National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts responds to criticism for not smoothing cap

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts responds to criticism for not smoothing cap

Did executive director Michele Roberts make the right decision when she, and the rest of the National Basketball Players Association, chose to not allow the NBA’s salary cap to be smoothed out over a period of time? In an era that is being dominated by the Warriors, LeBron James heading to the Lakers, and forcing restricted free agents to lose out on money?

Roberts has taken issue with criticism over her handling of the cap and, in multiple emails to The New York Times, responded to the allegations that the players association made the wrong decision to allow the cap spike that took place in 2016 thanks to a large income of television revenue. To Roberts, this is not a problem for the NBA and it’s not a problem that should be falling on the player’s shoulders. 

“Frankly, I have been amused by the chatter suggesting that smoothing — or more accurately the failure to smooth — has now become some folks’ boogeyman de jure,” Roberts said in an email. “While we haven’t yet blamed it for the assassination of MLK, some are now suggesting that it is responsible for all that is presumably wrong with today’s NBA.”

“Needless to say, I beg to differ.”

Agreeing to artificially lower the salary cap “offends our core,” Roberts wrote. “It would be quite counterintuitive for the union to ever agree to artificially lower, as opposed to raise, the salary cap. If we ever were to do so, there would have to be a damn good reason, inarguable and uncontroverted. There was no such assurance in place at that time.”

For those in need of a little refresher. The NBA received a massive increase in revenue when they agreed to their most recent TV deal in 2014. The NBA’s salary cap saw a huge increase in 2016 once that deal went into effect. Teams took that cap space and immediately spent like crazy. Some of those contracts, particularly the ones of players such as Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Ian Mahinmi look like giant mistakes today. Multiple teams in the NBA used all their cap space early and now current players, such as Julius Randle, are making nowhere close to their actual value. Player value has been depreciated by teams just not having the cap room to spend on everybody. 

This potentially could have been avoided had the NBA and players association agreed to a process that would have smoothed out the cap. NBA spokesman Mike Bass detailed how it would have worked in an email to The New York Times.

“Under the concept we discussed, the total salaries paid to players in the aggregate each season would not have changed, but smoothing would have allowed for steadier, incremental Cap increases, instead of a one-year spike,” an N.B.A. spokesman, Mike Bass, wrote in an email.  

Roberts of course vehemently denies this being a possibility. She doesn’t believe that was as great a scenario for the players as raising their immediate salaries. Unfortunately for her, if the goal was to raise the bar of the average salary then that has failed. It may have worked for the 2016 free agency class, but the following two have been denied that kind of money.

The case for not smoothing out the salary cap has not been helped at all by the Warriors. Their acquisition of DeMarcus Cousins this summer, and Kevin Durant in 2016, have left many pointing out that the rise in salary cap is to blame. The problem with this argument is that it misses a lot of context as to why both those players had the chance to sign with Golden State to begin with.

The Warriors were able to sign Durant, because Stephen Curry was at the time on one of the NBA’s cheapest contracts for a superstar. Cousins is coming off a devastating Achilles injury that lowered his value from a max contract free agent to someone that would be willing to take the mid-level exception. Did the cap spike help them get those two players? Yes, but there’s context there that needs to be acknowledged. It can’t all be blamed on the salary cap rise.

There’s a large amount of gray area here in something that many want to paint as black and white. Did Roberts make the wrong decision to not allow the cap to be smoothed out? Early indications say yes, but that has less to do with competitive balance and more to do with the depreciation of player salaries.