Union chief Michele Roberts: NBA’s cap-smoothing proposal ‘offends our core’

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National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts has called cap smoothing a “disgraceful request” by the NBA.

The union’s rejection of the proposal has received only heightened attention since, with the Warriors reaping the rewards on both ends. They cleared cap space to sign Kevin Durant in 2016 because new national TV contracts shot the salary cap into the stratosphere that year. Then, with many teams capped out due to their 2016 spending, DeMarcus Cousins found a tepid market in which Golden State’s mid-level exception was his most appealing offer this summer.

But Roberts isn’t backing down.

Roberts, via Kevin Draper of The New York Times:

“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.”

“I get that there are folks who believe that some of the contracts executed post the smoothing rejection were too large,” she wrote. “I vehemently disagree as I am sure do the players that negotiated those contracts. However, if that’s the beef folks have, take it up with the GMs that negotiated them. The argument that we gave teams too much money to play with is preposterous.”

The argument – the reasonable argument, at least – isn’t simply that contracts are too large. It’s that contracts signed in 2016 were too large relative to contracts signed in 2018.

It’s impossible to fully evaluated the cap-smoothing proposal without knowing its specifics, and those haven’t leaked. But I’d safely guess two points:

  • Cap smoothing would have hurt players overall. Their increased compensation would have been at least delayed, maybe even outright reduced (though I doubt it).
  • Cap smoothing would have helped more players than rejecting smoothing did. The increased revenue would have been spread among a far wider pool of players than 2016 free agents, who were largely the group to cash in.

I’m not sure how the union should have balanced those competing interests – or how strongly it should have considered parity. Current Warriors obviously love their situation. What about the other 29 team’s players? How many of them would have preferred financial sacrifice if it came with a better chance of winning a title? To that point, how many owners would have preferred financial sacrifice – perhaps by artificially increasing the salary cap the year before the new national-TV deals kicked in – to gain parity?

These are difficult questions that nobody seemed to care enough about in 2015, when the union rejected the NBA’s proposal. The union gave a flat no. The league didn’t present an appealing counteroffer. Perhaps, a negotiation would have yielded a productive compromise for both sides.

So, I don’t blame the players any more than I blame the owners for a lack of cap smoothing. But, given the results, both probably deserve scrutiny for not exploring the issue more when they could have done something about it.