Despite NBA's Efforts, Era of the Superteam Has Made Finals a Yearly Rerun

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 4, 2016

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the first half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — The greatest basketball player on Earth and the greatest shooter of all time are dueling again in the NBA Finals, and what's not to like?

LeBron James is still an athletic marvel, an incomprehensible fusion of strength, dexterity and IQ. Stephen Curry is a jump-shooting wizard, a fountain of pure basketball joy.

They are surrounded by starsKyrie Irving and Kevin Love joining James, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green flanking Curry.

Their teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, turn scoreboards into fireworks shows with an endless flurry of three-pointers.

And the stakes are vivid, with James trying to end Cleveland's long misery and Curry trying to certify the Warriors' historic 73-win season.

The ratings for Game 1 on Thursday were through the roofthe highest-ever for a Finals opener on ABC, per Nielsen (h/t ESPN MediaZone)—breaking the record set last June, when these same two teams played.

Rivalries are great. Rematches are compelling. Superstars are fun to watch.

Again, what's not to like?

That depends on how you feel about the vague notion of parity.

This Warriors-Cavs rematch follows two straight Finals that featured Miami and San Antoniomeaning just four teams have occupied the last four NBA Finals. And since James played in all four, you could say only three teams had a shot at the title: the Spurs, Warriors and Team LeBron.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 05: Chris Bosh #1, LeBron James #6 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat stand in observance of the national anthem before Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's striking. Until this stretch, the NBA hadn't seen a Finals rematch since 1997-98, when Chicago and Utah played in consecutive Junes.

Are we witnessing an anomaly? A microtrend? Or the new norm?

More to the point: Is it a problem? That may be in the eye of the beholder.

Dynasties are fascinating, and rivalries are riveting. But NBA leaders have trumpeted parity as a virtueand cited "competitive balance" as a chief rationale for the 149-day lockout in 2011.

Yet five years later, the championship will either go to the team with the highest payroll (Cleveland) or the third-highest (Golden State).

Three of the four conference finalists this year will pay the luxury tax (Toronto being the exception).

Six teams won 50-plus games this season, including the top five teams in payroll. The other, again, is Toronto.

When the NBA shut down in 2011, officials bemoaned the gap between the league's highest and lowest spendersthe defending champion Mavericks spent twice as much as the lowly Kings—and set an explicit goal of narrowing that gap.

Yet here we are.

"It's a very simple problem to diagnose," one team executive said. "Max salaries lead to superteams, lead to repeat Finals, lead to non-parity. We have the least parity of any sport."

Putting aside whether parity is inherently good or bad for business, the NBA does have a concern. Discontent over parity and payrolls leads to demands for new constraints. Those demands lead to battles with the players' unionand lockouts.

Keep in mind, the NBA and the union have the mutual right to terminate the labor deal in July 2017. The deadline to do so is Dec. 15. So this discussion has never been more relevant.

The Thunder have not been back to the Finals since trading away James Harden over cost concerns in 2012.
The Thunder have not been back to the Finals since trading away James Harden over cost concerns in 2012.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Five years ago, the NBA took aim at superteamsthe Heat were leading the packand pushed through a labor deal with more punitive luxury taxes. It was as close as the league could get to a hard salary cap.

The intent was to prevent teams from hoarding superstars by making it insanely costly to keep multiple stars with "max" salaries. Then-Commissioner David Stern called it "player sharing"a scheme to more evenly distribute elite players across the league.

It sort of worked—for a time. The Thunder traded rising star James Harden rather than keep four max players and pay the tax. The Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay also over cost concerns. The Heat, operating in fear of the tax, let Mike Miller, a key role player, walk away. The Knicks declined to match an offer for Jeremy Lin.

Across the league, teams raced to shed salaries to avoid the higher penalties.

Yet seven teams will pay the luxury tax this seasonthe most everand six of them made the playoffs. So much for payroll parity.

"That is the antithesis of what they were preaching," another team executive said.

Teams no longer fear the tax because a massive spike in league revenue is spurring a massive spike in the salary cap. At least 22 teams will be below the cap on July 1. The luxury tax is about to become irrelevant.

No wonder, then, that one team executive referred to the labor deal as "the failed CBA." Teams are not shedding payroll, or shedding stars. They are not engaged in "player sharing."

To the contrary. The Cavaliers not only have three max stars in James, Irving and Love but also re-signed Tristan Thompson, a role player, to a near-max contract last fall. The Warriors are benefiting from a below-market contract (four years, $44 million) given to Curry years ago, but they will re-sign him to a full max deal in 2017without having to shed anyone of note.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

In fact, the rising salary cap will give the Warriors a chance to add a fourth superstar this summer. They are targeting Kevin Durant.

To the point of the team executive quoted earlier: As long as the NBA has "max" salaries—which artificially cap the earnings of the best playerssuperteams will be possible. And they will continue to rule the league.

Commissioner Adam Silver, who helped negotiate the 2011 CBA as deputy commissionerand eagerly promoted the concepts of competitive balance and player sharingis struggling to reconcile those ideals with the new reality.

In his pre-Finals address Thursday, Silver moved away from the term "parity" and referred instead to "quality of opportunity."

"In terms of so-called parity, I think the best we can hope for in this league is that every market, every team has the opportunity to compete for those great players," Silver said.

Yet the great players rarely move around as free agents. They rarely choose smaller markets if a marquee team has the cap room to sign them. And soon, nearly everyone will have roomnegating any advantage the Charlottes and Utahs might once have had.

More critically, if teams are free to hoard max players, then teams without superstars will never have the "opportunity to compete" for those superstars.

The real truth about competitive balance in the NBA is it may be an unattainable ideal. As LeBron James has repeatedly demonstratedby leaving Cleveland for Miami, then leaving Miami for Clevelandone transcendent figure can change the league's balance of power. A handful of elite players determine the NBA's pecking order. Superstars want to play with other superstars. And despite the league's efforts, superteams still exist.

Silver noted that 10 teams, one-third of the league, have made a conference finals in the last four years. Is that parity? Perhaps. But how many of those teams could sustain it? How many had a reasonable chance to make the Finals?

There are three or four true contenders every year, and you can usually identify them in training camp.

"Player sharing" sounded niceat least to teams in need of talentbut it failed. Superteams with superpayrolls still rule the league.

From a fan standpoint, it's not necessarily a bad thing. The Lakers and Celtics combined for 13 Finals appearances in the 1980s and faced each other three times, and that was considered the golden age.

Rivalries and rematches make for great entertainment. Parity may well be overrated.

The bad news: With so many teams feeling shut out, there might be another push for new cost constraints, for payroll parity and player sharing. For a hard cap. If they push hard enough, we could see another lockout in 2017.

The good news: If you love watching the Warriors and Cavaliers battle for the championship, there's a good chance you'll see them again next June.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck.


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