Bucky Gleason: Richest players get richer, best teams get better, in today's NBA - The Buffalo News

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Bucky Gleason: Richest players get richer, best teams get better, in today's NBA

Last week, I wrote a column designed to put professional sports contracts into perspective while suggesting an athlete would make $100 million annually in my children's lifetime. Talk about safe predictions. At the rate salaries are escalating in the NBA, it could happen in the next 15 years.

James Harden signed a four-year contract extension worth $160 million, giving him a six-year package worth $228 million. He'll make $47 million in the final year – or $1.49 per second whether he's Euro-stepping through the lane or driving home from a game. Steph Curry will pocket $45.7 million in 2021-22.

Twenty years ago, the Bulls and Knicks were the only two teams spending that much on their entire payrolls. Ten years ago, Kevin Garnett was the highest-paid player at $21 million. It didn't seem possible that the highest salary could nearly double in 10 years, but it did. And it could happen again.

How much is enough? After years of waiting for sports to hit their saturation point, I'm finally starting to realize that it doesn't exist.

It would be one thing if Harden made that much dough as the best player in the league. He averaged 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.2 assists last season and is a terrific offensive player. But he also committed an NBA-record 464 turnovers. He barely cracks the top five in his own conference. Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard are better.

But it doesn't matter much in today's NBA. Teams are intent on locking up top players with hopes they can build so-called "super teams" around them. Last month, the Rockets traded half the roster to the Clippers for Chris Paul. Carmelo Anthony could waive his no-trade clause for Houston, as if he's the missing piece for a team that finished third in the West last season.

Saturday marked the seventh anniversary of LeBron James bolting for Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in an attempt to build a dynasty. They reached the NBA Finals four times, winning two titles. LeBron returned to Cleveland, leading the Cavs to the Finals three times and winning one championship.

LeBron is expected to play out his contract with the Cavs in 2017-18 before splitting again for a destination unknown, perhaps to the Lakers as the centerpiece of another super team in a larger market. The moment he leaves Cleveland, the Cavaliers will revert to being Cleveland without LeBron.

Is that good for the NBA?

Yes and no.

In the NBA, rich players get richer, great teams become greater and the rest of the league churns in mediocrity.

More teams having a chance to win a title would give the NBA greater reach and generate more revenue. Under the current conditions of free agency and the salary cap, outposts such as Orlando, Charlotte, New Orleans and Sacramento have virtually no chance of winning a title any time soon.

Philadelphia and New York are major hoops markets with poor teams that have been pushed aside. The 76ers have been tanking for years with the idea of someday building a respectable roster. The Knicks were mismanaged into the ground. The NBA needs both relevant again because they help the overall brand.

However, basketball fans across the nation have become more interested in the NBA overall with the emergence of the Warriors, with LeBron bouncing around, with Durant creating a fury in Oklahoma City and winning a title with Golden State, even with Phil Jackson creating a mess in New York. Interest translates to money.

Super teams are nothing new. The 1980s remain the NBA's greatest decade, thanks largely to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They entered the league at the same time and turned the NBA into must-watch TV. For 10 straight years, either the Celtics or Lakers reached the NBA Finals. Three times, they played one another. Nobody seemed to mind.

In recent years, it has become chic for top players to join hands and form Dream Teams within the confines of the NBA while widening the gap between the best and worst teams in the league. It's not good for the long-term health when casual fans can predict who will win the title before the regular season begins.

LeBron was demonized for leaving Cleveland, but he inadvertently exposed a flaw in the system that needs to be addressed. Unlike every other team sport, one or two great players can make a difference in basketball. If the current trend continues, with players banding together, so will the distance between teams.

What to do?

The solution could be limiting the number of free agents one team can sign and the total money spent on them. It would restrict great teams with high payrolls, spread the wealth of talent among all teams, keep more franchises in contention deeper into the season and reward those who drafted well.

The NBA should implement a formula to help teams keep their players while still giving players a chance to hit the open market. If a player signs for more than $30 million per season, the team signing him would compensate the previous team. It could work on a sliding scale, with compensation based on value of the contracts.

As it stands now, there isn't enough incentive for players to stay in one place.

Take Gordon Hayward. He could have stayed in Utah for about $180 million over five years, or $36 million per season. He signed a four-year deal worth $128 million with Boston – or $32 million per season – because the Celtics had a better chance of contending for a title. Either way, Hayward stood to make a boatload of money.

If Hayward were allowed to make $40 million with the Jazz – or the Celtics were forced to surrender two first-round picks for signing him for less money – Utah would have stood a better chance of keeping a player they drafted and developed. His departure came with almost no risk to him and very little to the Celtics, but it caused significant damage to the Jazz.

Oklahoma City was in the process of building a potential winner, but it couldn't keep Harden knowing it had to pay Durant and Westbrook. Harden was traded to Houston, Durant grew tired the Thunder falling short and Westbrook became a one-man show on a team well short of winning a championship.

Westbrook has two years remaining on his contract with Oklahoma City, but already there's talk about him meeting LeBron and Paul George in Los Angeles. That's assuming Westbrook isn't determined to sign a maximum contract with OKC and become the NBA's highest-paid player.

The NBA has been compromised by the money teams are throwing around. Durant accepted $9 million less than the max allowed because it enabled the Warriors to keep Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, two key pieces to their success. Another reason was that he could afford to make less money.

Durant has made more than $135 million in his career, about $115 million in the past six years alone. He'll add another $25 million in 2017-18. He made $6 million while playing the final year of his rookie contract. A year later, he was making $15.6 million. He could have made $34 million next year.

How much does an athlete need? Durant decided he didn't need every last dollar at this stage of his career. He had made enough money. Imagine, an athlete reaching his saturation point before his sport did. Oddly enough, the NBA made it happen.

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