In the darkest, dreariest hours of last year’s N.B.A. lockout, when the rhetoric had gone cold and faces had turned numb, league officials clung tightly to two goals: lower costs and competitive balance.
These points were repeated daily, almost comically, like an annoying pop song on a perpetual loop. “Competitive balance” was the “Call Me Maybe” of the lockout playlist, eliciting groans with every listen. To skeptics, the parity mantra sounded like a flimsy pretense for slashing player salaries.
But the N.B.A. ultimately got what it wanted. And the stunning trade that sent James Harden — the reigning sixth man of the year — to Houston from Oklahoma City late Saturday night is vivid proof.
However one may view the trade — with anger, anguish, outrage or puzzlement — it is a victory for Commissioner David Stern’s vision, of a league in which no team can horde talent, at least not for very long, and not without steep financial penalties.
Harden, 23, was sent away because keeping him would have brought tens of millions in luxury-tax penalties in future seasons. More specifically, the Thunder had to trade Harden, a rising star, because they already have two expensive stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and two high-priced role players, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Those four core players will earn $53.6 million in 2013-14 — just $4.4 million less than the current salary cap. Harden is reportedly seeking a maximum extension worth $60 million over four years.
Paying them all would have meant a crushing tax bill under the N.B.A.’s new system. And that is exactly what Stern and the owners intended. What they really were seeking last fall was a redistribution of talent, a system in which, as Stern infamously said, franchises were “ultimately going to share in players.”
So here is the simple math: Oklahoma City had three stars. Houston had none. Subtracting Harden made the Thunder a little weaker and adding him made the Rockets a little stronger.
Is that parity? Not exactly. Does “sharing” Harden with the Rockets promote competitive balance? Sort of. Houston now has a viable franchise player, whereas two days ago it did not. In a league ruled by stars (and really, there are not enough to go around) one more team now has a ray of hope.
(The greatest beneficiary, of course, may be the Los Angeles Lakers, who just saw their toughest rivals in the West give up their third-best player.)
Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has been chasing superstars for two years, contorting his payroll and his roster in an attempt to land Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, in the firm belief that one player can change a team’s fate. He called Harden “the foundational, franchise-type player we have been seeking.”
That it came at the Thunder’s expense is unfortunate, mostly for Thunder fans, but also for the league’s image.
Oklahoma City has been hailed, rightly, as a model franchise, spending wisely and drafting shrewdly to become a title contender. General Manager Sam Presti is among the league’s brightest executives, but the punitive new luxury-tax system trumps even the sharpest minds.
A system that forces a small-market wonder to give up a star player — to a team in a much larger market, no less — seems cruel and counterproductive. It looks even worse coming just two months after the Lakers created one of the greatest quartets ever, adding Howard to a lineup featuring Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
At a glance, the system is failing miserably. The glamour team got stronger, shrugging off tens of millions in luxury-tax payments that are more than offset by a rich new television deal.
But the Lakers’ window for success is narrow, with Bryant and Nash in their twilight. This high-priced fantasy lineup is temporary. Even the Lakers would flinch at paying a $50 million annual tax bill in perpetuity.
Still, one imagines that the same Thunder lineup might survive, intact, in a larger, richer market. And that is where the N.B.A.’s model still fails. It is why the owners pushed instead for a true hard salary cap, which would have punished all teams — rich and poor, big market and small market — equally, by forcing general managers “to make difficult decisions,” as the deputy commissioner Adam Silver put it last spring.
Negotiations produce compromises, however, and this compromise produced a system in which Los Angeles and New York still have distinct advantages over Oklahoma City and Charlotte, and where a 23-year-old potential All-Star is now “shared” with Houston.
The Thunder did well in the trade, obtaining a veteran scorer, Kevin Martin, a promising rookie, Jeremy Lamb, and two first-round picks in the 2013 draft. Given their draft record, Presti and his staff will surely find another gem or two.
But it is tough to replace a talent like Harden. And tougher still to invoke “competitive balance” as the rationale for a 149-day lockout.