Stephen Curry just became the highest-paid player in the NBA, but LeBron James says it isn’t enough. Hours after free agency started and Curry signed a deal for the largest contract in league history, James pointed out on Twitter that the NBA’s salary cap is unfair to superstars because it limits compensation for athletes, especially superstars that increase the value of teams in a way contract values have not reflected.
In a tweet that quoted the exploding valuation of the Golden State Warriors since Curry joined the team, James argued that Curry’s brand new supermax contract should be scaled not to the salary cap, but the actual value of the Warriors franchise.
James is offering a good argument here that a lot of fans are sure to hate. The truth is a salary cap is great for teams and not so great for players in many different ways. In fact, teams only complain about the limits of a salary cap when they prevent said franchise from keeping all of their assets under the cap. Otherwise, it’s entirely to the benefit of franchises and the wealthy people who own them.
It’s important to remember here that player free agency is a begrudging truth in the NBA. It’s existed for less than three decades, and even then the way we talk about players is very much to the benefit of owners. Players enter the league as a team’s property, expiring contracts are “assets” and we evaluate the people wearing jerseys for their value. In this way, fans are trained linguistically to almost always side with owners rather than labor.
And Golden State has been lucky in that their labor has been amiable and wants to stay together. Sure, it will cost a ton of money, but not when you consider what a dynastic franchise is actually worth. Curry was patient about getting his big deal and other stars like Kevin Durant appear to be more forgiving about their contract demands in order to stick around. But pulling back from Golden State’s very particular case, the salary cap is meant to protect smaller market teams from getting boat raced out of competitiveness.
But that’s something that’s already happened in a very specific sense with the Warriors. The cap rose so quickly because of the new TV deal that the best team in the NBA added a top-5 talent in the league and saw no adverse effects in losing other important team assets. At this point, the only thing the salary cap is doing in the NBA is keeping wages low for owners who are making money many times over as their franchise values rise.
Cynical fans have blamed James for making it more acceptable for stars to leave the team that drafted them. That argument is certainly valid, but James isn’t saying the repercussions of The Decision are necessarily bad. LeBron didn’t ruin the NBA, he modernized the league’s free agency. The move singlehandedly gave players more agency in their careers than any other in the last decade. And if players are going to join the team they want, James thinks they should be paid the money they deserve for making that team worth what it is when they wear that team’s colors.
This isn’t James lamenting the rise of super teams or complaining about Golden State’s dominance. He’s openly wondering if Curry is getting the compensation he deserves for making Golden State the best basketball team in NBA history.
There’s no alternative option for the players here. They have very little leverage outside of another lockout, and there’s little fan support for a huge bump in salaries for players league-wide. Fans generally will complain about athletes making too much money long before they criticize owners making massive profits for fielding less than competitive teams.
This is America, after all, and owners are charitable stewards of the game while players are selfish jerks. But it’s refreshing to see a player with James’ profile look at the labor situation in the league and speak about it so openly.
The NBA is a player’s league, sure, and the players are getting compensated to an extent. But James and others know where most of the money is going, and it’s not to the guys taking the floor each fall.