Despite the NBA's recent growing popularity, the league reached a crossroads this season, with small-market teams held hostage by expensive payrolls and disgruntled stars forcing their way out of town in search of larger markets (usually Los Angeles or New York). This, along with the unsuccessful implementation of the supermax contract, has left teams in small cities at a competitive disadvantage regarding roster construction.
The allure of playing in major cities like Los Angeles is nothing new for the NBA. Throughout the league’s history, superstar players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal have spurned cities like Milwaukee and Orlando in favor of LA’s bright lights and cultural appeal. As a result, the Lakers have been extremely successful throughout their history, winning sixteen NBA titles and employing some of the most transcendent players to ever step on a basketball court, including Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.
No franchise is more emblematic of the advantage that comes with such a large market than the Lakers. The franchise itself left Minneapolis, its former home, in the rearview mirror before winning title after title in Los Angeles. Despite success in Minneapolis, the Lakers elected to relocate in 1961 due to the financial success that the Brooklyn Dodgers experienced after moving to Los Angeles. This not only aided in the development of a basketball dynasty, but cemented the Lakers as the premier destination for NBA players.
Despite their recent struggles, the Lakers have somewhat inexplicably remained a highly desirable free destination for NBA superstars. LeBron James, arguably the best player in NBA history, chose to sign with the organization last season despite five consecutive losing seasons and inability to secure a secondary star. Despite James’s presence, Los Angeles finished the season 37-45—a two game improvement over the prior season.
Much of this has been attributed to the public trade requests of New Orleans Pelicans star forward Anthony Davis. After seven years in New Orleans and only two playoff appearances, Davis and his agent Rich Paul (who also represents James) made a public attempt to force their way out of the Pelicans organization, proclaiming that Davis would not re-sign a supermax extension worth over $200 million and wanted to be traded. He also released a list of four teams that he would be willing to re-sign with, three of which resided in either New York or Los Angeles.
Davis’s rejection of the supermax extension is nothing new. The NBA implemented the measure as a way of getting stars in small markets to resign with their teams. However, it has backfired in unexpected ways and has ultimately become a Catch-22 scenario for most teams. Teams must decide to either dedicate $40+ million annually to their star players (and subsequently greatly diminish their abilities to build a supporting cast), or allow star players to walk in free agency and receive nothing in return.
This has resulted in an increase in the trading of star players who have expressed discontent with their organizations, as teams want to receive something in return for stars seen as flight-risks. Marquee names such as Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler have all seen their trade demands fulfilled in the past year. Players have unprecedented power, and the supermax salary is not enough to convince many of them to stay in small markets. On the other hand, teams like the Washington Wizards, who signed John Wall to the supermax just a few years ago, are now burdened with immovable contracts and little cap space.
It is essentially a no-win situation for small market teams. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder (who signed superstar point guard Russell Westbrook to the supermax) may regret their decision in the long run, as his level of play has diminished and the Thunder have lost in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Few, if any, players are worth the supermax salary—Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Joel Embiid are some of the only young stars who may be worth such a large portion of the salary cap, as suggested by their high levels of play.
Perhaps the most interesting case study of the supermax is Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker’s impending free agency. Walker, an All-Star Game starter this season, is the heart and soul of the Charlotte organization, but the team has been painfully mediocre throughout his tenure, despite his elite level of play. Much of this is due to the way their roster is built. In order to attract players to Charlotte, the Hornets have overpaid players to surround Walker, and therefore have had no cap space to sign free agents with a higher ceiling. Now, after sitting on their hands and not trading Walker, Charlotte must either pay him the supermax and leave themselves in cap purgatory, or allow him to leave and begin a long rebuilding process.
The Los Angeles Lakers pursued Davis heavily in response to his trade demand, but New Orleans refused each and every offer. Los Angeles offered a large portion of its young roster in an attempt to land Davis, and then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps leaked these offers in an attempt to sabotage the Lakers’ chemistry. His attempt seemed to be successful, as Los Angeles struggled mightily for the rest of the season and missed the playoffs. Demps, however, was fired soon after the trade deadline and replaced by former Cleveland Cavaliers executive David Griffin.
Davis’s request also seemed to torpedo the future of the Pelicans organization. Davis continued to make public statements and sit out games, drawing the ire of home fans. He went as far as to wear a shirt reading “That’s All Folks!” to what was presumably his final home game in New Orleans. This seemed like a franchise with no direction and doomed to a lengthy, difficult rebuild—that is, until they won the NBA Draft Lottery on May 14 and earned the right to draft Duke phenom Zion Williamson, arguably the best prospect since LeBron James in 2003.
Williamson is a potentially franchise-altering talent, and will now be under team control for the foreseeable future. The Pelicans can thank the league itself for this development. In order to discourage teams from tanking for high draft picks like the Philadelphia 76ers did for so many years, the NBA evened out the lottery odds this season, giving middling teams a higher probability of landing a top-four pick than they had in the past.
The lottery itself can be described as utter chaos. The New York Knicks, favored to land the top pick, were the only one of the five worst teams to land a pick in the top four. The Los Angeles Lakers, slated to pick eleventh, moved all the way up to No. 4.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans elevated to the top two picks, allowing two franchises with difficult paths to contention to land generational talents who will accelerate their respective rebuilds. While New Orleans will presumably draft Williamson, the Grizzlies are reportedly enamored with Murray State point guard Ja Morant, who will replaced longtime point guard Mike Conley, who has also requested a trade. Less than a month ago, it seemed that these two franchises would be left with depleted rosters and little to no star power, but now they will land two of the most exciting prospects in recent memory with a chance to appeal to other young players.
On the other hand, it seems that the new lottery odds will foster more competition, as tanking no longer guarantees a premier draft pick for teams who enter the season intent on losing. The Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns all fell well below their projected draft slot after spending most of the season tanking in an effort to land Williamson. Even the Knicks, who will pick third, have seemingly been punished for their lack of effort, as they are left without the top pick, which for many New York fans was a foregone conclusion.
In the meantime, teams like Memphis and New Orleans—who tried to compete for playoff spots before their stars requested trades—were rewarded handsomely and now will be able to draft blue-chip talents. Obviously, this will not be the case every year. The teams with the worst records will still be more likely to land the top picks. However, for once, it seems that the playing field has been leveled to a certain degree. Teams like the Pelicans can now hope to survive trade requests by star players, while teams with promising young cores who may be one key piece away from a playoff berth (like the Atlanta Hawks, for example) can hope to earn a high pick and round out their rosters earlier than expected.
However, this is not what many fans wanted. Most people hoped Williamson would be taken by the Knicks or Lakers, allowing him to live in the spotlight and potentially play alongside other stars. Pundits immediately suggested that Williamson should force a trade or return to school, but his family quickly quelled any such rumors. Williamson will play for the Pelicans, injecting some hope and excitement into a franchise that seemingly had none at the conclusion of the regular season.
New Orleans and its lottery triumph are ultimately emblematic of the drastic change that the new lottery odds will bring to the league. While teams like the Lakers and 76ers have been able to tank for years to build their rosters, that will no longer be rewarded to the same degree. Teams that have attempted to construct winning rosters but failed to reach the playoffs for some reason will be rewarded for their efforts. Small-market teams will now have a clearer path to building through the draft, as free agency may not always be a viable option for them.
Ultimately, this change will foster competition among the league’s middling teams, and more organizations will begin the season intending to compete. The NBA will put forth a better product as a result, with some of the barriers to competition removed for teams like New Orleans, Memphis, Charlotte, Washington, and countless others.