Hitting Hard On A Hard Cap

David Stern fined Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis not because Leonsis was wrong to say the league wants a hard salary cap, but because he was wrong to say it publicly. Leonsis is also wrong to assume a hard cap is the solution for the NBA.

On Wednesday Leonsis cost himself $100,000 for violating Stern’s edict that owners stay mum on the labor discussions when he told a business group that "In a salary-cap era -- and soon a hard-salary cap in the NBA like it is in the NHL -- if everyone can pay the same amount to the same amount of players, it's the small, nuanced differences that matter.”

Talking to reporters later, Leonsis drew on his experience as owner of the Washington Capitals and said that as a result of the NHL’s hard cap, "The teams are very, very competitive. There is no way that big-market teams can outspend small-market teams. So when the season starts everyone thinks their team can compete for the Stanley Cup."

But doesn’t it diminish the thrill of competing for it if there isn’t a true chance to defend it? The Chicago Blackhawks will have so few of their Stanley Cup champions around on opening night that it will look less like a team ring ceremony and more like a group wedding. To stay under the hard salary cap the Blackhawks had to shed 10 players who got their names inscribed on the Cup, including their goaltender, Antti Niemi and their playoff goals co-leader, Dustin Byfuglien.

The NHL has had seven champions in its past seven seasons. Only three teams (the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers) got to hold the Stanley Cup from 1976-1988, yet that’s when the game occupied a more prominent place in the minds of American sports fans, a time when its powerful teams and great players loomed larger.

The NBA peaked when the Lakers and Celtics alternated possession of the championship in the mid-1980s and again when Michael Jordan and the Bulls locked it down for most of the 1990s. And a primary tool to maintain the dynasties was the soft salary cap, most notably the “Larry Bird Exception” that allowed teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own players.

Stern is the one who always championed superstars staying in place. A hard cap would only lead to more transient players, as we had this past summer.

“It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught, at least for the 15 years that I’ve been in the NBA,” said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, “where the relationship with the community and the fanbase, and the continuity with your team and your teammates and the ability for a core group of guys to grow together, the way Kobe and myself and Shaq and the other guys that got together in ’96 [did]. We grew into being champions. That’s something that NBA guys have been taught for the last two decades ... becoming committed and loyal to the team and the city.

“We don’t view it as a positive if you’re having that much turnover year-in and year-out, which has been said in the meetings. That doesn’t guarantee competitive balance either. There are a lot of variables that go into how teams win. Salary and payroll, that’s not the most resolute or concrete answer as to why somebody wins or loses. There are plenty of examples in the NBA as well as other sports. It’s not always the highest payroll that is the most successful.”

If anything, a hard cap could put small-market teams in less desirable locations in a worse position. Currently they can compensate for the lack of ancillary benefits by overpaying a player. If a hard cap reduces the size of their contract offers, what exactly will they be able to use to counter the lure of warmer weather or a more pulsating nightlife? And any system can be undone as long as players are willing to take less salary, as LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade did and Carmelo Anthony might have to if he wants to get to a bigger market.

It’s not as if smaller markets have been completely denied a shot at the championship because of finances. As Fisher pointed out, a couple of Trail Blazers made shots here, a Robert Horry misfire there and it could have been Portland or Sacramento claiming some of the glory that went to Los Angeles last decade.

As for the negotiations, the union will continue to take a hard stance against a hard cap.

“We’ve been clear that that’s not a direction we’re interested in going,” Fisher said. “That won’t change. We just don’t feel that a hard salary cap is being termed as competitive balance. It’s not surprising that [Leonsis] would say that, coming from the NHL system. And maybe it was good for their sport. For the NBA and our players, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.”