NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been trying to bring parity to the NBA since his tenure began. Silver who sees the NFL’s year to year parity as the gold standard has seen true NBA parity in competition as his white whale. Last night Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer delivered Adam Silver his dream of a parity laden NBA by acquiring Paul George in a gutsy trade to appease Kawhi Leonard. By doing so, Steve Ballmer has pushed the NBA into an exciting new era of competitive play where eight to ten teams annually could feel like they have a realistic path to the NBA Finals.
To figure out how he got here, we first have to look at the problems limiting Adam Silver’s ability to create true parity. While a lot of us like to say parity is the result of small market teams being bullied from large market teams, it’s deeper than just tv market size. Adam Silver at the All-Star game said that teams being cheap or lacking true revenue generation prevented competition evening out.
“In some cases, it has to do with payrolls. In our cap system ... it’s a tax-based system, which creates penalty in essence for going over the salary cap, but you still end up with fairly large disparities in salaries from one market to another. And often that disparity is not based on the size of the market. In certain cases, it’s based on revenue generation. In some cases, it’s based on a willingness of a team to become unprofitable. Those factors concern me a little bit.”
Teams like the Golden State Warriors—if they had kept Kevin Durant—would have been able to generate so much additional side revenue to make up for the fact that they were becoming unprofitable. In other scenarios, the owner who was wealthier than another owner could go deep into financial hell to foot the bill on an upside down operating bill. This usually plays out across small and large markets alike. It’s easy to say that it hurts the Utah Jazz when rich owners outspend and ignore tax penalties, but there’s also James Dolan and the Knicks that are terribly cheap and tax wary.
But that didn’t fix parity. NBA GMs are sales people at heart. They will identify the loopholes and play them to their advantage. That’s how the NBA got the superteam Golden State Warriors. An abnormal one year bump in revenue created the environment to land Kevin Durant in the first place. As long as the NBA had Kevin Durant on Golden State, true parity couldn’t exist. But in one conference, parity was achieved. The Eastern Conference. The exit of LeBron James opened up the East to the point where four teams—Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Indiana—all felt as though they could make a charge. Adam Silver himself could not break up superteams to make room for new entrants.
“Historically, one of the issues in our league was we didn’t necessarily want to break up teams,” Adam Silver said in February of 2019. “There is a different sense in the NBA than the NFL, and the chemistry and dynamic that comes together with a group of players.”
LeBron James leaving the Eastern Conference opened up the conference to parity. It took a seismic shift in free agency in the Western Conference to open the door. Kevin Durant jumping ship to the Brooklyn Nets allowed for parity to occur. But true NBA parity was still in danger of being limited should Kawhi Leonard choose to go to the Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That is until Steve Ballmer got serious according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Clippers became the last line of defense for the balance of power in the NBA -- never mind the franchise’s own future. The Clippers had come to believe that, without a deal for George, Leonard was prepared to sign with the Lakers and create a Staples Center partnership with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, sources said.
Steve Ballmer knew he was the NBA’s last line of defense as the Toronto Raptors were gunshy about trading that much draft capital for the opportunity to sign Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Steve Ballmer’s team had the assets to pull off the move from trading Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and Tobias Harris. They were the team that had to do it. By doing so they created a powerful roster, but not a superteam.
The result will be be on full display next season. Many teams have at least a couple stars—Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers—but none can overpower the other by talent alone. The NBA has no clear favorite. The only favorites are being set by Sports Betting books trying to trick suckers.
For the first time in a while, it’ll matter to a high level who teams matchup with in the playoffs. The Clippers have a fearsome pair of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but they can have a rough time against the Rudy Gobert as they don’t have a way of pulling the two time NBA Defensive Player of the Year away from the paint. The Utah Jazz have an amazing starting roster, but can they survive the depth of the Denver Nuggets and Jokic who can pull Gobert away from the paint? The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but can they survive a guard heavy team like Portland who have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shooting the lights out?
Every. Single. Team. in the NBA is wonderfully stacked and flawed at the same time. It’s as though your favorite game designer went through the NBA and balanced it for the 2019-2020 season. Many around the league may still be feeling the high from a good old blockbuster trade, but the Clippers are just a newly buffed character. People are excited to test its limits in a game setting, but the NBA has some natural counters to this power coupling of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
That’s what makes what Steve Ballmer did last night amazing. He pulled the trigger on a trade that didn’t make his team CLEAR frontrunners, but favorites. His Clippers team is among a group of favorites that has a fighting chance to make the NBA Finals. Many teams in the past Warriors and, before that, Heatles era have waited patiently before pulling the trigger on a trade unless they knew they were clear favorites or challengers. But now? The opening that Kevin Durant provided for parity allowed Steve Ballmer to close the door on superteams for the foreseeable future in the NBA.
If the Utah Jazz are able to sneak to the NBA Finals they owe Steve Ballmer a thank you. Same goes for the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, or Golden State Warriors. Steve Ballmer allowed the NBA to transition to a new era, a period of time that has never been seen before in an NBA dominated by the neverending parade of Celtics, Lakers, LeBron, and Warriors laden NBA Finals. The NBA’s elite club now has an open enrollment policy and Steve Ballmer pushed every everyman NBA team through the club door. By doing so, Steve Ballmer helped Adam Silver land his white whale. NBA Parity is here and it could be here to stay.