Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green make up the core of the current Golden State Warriors. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love lead the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers. And LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh appeared in four-straight NBA championships in their time together in Miami.
These are the teams the rest of the NBA has been forced to compete with over the last six seasons. Or are they the teams that fans have had the pleasure of watching?
So called “superteams” have come to dominate the NBA over the last decade or so, and the divide between the haves and have-nots of the league seems to be widening.
What effect are these superteams having on the league, as whole, and the product we see on the court? Are they a boon or a boondoggle for owners, players, and fans? I will provide both an argument for superteams and against them, as well as predictions on how they’ll change the league moving forward.
Why “Superteams” Are a Good Thing
Here is my most compelling argument: television ratings.
Looking back at the last 21 seasons, the average television rating per regular season game on broadcast networks was highest during the 1995-96 season (5.0). This was Michael Jordan’s first full year after his baseball foray, and he led the Bulls to a then-NBA record 72 wins. Ratings steadily declined following that season until they hit a low in 2006-07 (2.0).
The following year, Boston acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside Paul Pierce, forming their new “Big 3.” Ratings went up for the first time since Jordan’s return, but only a marginal increase to 2.2 – this wasn’t a true superteam.
After hovering around that number for the next few seasons, the ratings spiked back up to 3.0 for the 2010-11 season. It’s no coincidence that this coincided with James taking his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Whether you were a Heat fan or a James hater, you wanted to see what was going to happen in the NBA that season.
Last year, when the Warriors set a new NBA record with 73 wins, ratings went back down to 2.3. Is the superteam narrative losing its power to draw audiences? Not really.
That 2.3 number is the average rating per regular season game, not just for the likes of Golden State and Cleveland. Honing in on these powerful teams, the top ten most-watched NBA playoff games on cable networks have all been played from 2011 to 2016. Also, eight of the top ten most-watched NBA Finals games come from that same timeframe.
All of the viewership for big games has led to the NBA signing a new television deal with ESPN and Turner Sports worth $24 billion over nine years. Thanks to the new deal, the salary cap has jumped to just over $94 million for the 2016-17 season – up from $70 million. Players and owners are making more money on the whole (not to a man, but more on this later) because the public likes watching de facto all-star teams on a nightly basis.
Why “Superteams” Are a Bad Thing
So people like watching the best players in the world play, especially when they’re playing against each other in the playoffs. Not a shock. Small problem: there are only so many “best players in the world” and putting them all on a few teams means the NBA features some horrendously unskilled rosters.
Are you tuning in to watch the Philadelphia 76ers take on the Charlotte Hornets? Of course not; there are only about five teams you want to watch consistently, regardless of which franchise you support.
Not only do superteams take eyes away from the majority of teams in the league, they also negatively impact a lot of teams’ revenue and kill any chance at parity.
I don’t want to sound like a pissed off owner of a big-market team, but the NBA’s revenue is being carried by about 12 teams. Of those franchises, only about half of them would still make money without a successful product on the floor. So you have a handful of truly successful markets (see New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston), another handful that make money if they’re successful (see Golden State, Cleveland), and then a little over half of the league that can’t hold its own.
As recently as last season, reports suggested that nearly ten teams in the association are losing money. (This list clearly displays the discrepancy between team revenues and operating income.) The superteams are responsible for this. To start with, they are taking star players from small-market teams (see Kevin Durant/OKC), which obviously results in lower revenue, in turn. The NBA has tried to combat this by allowing a player’s former team to offer a bigger max contract, but what’s the difference between $30 million per year and $27 million?
The increased salary cap, meanwhile, means the little guys of the league are also having to hand out preposterous contracts (see Mike Conley in Memphis) in order to have any chance at being competitive – often to the dregs of the league that the big-market/successful teams have left on the scrap heap.
Since I don’t own an NBA franchise, the worst impact of superteams, in my view, is the resulting lack of parity. Looking back at the last 11 NBA Finals, only nine different teams have made an appearance, with only seven different franchises winning a championship in that time. Compare that to the three other major sports leagues in North America. The NFL has had 13 different participants and nine different champions in the last 11 Super Bowls; the NHL has had 15 different participants and seven different champions in the last 11 Stanley Cup finals; even the MLB, a league without a salary cap, has had 13 different participants and seven different champs in the last 11 World Series.
