When David Stern and Bill Hunter shook hands, went to the press room, and announced the end of the NBA lockout, everyone cheered. Fans and pundits alike were pleased to see the end of the sport's work stoppage". So pleased that everyone forgot to consider the implications of the agreement. Beginning around 2015, the NBA will enter the "Age of Mediocrity."
Scoff if you like but here is the reality: the NBA's best, most exciting teams feature combinations of three or more stars. By 2015, most of them will no-longer exist and new rules will prevent their replication.
Currently, the best teams in the NBA are the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, and San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks, and Spurs will be gone by 2015, courtesy of Father Time. The Heat's core will remain but annual cap raises, the new stiff tax penalties, and reduced midlevel exceptions will all conspire to stop Miami from adding meaningful talent to their roster. In fact, when the luxury tax penalty goes into effect in 2013, the Heat may be forced to trade one of their stars to get under the tax line and add rotation players. The Bulls may be in the best position of any current contender but Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are due for massive raises, which will cut into their spending ability as well.
Will a new core of elite teams rise to replace them? No. The reason is that the league's new CBA rules left max contracts with the same overall monetary value but dramatically stiffened the league's penalty for going over the luxury tax line. Of the above contenders, only the Bulls and Heat were below the tax line last season. The Bulls managed it because their two stars were on rookie contracts. The Heat succeeded because their stars were in the first years of slowly rising max deals and they had no role players to pay.
In the future, both franchises will struggle to maintain their current level of play, let alone improve, as their stars are paid more and they need to acquire role players to round out their rosters. Other rising teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, will face the same predicament: even though they are fiscally prudent the Thunder will struggle to resign key performers Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka (or even two of the three) and the Grizzlies will almost certainly lose young star O.J. Mayo and glue guy Shane Battier.
Will the amnesty clause fix this problem? No, the amnesty clause will help in the short run but it will not solve the systematic problem the league introduced with the new CBA: teams will still be unable to pay either three homegrown stars in their primes or add expensive free agents to an affordable core.
Teams will still field talented rosters. A combination of inspired drafting, fiscal discipline, and astute signings will produce competitive teams that cost less than the luxury tax. But, franchises will no-longer field tripartite (or more) combinations of veterans like Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett, Wade-James-Bosh, Bryant-Gasol-Bynum, or Parker-Ginobli-Duncan. These players alone cost their respective teams approximately 55, 45, 55 and 43 million dollars, which would leave little room to fill out the rest of their rosters under the new system. Star-studded groups like this may gradually disappear, replaced by lesser, more mediocre combinations of one to two stars and various role players.
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