TORONTO -- Ho hum, nothing to report from Adam Silver's annual All-Star news conference, other than this summer could change the future of the NBA.
It requires some dot connecting, but just be aware that the league's power brokers will pay close attention to player movement in this offseason of the supersized salary cap. If, say, Kevin Durant signs with the Golden State Warriors, it would not only alter the competitive balance for the near future, but also could bring permanent changes to the framework of the NBA.
The current collective bargaining agreement is due to expire in 2021, but either the owners or players can opt out by Dec. 15 of this year. That would start the timer ticking to reach an agreement by July 1, 2017, or put the league at risk of a work stoppage. There have been informal discussions, with the understanding that the deal in place now is working pretty well for everyone involved.
The wild card that no one anticipated when the current CBA was signed in 2011 was the avalanche of money from the new nine-year, $24 billion national television rights deals. That is expected to make the salary cap jump from $70 million this year to an estimated $90 million next season. Suddenly, teams that had been frugal with their payroll will be competing against teams armed with both established players and enough room to bring in a max-contract guy.
"We'd prefer a system where teams are managing for cap room, and we'd prefer a system in which stars are distributed throughout the league as opposed to congregating in one market," Silver said. "Whether that will happen with all this additional cap room this summer is uncertain to me.
"There will be unintended consequences from all this additional cap room this summer," he added. "I just don't know what those consequences will be."
The "unintended consequences" don't sound quite as ominous as the "enormous consequences" his predecessor David Stern warned of during the 2011 lockout, but those consequences could trigger a major chain reaction. One unintended consequence is that higher salary caps also mean higher salary floors (the minimum payrolls for teams), and it's easier for teams with high TV and sponsor revenues to get to the floor than teams in smaller markets.
"So ultimately what that situation is about is player distribution. So if you look now at the league, we see the way our stars are distributed throughout the league, you see seemingly no correlation between market size and where the stars are located." Adam Silver
But another consequence will be that a Warriors team that already has signed Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to lucrative long-term deals can maneuver to throw a maximum-contract offer at Durant. Or a Lakers team that will have Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary coming off the books could have as much as $60 million in cap space this summer. These are all unique circumstances that might never happen again. And it could be that other factors, such as the Lakers' down cycle or the current rules that make it financially wise for Durant to re-sign with the Thunder for one year, could win out. Then again, one landscape-altering transaction might be all it takes for the owners to get antsy.
The NBA tends to react to landmark events. Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract in 1998 led to a lockout and the implementation of maximum contracts. Carmelo Anthony's forced trade from Denver to the New York Knicks brought limits to the ability of players to extend their contracts in conjunction with trades. LeBron James' decision and the formation of the Big Three in Miami helped usher in the harsher luxury taxes in place today.
Silver said all the regulations have helped bring competitive balance to the league and shrink the gap between large- and small-market teams.
"We know that by tightening up the cap and putting in place a harsher tax, we're seeing fewer teams go into the tax because the financial consequences are so great of going high into the tax and what it would mean for their payrolls," Silver said. "In addition, other changes we made were once teams go into the tax, it dramatically limits what they're able to do in terms of trades and free agents.
"So ultimately what that situation is about is player distribution. So if you look now at the league, we see the way our stars are distributed throughout the league, you see seemingly no correlation between market size and where the stars are located.
"Ultimately," Silver said, "our goal from the league standpoint is to have truly a 30-team league where the teams are competing based on management, based on either market size or an owner's willingness to lose substantial amounts of money. Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. Did we get everything we were looking for in collective bargaining last time? No. But we feel it's a fair compromise, and we feel it's working fairly well."
Could the supersized salary cap undo all that?
"The answer is, I'm not sure," Silver said.
There's a new variable in the categories the owners had worked so hard to control: cost certainty and restrictions on player movement. In the past, the loophole for players to exercise control was to take less money. This summer won't require such a compromise by them.
The owners' uncertainty means uncertainty over the sticking points of the next collective bargaining agreement. They need to discover how this current agreement can be exploited before they determine what loopholes to close. Silver is in wait-and-see mode, which could ultimately mean waiting to see NBA basketball again. Silver didn't connect the dots on Saturday. What he did was raise awareness of their existence, thus raising the stakes for this summer.