, and third team), voted on by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters—for this past season, Curry has the fourth-lowest salary—and of the three players who made less, two (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert) were still on their rookie contracts, and are going to get major money next year ($22 million and $21 million, respectively). The other, Isaiah Thomas, was the league’s biggest surprise this season, and will surely get paid when he enters free agency in a couple of years.
The Warriors lucked out. They signed Curry to a four-year extension after the 2011-12 season—when the point guard played only 26 games and was surrounded by the narrative of being “fragile” and “injury-prone.” Both Curry and Golden State thought the deal was fair at the time. Instead, Curry’s relatively cheap salary—about $12 million—enabled the Warriors to sign home-grown stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (both also All-NBA) to expensive long-term deals.
Then, they benefitted again when Durant happened to become a free agent right when the NBA-imposed salary cap took a massive leap, going from $70 million for 2015-2016 to $94.1 million in 2016-2017.
That 34% growth in cap room—the largest single-season change since it went from $16 million to $23 million in 1996—combined with Curry’s low pay, enabled the Warriors to sign free agent Durant (also All-NBA) to the league’s second-highest salary, without going too far above the salary cap. Combined, there’s no better top four in the league than Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green.
The Cavs took a much different route to roster construction. At $127 million, they have the highest team payroll in the league, well over the $94 million cap. After the season, the NBA assesses a “luxury tax” on teams that go over the cap, which gets redistributed to the rest of the league. We don’t yet know what the Cavs will pay for the 2016-2017 season, but last year, the Cavs had a $108 million salary and there was a $70 million cap—and the NBA charged them a $54 million luxury tax. We can assume they’ll face a similar hit this year.
In other words, the Cavs simply don’t care about spending (relatively) ridiculous amounts of money to keep their roster strong during LeBron James’ late-30s years. (Though maybe it’s worth it: as of May 26, the Cavs have sold out 150 straight home games.) Their top four might not be as impressive as Golden State’s, but Cleveland runs deep; swingman Kyle Korver would start on most teams in the league, but on the Cavs, he’s the eighth man (that’s not exactly a coveted role).
The upshot is clear: get lucky or spend money. Either way, it’s all about the economy.