I am a big fan of both the NHL and NBA but for different reasons. I grew up around hockey—my Dad was a great player and I think I mowed lawns for half the Boston Bruins roster as a kid. The Celtics were huge in the 80s and their mantra, “substance over style” and team play, got my attention. Having Larry Bird did not hurt either. With technology today, I rarely miss a game of either the Bruins or Celtics. I also will watch an odd game of other teams. Living in Michigan, Hockey Night in Canada and one of my personal heroes Don Cherry on Coaches Corner, is almost required viewing. In an odd twist, the two leagues start free agency on the same date. July first. This date has become almost a national holiday in Beav’s World.
First the NBA. The sport long before free agency and the salary cap was built on organizations and drafting. Very few teams won titles… the Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, the Isiah Thomas Pistons, Michael Jordan’s Bulls and when he went to play baseball, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. The league has always been star-driven and in that sport, one guy can change a team. When you look at the group Lebron James made the finals with this year, odds are you could find a better roster of talent in the parking lot of your local Denny’s at 3 a.m. The reality of that league.
The NHL is different. Goalies obviously play the whole game and play around 90 percent of games. A top defenseman can play half the game. An elite forward—think Sidney Crosby or Patrice Bergeron—will play around 20-25 minutes. You need depth and quality. The best way to sustain long term success? Pay and keep six to eight core guys, and mix and match with kids and veterans, and draft well. You cannot have a team packed with same-aged players just because the sport has a hard cap. In English, “hard cap” means the dollar figure. So, $80 million is $80 million. No taxes, exemptions, bird rights, etc. Your team is at 80 and set. You will not see an NHL team with Crosby, Bergeron, Connor McDavid and Nathan McKinnon as the top four centers. It does not work or make sense in that sport.
Because of the collective bargaining agreement and influx of cash, the NBA stack teams if players on the roster want it. Take Golden State. They drafted well—Stephon Curry, Clay Thompson, and Draymond Green where not top draft picks. Warriors’ management did a good job. And because these three players worked with ownership, the team continued to add role players and created a sustainable roster—appealing to a guy like Kevin Durant. Here is the key. Starting with the Larry Bird exception, NBA cap guys are a vital part of an organization. You have so many ways to keep a team together and the Bird rule—a team can go over the cap to sign its own free agents. You have other smaller rules to add veterans, but this is how you now have teams like The Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder with payrolls significantly over the cap. They should change the name from salary cap to SOFT cap in the NBA.
The hard cap makes what happened earlier this week with the Toronto Maple Leafs and John Tavares very rare. Tavares is a Toronto native but was the face of the New York Islanders for nine seasons. For those of you who are not hockey fans, the Islanders are a lot like the Green Bay Packers of the NHL. They are a “small” market—Long Island, NY—but the fan base is passionate and comes out to support the team. Tavares became the first true franchise player to move via free agency in a long time. Why? Players usually stay with their draft teams. I truly believe Tavares—a quiet, low key kid—would be in New York, but the draw of home and an upcoming team in a hockey-crazy city proved too much. An NBA comparison would be Lebron James at age 28 leaving a good team for his hometown Cavs.
The problem the NBA has now is with the soft cap and CBA (negotiated by James and his NBA players association buddy Chris Paul, by the way), 20-plus teams in this league are almost irrelevant, serving as farm clubs for the super teams. If you’re a fan of the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks, you enter the season thinking you have a chance? The beauty of the NFL is a team can go from worst to first—see the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars. You can have a great organization and front office and stars will leave. I do not fault LBJ for leaving Cleveland, the ownership-management of the Cavs is bad and he has the right to leave. But someone must explain to me why fans should go tot Detroit Pistons game on a Tuesday night when they play the Sacramento Kings.
I am not sure what the answer is for the NBA. I know free agency is fun and Kathy reminds me that I had LBJ staying in Ohio. (She conveniently forgets to mention I had Paul George staying with the Thunder.) The model gives them record television ratings and year-round media frenzy a la the NFL. The Major League Baseball financial model with luxury taxes also works where the owners can decide where enough is enough as a fine for going over. The Thunder payroll is almost $300 million—half of which is taxes. By the way, Kathy has a better chance of being on this team than Carmelo Anthony. This is a tough spot for the league because they must be the doctor who tells you, “Hey you feel great, but down the road splurging is bad for you.”
My idea would be to merge the NHL and NBA model. Have the cap. Have the Bird Rule, but only for star players. Larry Bird should never be linked with Rodney Hood. Merge that rule with the Derrick Rose rule (players that have special seasons—first team all-league, MVP, etc).—are eligible for a super max. Make it so drafted players can and want to sign with their original teams. We need a player the level of LBJ to stay with the Cavs for his entire career. (Unless the team’s management stinks. See: Cleveland). You can grandfather in existing deals and work with the players. The league is flush with enough money but not enough good teams. And a good, competitive league has MULTIPLE good teams. Like the NHL.