The Salary Cap Is The Unsung Villain Of The Ben Simmons Saga
Despite playing in one of the most proudly irrational and fickle sports markets in America, and despite his season-long staring contest adversary being an NFT and metaverse-shilling dork whose sterling media reputation persists despite never having built an NBA Finals team in nearly a decade and a half of basketball operations leadership, Ben Simmons has soundly earned his current place as an unlikable basketball punchline. With every story, handcrafted though they may be to make him appear as sympathetic as possible, there seem to be fewer and fewer people championing him as a bus-trodden figure who simply wants out of a hostile work environment, just as any grocery store clerk or office drone might when faced with bad management.
While I believe that, based on his actions and inactions, Simmons deserves the ire of local fans and the mockery of the sports-consuming public more general, there is something amplifying the effects of his holdout and, as such, the disdain locals feel for him: the salary cap.
The NBA salary cap is arcane, and I won’t pretend to understand half its nuances, but generally speaking, the cap serves two purposes: the first, explicit purpose, is to increase parity, allowing teams in smaller markets that rake in less revenue to compete on a relatively level playing field with richer teams by preventing richer teams from simply paying all the best players in a way less rich teams couldn’t afford. The second, implicit reason it exists is to keep costs down so owners can make more money.
Because of the salary cap, Ben Simmons’s max contract doesn’t exist in a vacuum; its existence (along with Tobias Harris’s massive contract) against the Sixers cap number mean that while he sits out, he’s not only withholding his own play, the Sixers are effectively barred from replacing him except via trade. If the team had been able to try to replace his production in free agency, their failure to do so would fall on Daryl Morey and, more importantly, an ownership group that likely would not have OKed the necessary spending on top of Simmons’s dead weight contract. Joel Embiid’s current MVP-level campaign, in danger of being wasted because Simmons had his ego lightly bruised for the first time in his life last summer and/or because Morey is being unrealistic in his trade demands, may also have Josh Harris and Co’s thrift to blame.
The existence of the salary cap and those arcane rules, exceptions, and gymnastics governing its application has widespread implications on team building methods, the way the revenue pie is divided among players, and the way the revenue pie is divided, period. But by preventing teams from paying outside free agents if the players they currently have on the books exceed a certain threshold, it also insulates owners from blame in situations like this one, instead thrusting negative attention on the players who quite understandably accept the large contracts teams offer them.
Fans get upset when players don’t perform to the standard set by their contract (see the vitriol Sixers fans have for Harris, most of which is due to the gap between the standard set by contract and his actual production rather this his love of horrible drawings of monkeys), they celebrate basketball executives who find players they can underpay relative to their on-court value, and the restrictions imposed by cap allows fans to get into the weeds and play-act as executives with more detail, which can be fun for the puzzling or problem-solving sort, especially when their hypothetical decisions would seem to play out better than the ones the actual executives make. When those executives “overpay” too many players, the owners’ hands are tied, they’re simply not allowed to spend any more of their billions of dollars improving the team. As such they escape blame except in the cases when they screw up their hires so consistently they become known for it — and even then, it’s almost always their management that comes under attack rather than any unwillingness to spend.
Abolishing the cap and the max contract would have all sorts of implications: it would likely redistribute money from the NBAPA’s middle class up to the stars whose earnings are limited by the max, it would allow teams to offer stars more money to potentially override the inherent advantages of climates like LA and Miami and tax havens like Florida and Texas, it would empower rich teams to load up on talent that the Pacers and Thunder of the world can’t compete with, it might even lead to teams folding. Some of that is good, some is bad, depending on your point of view on various economic and social questions.
What it would unquestionably do is put owners back in the line of fire when they refuse to invest in their teams, teams which have skyrocketed in value over the last couple decades and should be not be treated as profit producers anyway, given the massive emotional (and often tax money) investment made in them by locals. It would eliminate excuses not to spend, which, short of MLB-style collusion, would mean more money overall going to the players producing the highlights and value. And it would go a long way to divorcing the amount of money players make from the way they’re evaluated by fans as members of their team. Those things, at least, are all worth striving for.