Michele Roberts has heard the complaints about the N.B.A.’s best team, the Golden State Warriors, signing an All-Star. She has heard the whining about the league’s best player, LeBron James, moving westward in the first week of free agency. She has seen fans and pundits proclaim the league isn’t competitive enough, and has watched the blame for that land on the doorstep of the National Basketball Players Association and its decision three years ago to reject a league proposal to prevent the limit on player salaries from rising faster than ever before.
After keeping quiet for a week, Roberts, executive director of the players’ union, fired back over the weekend. In a series of emails, she rejected the idea of blaming the players’ decision on the issue known as cap smoothing as nonsense. General managers and coaches may want to blame the players for their teams not being good enough to contend for a championship, she said, but they have no one to blame but themselves.
“Frankly, I have been amused by the chatter suggesting that smoothing — or more accurately the failure to smooth — has now become some folks’ boogeyman de jure,” Roberts said in an email. “While we haven’t yet blamed it for the assassination of MLK, some are now suggesting that it is responsible for all that is presumably wrong with today’s NBA.”
“Needless to say, I beg to differ.”
First, for those not fluent in the N.B.A.’s collective bargaining agreement, a bit of background is in order.
In October 2014, the N.B.A. signed a new television agreement that nearly tripled the amount the league received annually for its national television rights, to $2.66 billion from $930 million, beginning in 2016. The salary cap, which limits the amount each team can spend on players, is tied directly to league revenue. So, in 2016, the first year under the new agreement, the salary cap increased by $24 million, to $94 million, about the same amount it had risen the previous 11 years combined.
The N.B.A. knew this was going to happen, and executives believed a gradual increase of the salary cap was preferable. So the league in 2014 proposed artificially depressing the salary cap for the 2016-17 season. Instead of a sudden rise in the cap, the league offered to provide the players with a lump-sum check that they could divide themselves. That way, teams would not end up signing players to inflated contracts merely because those players had the good fortune of becoming free agents in the summer of 2016.
“Under the concept we discussed, the total salaries paid to players in the aggregate each season would not have changed, but smoothing would have allowed for steadier, incremental Cap increases, instead of a one-year spike,” an N.B.A. spokesman, Mike Bass, wrote in an email.
In February 2015, union representatives from each team unanimously rejected the N.B.A.’s proposal. Roberts said two economists retained by the union concluded players would be worse off under the plan. It has long been accepted wisdom among sports unions that getting every player the highest possible salary is very good for all players.
So, in the summer of 2016, unspectacular players such as Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ian Mahinmi and Timofey Mozgov all signed contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. Those deals have proven to be poor investments for their teams. With two years left on their contracts, Noah and Deng are all but out of the league, and Mahinmi and Mozgov are little-used substitutes receiving starter money.
During that same summer, the Golden State Warriors — just off a Game 7 upset loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the N.B.A. finals — had enough salary cap space to sign free agent Kevin Durant, and enough space the summer after to retain Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Without the salary cap spike, that would have been impossible unless all three took significant salary cuts.
Flash forward to last week, when the Warriors, fresh off their third championship in four seasons, signed the All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, and James decided to join the Los Angeles Lakers. With the smoothing issue once again at the center of the debate over how the N.B.A. became so lopsided, Roberts decided she had heard enough.
Agreeing to artificially lower the salary cap “offends our core,” Roberts wrote. “It would be quite counterintuitive for the union to ever agree to artificially lower, as opposed to raise, the salary cap. If we ever were to do so, there would have to be a damn good reason, inarguable and uncontroverted. There was no such assurance in place at that time.”
She called the concept fundamentally unfair to players. Many of them had been preparing for the expected spike well before the television deal was signed by agreeing to contracts that allowed them to become free agents in 2016.
Also, Roberts explained, instead of artificially depressing the salary cap, the league could have proposed advancing television money into 2015 and increasing spending. But it didn’t want to “in part because teams weren’t expecting an early Cap increase,” Roberts wrote.
“Just the same way that they shouldn’t be faulted for seeking to meet teams’ expectations,” she added, “folks should recognize how important we felt it was to meet the reciprocal expectations felt by the players.”
She dismissed the idea that the 2016 spike had caused a soft market this year. “We opened free agency with 9 teams that had significant Cap room, in excess of $10 million each,” she wrote. “Frankly, before the spike, that’s about as healthy of a start as we’ve ever had.”
Roberts believes the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Lakers will all challenge the Warriors, and the young Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, as well as “a host of other teams are not conceding a damn thing this season.” There have always been dominant teams in the N.B.A. — as there have been in baseball, she pointed out, wh
cap — and they come in cycles.
“We exist to enhance the lives of the players — to provide them with freedom, opportunity, job security and economic wealth,” she wrote. “We actually believe we can provide it all — all these things, plus competition. The fact that one of the 30 teams, at this moment in time, is having its own moment, doesn’t trouble us or make us question the merits of our system.”
Roberts knows that since 2016 whispers have percolated through the league that she rejected cap smoothing because it was the first major decision of her tenure, which began in 2014, and she wanted to avoid the perception that the league could strong-arm the new union director.
Citing her long and bruising legal career as a trial lawyer for some of the country’s most prestigious law firms, she said she would have embraced smoothing if the union’s independent experts had recommended it.
“I stopped making decisions (especially potentially bad ones) to ‘make a statement’ or ‘prove something’ well before I passed the bar,” she wrote.
With rising television ratings and revenues suggesting the N.B.A. is stronger than ever, Roberts is fairly certain who should shoulder the blame for any team that struggles because they signed bad deals.
“I get that there are folks who believe that some of the contracts executed post the smoothing rejection were too large,” she wrote. “I vehemently disagree as I am sure do the players that negotiated those contracts. However, if that’s the beef folks have, take it up with the GMs that negotiated them. The argument that we gave teams too much money to play with is preposterous.”