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NBA AM: Fixing The NBA Competitive Balance Problem

Is it time for the NBA to consider doing something to prevent the formation of Super Teams?

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As the Golden State Warriors continue to re-load what will inevitably another Championship roster, is there anything the NBA can do going forward to help smooth out what’s becomes a pretty drastic competitive imbalance?

We asked some of our editors to weigh in on things the NBA should consider looking at or potentially changing to help solve this growing problem.

Playoff Seedings and Max Salaries

To some degree, the NBA will always be relatively top-heavy compared with other North American pro sports leagues. The top five to 10 players in the league are simply so valuable from a winning standpoint that the teams who have these players – and of course, any teams lucky to have two or more – will be at a huge advantage in the majority of cases.

Now, that doesn’t mean the league can’t take steps to still even things out more than they currently are. To do so, two areas would be particularly helpful: Removing conferences for playoff seeding (and perhaps altogether) and eliminating maximum player salaries.

A removal of conferences from playoff seeding, and therefore a move to a 1-16 format, could be implemented fairly quickly (hypothetically). It wouldn’t necessarily remove the inevitable reality that a few iffy teams would make the playoffs (that’s always going to happen every now and then when more than half the league’s teams make the postseason), but it could help in other areas. There’d be a better chance of the best teams advancing and facing each other in the more important rounds, rather than meeting earlier due to what’s clearly a serious conference imbalance.

Eliminating the maximum salary, and therefore allowing teams to spend whatever percentage of their overall cap space they desire on a single player, is a bit more of a radical solution. There’s no question it would have major ramifications across the league – including to players who come nowhere close to qualifying for the max. But from a parity standpoint alone, it makes a ton of sense. Instead of situations where a team like the Warriors can simultaneously hold four of the league’s 25 best players, guys like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry could instead command salaries of $60 million or more – over half their team’s cap, and numbers that prevent situations like what’s happened in Golden State.

Once again, the league has to consider how this would ripple down into other areas. This sort of change would almost certainly be bad for a majority of NBA players – it would reduce the pool of money available for the league’s middle class of players, and some guys would see a big reduction in their value. But some would argue that it’s a purer system than the current one – a system where the truer value of these superstars is reflected, and one that keeps too many of the league’s best players from being on a single team.

– Ben Dowsett

Playoff Seedings and Age Limit

There are quite a few things that the NBA could do better, in all honesty. The most obvious issues that seem to warrant a change revolve around playoff seeding, removing the age limit for incoming rookies and, perhaps to a lesser extent, putting additional regulations around salary structures.

I, however, would probably point to what the other obvious problem impacting the league is: lottery reform.

Without a doubt, tanking has become an enormous issue for the league and, even more so, its fans. Especially with the promise that the Philadelphia 76ers appear to have, teams that are “stuck in the middle,” have almost no incentive to field competitive rosters once they realize that making the playoffs are a long shot. In quite a few other instances, teams secretly enter the season believing that it would be in their best interest to lose as many games as possible. When the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a player such as Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, it’s hard to blame a general manager who decides that his team might be better served in the long-term by punting a season.

Over the years, there have been a number of pundits to opine on the issue and a fair amount of solutions proposed. The simplest was to award draft picks in reverse order of the rankings in which teams failed to qualify for the playoffs. In other words, the team that finishes the regular season ranked ninth in their conference would have a better chance of securing the top overall pick than the team that finished last in the conference.

Obviously, that type of system wouldn’t help the worst teams improve, but it certainly would give the team’s management added incentive to field the most competitive roster possible.

How would this help competitive balance? Simple. It would give EVERY team in the league incentive to field the most competitive roster possible. The end result would likely be fewer teams winning 60-plus games. It could certainly lead to less dominance by the top heavy teams, which would result in there being a tad more drama come late March and April.

The cause could also be served by having the 14 teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs compete in a single-elimination tournament, whereby the winning team is awarded the first overall pick, and the rest of the picks are distributed in reverse order of when teams were eliminated from the tournament. Again, the idea would be to provide some incentive for the cellar-dwellers of the league to try their best to compete, rather than sit by idly and collect a high draft pick.

I know, it all sounds a little crazy, and no system is going to be perfect. However, as we have seen over the past few years, tanking has become a major issue for the NBA and its teams, and it certainly affects competitive balance. In the end, the fans suffer more than anyone else, so for the fan’s sake, something drastic needs to be done.

– Moke Hamilton

Hard Cap and Fair Market Salary System

Each season in the NBA, there are a handful of teams that have a realistic shot at winning an NBA title. Last season, there were probably three, maybe four teams that could be considered true contenders, while the rest of the league had little chance of realistically competing for anything more than a second-round playoff appearance.

So, what can and should the NBA do to address this issue? There are a lot of interesting strategies that have been proposed – each has its upsides and downsides. Here are two straightforward changes that could help disperse the pool of talent a bit more evenly.

First, implement a hard cap. The NBA currently uses the luxury tax as a way of deterring teams from acquiring more than a few max-level star players at a time. But when a team has the opportunity to keep a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston together, the likelihood is they will take the financial hit for at least a few years. With a hard cap, the team would instead have to make very tough decisions and say farewell to at least one star player, making him available to another team.

Second, establish some sort of fair market value system that establishes a minimum annual salary for veteran players, which would prevent them from taking, for example, a veteran’s minimum contract to join a super team. It’s actually quite selfless to forego more salary for a chance to win a ring, but it prevents other teams from signing quality players. This system would allow quality players to still take significant pay cuts to join a contender, but it would prevent a player worth, let’s say, $10 million or more annually from taking a bare minimum deal to chase a ring.

There would be a few complications with this approach. What if a veteran player’s minimum salary makes him too expensive and all 30 teams pass on him as a result? There would need to be some safeguards in place to allow a player to shed his minimum annual salary in such a situation. Figuring out how to fairly achieve that could get messy. However, if a fair system could be implemented, along with a hard cap, super teams would no longer be able to simply pay enormous luxury tax bills and squeeze in bargain veterans, which would spread more talent across the league.

– Jesse Blancarte

While it easy to say the NBA should do this, or the NBA should do that, when it comes to many of these possible solutions, they cannot be made alone. They would need the buy-in and support of the Players’ Association. However, with more than 90 percent of the player population having maybe no shot at a championship for half a decade, maybe many would agree it’s time to make some changes to smooth out the problem.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers and @Ben__Nadeau .

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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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