Would a hard cap really be good for small markets?

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When we talk about a hard cap, we wonder how the Lakers at $90.4 million, or the Magic at $89.9 million, or the Mavericks at $86.6 million would get under those numbers. (For all of you out there that thought Dallas winning the title was a triumph of building a team over buying one, know the Heat spent just $66.7 million on salary last season.)

But smaller market teams who try to draft good talent and keep it together — teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder — would be ripped apart too, as Royce Young wisely points out at CBS’s Eye on Basketball blog.

Kevin Durant just signed a five-year extension that will pay him around $16 million a year. Russell Westbrook, an All-Star point guard at the age of 22, is eligible for an extension and would probably have it if there weren’t a lockout. He’s probably a max player or close to. So that would be another major mark on the cap for the Thunder. Then the other guys — Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Eric Maynor — all eligible for extensions next summer.

If the league has a stiff cap of even $60 million, how can the Thunder dream of re-signing these guys and keeping the core intact? Answer: They can’t….

Reality is, a hard cap might have more of an affect on the little guys, which is who the league wants you to think it desperately wants to protect. But basically, with a hard salary cap system, building through the draft and letting a core grow together is no longer the way to go. Put together a roster with five good players that need extensions and you’re out of room after three. Maybe you can get four, but how do you add another nine guys to fill out a 13-man roster?

If a hard cap does flatten out the talent base, you’ll see teams trying to do what Dallas did in the sense of having one elite star then trying to put more affordable veterans around them.

Which is to say, the NBA’s middle class will go away. What drives up the Lakers payroll is less Kobe and more Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest. They can afford to go over the cap and pay to keep good role players around their stars. But those days will end, it will be the high priced stars and the cheap guys around them. And some smaller teams that draft well will have to break up that core because they will bump up against the hard cap.

It’s one reason I think in the end you will still see a soft cap — one with far fewer exceptions but one that lets teams keep their cores together. Because what we want to see is good basketball, and drafting a team that can grow together is one of the best ways to get that.