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How the newest CBA is good for the Lakers and other big markets


NBA: Sacramento Kings at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Only a couple weeks ago, word was that DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings were perfectly happy committing to each other to the tune of a five-year, $209 million deal.

Then, he was traded.

Paul George has waxed poetic about his desire to bring an NBA title to his Indiana Pacers.

Then, he became the center of attention throughout the trade deadline.

Camps surrounding both Cousins and George were reportedly leaking information to teams througout the week indicating that, if they traded for either superstar, that team would risk losing them as free agents once the 2018 free agency class opens up.

Other than those interesting circumstances, what do Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins have in common, you ask? Well, both players are either immediately in line for the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA)’s designated player exception (DPE).

Here’s what you need to know about the exception, which was intended to keep superstars in the markets that drafted them, rather than have them depart to those horrible coasts you read about every day.

This, via Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:

A player qualifies for the DPE, which can be used to give a player a contract extension or to sign him as a free agent, if he does one of the following:

1. He makes one of the three all-NBA teams or is named either defensive player of the year or most valuable player the previous season.

2. He has made one of the three all-NBA teams or has been named defensive player of the year in two of the prior three seasons or the league’s most valuable player in one of the three prior seasons.

And this crucial stipulation: He has to be on the team that drafted him or has to have been traded on his rookie deal to another team.

An important note to add to Bontemps’: Remember that $209 million deal? Anyone who meets these qualifications stands to earn a payday in that ballpark. Keep this in mind.

On its face, the DPE sounds like a great idea to help small markets keep their homegrown stars. God forbid free agents were actually free without stipulations to alter their actual freedom, but hey, freedom isn’t what America is kind of known for. Wait.

Here’s the problem with the DPE, though: The NBA has an inherent flaw in its salary cap rules.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you know about max contracts. They’re dumb, but basically, the NBA decided players should make only so much, no matter how valuable they might become.

LeBron James, who literally changes economies in the city he chooses to play in, is the highest-paid player in the NBA this year for the first time in his career. Now, part of this has to do with him spending his prime playing with the big three in Miami, but still, that’s an insane fact.

In theory, according to the cap rules, James is as valuable as any other team’s max player. The problem, of course, is that there is only one LeBron James and there are a few guys getting paid in his ballpark.

Now, in steps the DPE.

Players who’ve met those requirements above are obviously valuable, but are they valuable enough to warrant getting paid upwards $40 million per year? For a large market team in title contention, this is no problem whatsoever. The Lakers or Knicks wouldn’t flinch at that figure or the luxury tax that would follow.

But for Indiana or Sacramento, that payday could seriously throw off the books AND piss off the superstar because it’s hard to afford talent to surround him while he’s making that kind of money.

Let’s look at Cousins’ timeline again.

Just last month, Cousins was excited to sign that monster deal even if it probably meant he’d wallow in lowly Sacramento for the next five years of his career, passing up his prime in the process. The price to pay for $40 million a year.

Then, Sacramento ownership got cold feet and started floating his name to potential trade partners. You know, just in case. Nothing serious, just gauging interest kind of thing.

Cousins’ agent, who knew that his client wanted that payday, starting threatening warning teams that if they traded for Boogie, he might flee (for Los Angeles, because of course) at the end of 2018. Those ‘warnings’ drove down asking prices, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing an agent can really do if a team has their mind made up and trades for their client — unless, of course, said client has a no-trade clause.

So, Cousins is a New Orleans Pelican. For them, it’s a gamble that playing with Anthony Davis is enough to convince him to stick around after 2018, a worthwhile bet small markets have to make if they want to land superstar talent outside of the draft.

But none of this would be possible if Cousins hadn’t put himself in a place to earn the DPE. So basically, a small market team has to hope the player they draft is successful, but not too successful. Wouldn’t want to drive that price too high.

If you’re still with me, the larger point is this: you can’t legislate parity.

Max contracts lead to inherent inequality. Raising that cap (with the DPE, for example) doesn’t do anything but force small markets into a really awkward question. The Kings had to decide if the player who accomplished enough to get paid is really that valuable. Meanwhile, large markets are first used as leverage and then later reap rewards when a star is traded and becomes a free agent.

Go through the reports of Paul George’s last week, too, by the way. They’re eerily similar. This will, undoubtedly, become a trend.

For the Lakers, it’s about remaining flexible enough to take advantage whenever they can. The Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng deals obviously hurt right now, as neither are starting, but by the time guys like Cousins and George become free agents, those deals will only have two years left. That’s very workable, with the right assets attached to them.

So, in 2018, if Cousins and George wind up as Lakers, the vitriol shouldn’t be directed at the players who somehow let down their organizations. Nor should it be directed at the evil large markets for doing nothing other than being a large market. It should be directed at those who tried to play God, because again, and stay with me on this.

You cannot legislate parity.

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