The National Basketball Association is a unique league that continues to differentiate itself from other professional sports. More than any other pro league in America, there is a huge talent gap from team to team. In recent years, this gap only seems to be getting bigger.
NBA players make a lot of money. They make more money collectively than any other league in the country. The average salary was around $4.9 million in the current 2016-17 season, compared to $4.38 million in the MLB for 2016. If an NBA athlete spends, say, five years as a star player on a team, they could conceivably not work for the rest of their lives. This is where the talent gap comes in.
Star players that make this much money for an extended period seem to value it less. The difference in salary seems to be insignificant when these players’ bank accounts are already so huge. So, star players are beginning to accept less money to join the best teams.
When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in 2010, it seems as though his motivation was championship rings, not salary. James accepted less money and joined Dwayne Wade, creating an NBA super team that was virtually unstoppable until his contract expired.
Recently, the same has happened with Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. When Durant’s contract expired after last season, he had several options to make more money by signing with other teams, including his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. He instead, however, opted to join superstars Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and others on the Warriors.
The Warriors were coming off a historic season, tying Michael Jordan’s Bulls best record ever recorded. Steph Curry won the unanimous MVP. Some viewed them as an absolute lock for the championship and they were one of the best teams in the league during the regular season.
So why should they get another superstar?
Durant leaving Oklahoma for the Warriors makes the league unbalanced. Why should a team that good get even better? It creates a culture that doesn’t reward loyalty to a team and that fosters a talent gap that rivals any other professional sport. The NBA has a long playoff schedule, allowing 16 teams. This system is often criticized considering that some years there are teams that make the playoffs with a losing record. This further shows the size of the talent gap.
Toward the end of the season, it always seems that there are around four teams that are almost a lock for the conference finals. Many players—especially super star players—seem to no longer be motivated by money.
Now, they seem to be more motivated by their legacy, and a huge part of their legacy is rings. James was solidified as one of the greatest ever after his stretch with the Heat, in my opinion, despite leaving Cleveland.
As the market and salaries continue to grow, it is likely that so will this trend. It seems that money is not the motivator anymore: its surrounding yourself with players that you think will give you the best chance to take home a ring.