Since 2010-11 (when the Heat formed their first superteam), only six different teams have played in the NBA Finals. The NFL, NHL, and MLB have all had nine different teams appear in their respective championships in that timeframe. In sum, the NBA has less parity than a league which does not utilize a salary cap.
Possible Future Effects of Superteams
At this point, you may be asking yourself what purpose half of the league’s teams are serving, outside of keeping the Buss family slightly less rich – thanks to revenue sharing – and apparently losing the money anyways. It’s a great question, and one that will become more prominent over the next ten years if superteams continue to be a reality.
Well before the age of superteams, the NBA did not have enough elite talent to spread amongst all 30 teams. This is why there are 12 teams in the league which have never won a championship; players just don’t want to be in smaller markets. (Name the last big free-agent signing in New Orleans.)
Even when one of the little guys makes a great draft pick, that player is going to leave when he has the chance (see Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Chris Bosh in Toronto, and likely Giannis Antetokounmpo in Minnesota next season). The NBA’s current superstars have demonstrated they’re willing to join forces for a title, shoving aside that competitive edge to beat the best that makes sports so great.
This has put some of the bottom-feeders on the verge of going belly-up.
There are four teams averaging less than 76-percent attendance for their home games this season: Washington, Minnesota, Denver, and Detroit. Last season, four averaged less than 75-percent attendance (swap Washington for Philadelphia). The previous year, five were below 77-percent: keep the previous four and add in Atlanta.
The Pistons have been one of the worst hit; they have only averaged more than 70-percent home attendance once over the last 5.5 seasons.
What do all these teams have in common? They have no shot at winning a championship and reside in comparatively small markets. So why keep them around? Why can’t the NBA downsize to, say, 26 teams? Imagine putting Andrew Wiggins on the Suns, Karl-Anthony Towns on the Lakers, Joel Embiid on the Magic, and Andre Drummond on the Pacers. This would result in a much more competitive league.
Will the NBA stop subsidizing the little guys and just give up on them in the name of competitive balance? Will the association find another way to create parity and inhibit superteams? Let’s take a look at a few odds and props.
Odds NBA contracts from 30 teams in the next ten years: 3/2
It’s unlikely the league will allow a franchise to fold without at least trying to relocate it first.
If a team is going to fold or relocation, which is the most likely candidate?
Odds to fold or relocate in the next ten years
New Orleans Pelicans: 12/1
Charlotte Hornets: 15/1
Milwaukee Bucks: 15/1
Detroit Pistons: 19/1
Atlanta Hawks: 22/1
Minnesota Timberwolves: 25/1
Philadelphia 76ers: 30/1
Denver Nuggets: 33/1
The Pelicans are wasting Anthony Davis’ prime, and the talented big-man is the only thing keeping a team in New Orleans right now. When Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Milwaukee, the Bucks may follow shortly after. Minnesota is also teetering on the potential of two young stars; if they move onto bigger markets, the Timberwolves will be in a lot of trouble.
That said, league contraction and relocation are not a likely outcome. So how else does the NBA fix its inequality problem? I have a few potential solutions.
Options for Increasing NBA Parity
Give the small-market teams more money
New York and Los Angeles won’t be happy, but if New Orleans could afford to pay the luxury tax from exceeding the salary cap, they would be able to lure in some bigger-name free agents.
Odds it happens: 1/1
Remove the luxury tax for certain teams
The only way Milwaukee is landing a top free agent is if they can outbid the bigger markets, and it likely has to be by a lot.
Odds it happens: 9/1
Allow small-market teams to choose one player they drafted whose contract will not count against the cap and has no max value
This would ensure that Minnesota has the inside track on keeping Wiggins/Towns, while still being able to afford high-priced free agents to play with them.
Odds it happens: 50/1
Not only are these ideas ludicrous, but they aren’t guaranteed to solve the issue at hand, either. Big-market teams will always remain more attractive due to the potential sponsorship money and championship potential. The only solution on the path we are headed is a 26-team league.
Don’t blame me, New Orleans; point the finger at LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
(Photo Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/])