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NBA Independence Day

Give me liberty or give me death!  Powerful words, spoken by a true patriot.  They helped inspire a nation to rally behind the cause of freedom and to fight for their right to be seen and to be heard.  Fittingly, as we near America’s Independence Day, it appears that NBA teams have something similar in mind.

NBA Dynasties, as we once knew them, are now dead.  It’s not just that none exist; it’s that none will exist.  It’s not feasible.  The environment isn’t conducive.  Royalty, in this day and age,  doesn’t make sense.

For a sport that has embraced, nurtured, and exalted its chronic contenders for much of, if not all, of its history, the NBA’s transition to a parity-based league has been just as dramatic as it’s been sudden.  This is the same league that produced the 1950s and ‘60s Boston Celtics and their incredible eleven championships in twelve years.  Over the next twelve years, we’ll be lucky to get one repeat champion, let alone the same champion for a decade straight.  The NBA used to put its dynasties on a pedestal.  Not anymore.

That’s never been clearer as the early period of NBA free agency has begun.  Already, former high-level contenders have seen their rosters hemorrhaging talent at an unforeseen rate.  In the past, these teams would pay no mind to things like salary caps – salary caps are for losers.  Literally.  Of the past twenty NBA champions, not one spent below the salary cap.  The cost of winning was getting out of hand and becoming reserved only for the teams with tons of cash.

The NBA salary cap, unlike the NFL, is not a hard cap.  Teams can go over under special circumstances, but they could be subject to penalties if they go over too much.  The luxury tax used to be enough, but in 2011, the NBA instituted an apron threshold above the luxury tax, adding additional penalties to extra-high spenders.  As of the 2023 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and the NBA Player’s Association, there is now a second apron, further hamstringing teams with excessively deep pockets and particularly intense cravings for winning.  Putting together the proverbial “dream team” is more costly than ever – prohibitively so.  The playing field is being leveled.

It’s important to note that teams can still ignore these thresholds.  Want to spend like crazy?  Go for it.  But under the new CBA rules, hitting that second apron means the team you have is the team you get.  Typical methods for teams looking to circumvent salary cap penalties (sign-and-trade deals, the taxpayer mid-level exception) are blocked while other restrictions (potential draft pick demotion, no using cash in trades) are in place to prevent teams from exorbitant spending for consecutive seasons.  There might be a contender from time to time that takes the plunge into the second apron, but they’ll be few and far between.

The 2024 offseason has been instructive.  The Golden State Warriors are the defining team of the 2010s and the modern, three-point shooting NBA, and won the sendoff of a lifetime after spanking the Celtics in ‘22.  But after watching Draymond Green lose all scoring potency, whiffing on several important draft picks, and now losing Klay Thompson to the Dallas Mavericks in this year’s offseason, they look like a shell of their previous selves.  The Denver Nuggets, too, looked like future Finals mainstays after they steamrolled their way to a title in ‘23, but their title defense in ‘24 was upset by the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round, and after losing spark plug Bruce Brown and 3-and-D maestro Kentavius Caldwell-Pope in consecutive offseasons, the Nuggets look like they’re regressing as well.

The defending-champion Celtics could buck this trend, given the youth of their top players and their deftly-constructed roster, but even their title, impressive as it was, deserves to be scrutinized.  Their path to the Finals was historically easy, featuring a Jimmy Butler-less Heat team in Round One, a Donovan Mitchell-less Cavaliers team in Round Two, and a Tyreese Haliburton-less Pacers team in the Eastern Conference Finals.  The East won’t be a cakewalk, and whoever comes out of the West will be battle-tested and extremely talented.

Bear in mind, the CBA isn’t just deterring salary-bloated contenders from throwing caution to the wind, it’s also encouraging teams without knotty salary cap situations to seize the initiative.  Already, we’ve seen responsibly spending teams like the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Oklahoma City Thunder add massive pieces this offseason: Mikal Bridges arrived in the Big Apple, the City of Brotherly Love welcomed Paul George, and Alex Caruso and Isaiah Hartenstein were embraced The Big Friendly.

This is the new normal.  At this same time next year, expect the Knicks, 76ers and Thunder to be the ones getting gutted.  NFL-style parity has come to the NBA.  If it works, don’t fix it, and if you’re not doing it, admit it and shamelessly copy it.  You do you, NBA.  In this dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself era of television where capturing a massive live audience is more challenging – and more rewarding – than ever, it’s survival of the fittest.

The NFL has consistently demonstrated the viability of a business model that values parity above all else.  Every fanbase can talk itself into Super Bowl aspirations.  That hasn't been true in the NBA – but very soon, it could be.  If the 2024 offseason is any indication, that future is already upon us.  The NBA has thrown off the yoke of royalty and declared freedom for all its teams.  The dynasties are dead.  The old, oppressive regime is gone.  Happy NBA Independence Day!

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