Can NBA Player-Coach Relationships Survive the Salary Cap Explosion?
A lucrative new television deal is about to send NBA player salaries soaring, and could affect locker room power dynamics.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The great Red Auerbach once leaned back in his office chair, took a puff of his cigar, and told me that the more you pay a great player, the more that player wants to prove he's worth every penny.
With National Basketball Association salaries about to explode, we're about to find out if he was right.
Perhaps you've heard the news: a new $24 billion television contract is about to send the NBA salary cap soaring, with some team payrolls expected to jump from about $60 million to well over $100 million. Average, workaday players could be making $7.5 million or more per season, while superstars with maximum contracts—"max players"—are expected to earn as much as $40 million annually.
The coming surge has set off alarms around the league, as front office types try to anticipate what dramatic changes the new money will bring. At the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, one of the main discussion topics was the effect the influx of cash will have on coaching.
One former max salary player, who was in Nevada to observe the league's rookies, told me that he anticipated a shift in the balance of power between players and their coaches, using an example from his own career to illustrate.
"Me and coach butted heads one day in practice," said the player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He was probably right. I was a mess. I wasn't bringing my game. But I was a max player. So when we butted heads, it was an either/or, a max guy versus a coach.
"Now, he was a heck of a coach, a pretty good coach. He was a good guy. He had taken a team to the NBA Finals. But the next day I walked into practice, and he was gone. I hadn't gotten a call or anything. But think about this, I was a max player. They didn't call me and say, 'We're gonna fix this.' Just based on looking at the numbers, on paperwork alone, they looked at it and said, 'He's out of here.'
"That was 2000," the player added. "Now it's 2015, and the numbers have gotten a lot bigger. That'll give you an idea of where it's headed."
Thanks to collective bargaining through their union, players are guaranteed around 50 percent of league revenues. When TV money rises, so do their salaries. Not so for coaches, who have no CBA, no strength in numbers, and no guarantees.
This summer, a number of skilled but relatively unproven players, such as Detroit Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson, signed guaranteed contracts worth $80 million or more. Bigger deals will follow.
By contrast, coaches make an average of around $3.5 million. The former player said that in the short term, at least, the ballooning financial imbalance can't help but alter the power dynamic in NBA locker rooms.
"It's gonna change," he said, adding that when a team invests as much as $200 million in a max player, that player is no longer just another guy on the roster.
"They're brands," he said. "Expensive ones."
Michael H. Goldberg, the longtime executive director of the NBA Coaches' Association, takes a longer-term view. Over time, he predicts, coaches will be fine, in part because market forces will eventually raise their salaries, too. "The investment of these teams is big," he said. "The risk is big. Somebody has to drive the ship. You're not going to find guys to do this for eleven dollars an hour."
Historically, the league's best coaches (who are also, generally, the best-paid coaches) are able to establish rapport with the top players. Longtime NBA coach Mike D'Antoni told VICE Sports that bigger player salaries will make relationship building even more important, with coaches striving to build bonds like the one San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has with Tim Duncan.
Conversely, more money could make rough relationships more volatile. Take the conflict between George Karl, the Sacramento Kings' newly signed head coach, and star center DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins, the team's franchise player. During Summer League, the two were awkward just trying to shake hands.
Karl has spoken privately about dealing with tough personalities of many top players over the years, and predicts that he and Cousins will sit down and work out their issues this fall. But in the brave new world of plus-size NBA contracts, will coaches on the outs with their star players even get that chance?
To find a foothold, expect some coaches to negotiate for more front office power. D'Antoni pointed to the example of Stan Van Gundy, who is both the head coach and the president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons.
Van Gundy's arrangement likely will never become the NBA norm. Meanwhile, players with giant contracts naturally will want to test the limits of their power, as some have alleged LeBron James did last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers and its rookie coach, David Blatt.
"There'll be serious mistakes made," D'Antoni said. "If you get the right guy, fine. If not, you're gonna pay for it. The $200 million for a truly great player is fine. You just have to be wise on who you're investing in."
What should teams look for? Personality and drive, said D'Antoni: "You can't give a guy like Tim Duncan enough."
NBA teams, of course, have a decidedly mixed record in the difficult art of choosing which players to max out. Most of the big mistakes made over the years, D'Antoni said, have been by teams trying to lure a player away from a competing franchise.
"A lot of it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for these teams," he said. "The best guys are like Duncan. They play 10 to 15 years with the same team."
Auerbach understood. As coach of the Boston Celtics, he trusted star center Bill Russell long enough to win nine NBA titles , then named Russell player-coach and watched him lead the team to two more. Would a modern max contract have made any difference? Perhaps Auerbach was right: the truly great players will always want to prove their worth, no matter how many pennies you actually pay them.