It’s hard to defend the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to re-sign Kobe Bryant through the 2015-1016 season for close to $50 million.
After all, Bryant is 35 years old. He hasn’t played in an NBA game in almost seven months, having ruptured his left Achilles tendon last spring. Even if Bryant recovers fully from the injury, he won’t be the best player in the NBA; he will, however, be the highest paid one.
But here’s the real problem with Bryant's contract: It represents about 37 percent of the Lakers’ maximum allowable payroll. Retaining Bryant will make it almost impossible for the Lakers to build a championship team around him.
Major League Baseball teams overspend on aging, iconic players all the time. No big whoop. But when NBA teams do it, they aren’t just throwing money away; they're ruining their chances to compete. This is due to the NBA’s salary cap, which artificially suppresses player compensation in the name of “competitive balance.”
Do salary caps even work to promote competitive balance, or can they in fact have the opposite effect? If a player is going to be earning roughly the same wherever he goes, he will naturally be drawn to a big city, where he’ll have more opportunities to make money off the court. Or maybe he’ll be drawn to a successful mid-market team because he figures he’ll have a better chance at winning a ring there. Either way, the salary cap is not serving its purpose: To evenly distribute talent around the league.
Here’s a better question: Is competitive balance really something to aspire to? Probably not. During the 1970s, the league crowned eight different champions, and no one noticed who they were. Since then, a handful of teams have dominated the postseason, and the NBA has never been stronger. My sense is that fans don’t really want parity. They prefer something closer to shifting dominance, in which every several years a new dynasty is created and then overturned. This makes for a much more compelling narrative from season to season. It gives us someone to root for and someone to root against. Without teams that are expected to win and teams that are expected to lose, sports lose their form.
What salary caps do accomplish is to protect the profits of owners at the expense of players -- and fans. It’s pretty simple, really. When you restrict a team’s ability to assemble the best possible roster, you necessarily hurt the quality of play. If the NBA were to lift its salary cap, some teams would get worse. But others would improve, dramatically. This would produce better basketball overall.
Look at it this way: Wouldn’t everyone be better off if the Lakers could give Bryant his $50 million bonus for finishing his career with the team, and then go out and sign some free agents who might help them get to the Finals and, in the process, make the NBA more competitive?
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)