The Salary Cap in the NBA Finals

I haven’t watched basketball much over the last few years, but I have been watching the end of the Western Conference Finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals, so I’ve been kind of looking at the game with fresh eyes after not following for about six to eight years. What I see in the Warriors roster construction reminds me of my time as a player my town’s travel basketball team playing against AAU basketball teams from New York City like Team Roc and the Gauchos. We had about seven or eight players who could play at a high level, so we’d compete with these rosters that were 10-12 players deep for a half, then they’d beat that ass in the second half and we’d lose by 30.


We played the same style of high-paced basketball the Warriors played, but for different reasons. While they’re doing it because they’re a far superior shooting team to whomever they play, while also being more athletic, we were doing it because we were in better shape than the average town team as we played full court press all game. This works when you’re playing town teams who also play six to eight players, but not against the teams that had 10-12 legit athletes. The Warriors have been able to construct a fast paced style of play, but with two full teams worth of guys who can continue to play that style at a high level. This is the same reason why FCS teams will stick with an FBS opponent for a half or three quarters, then just get worn out by the bigger, strong, faster and deeper FBS opponent. That’s the result of the FCS teams having fewer scholarships.

Watching basketball again has me thinking about how good the five to seven athletes on our team were though, we had a point guard who was built like a power forward and became the New Jersey Soccer Player of the Year and a State Champion in soccer our senior year of high school. We had a center who was a D3 receiver, a shooting guard who accepted a scholarship to pitch at University of the Pacific, a small forward who would play basketball at TCNJ, a power forward who would play baseball in college, then myself and I played football at the D1 level. The point was, we had this phenomenal group of athletes, just like the Cavaliers with that soccer player being our freak, but when we came up against a team that could outwork us because of their quantity of athletes and those would be the games we would lose.

As I write in the first chapter of Caponomics, the Warriors saw what Curry was worth to them if they increased the number of shots he took, so they were able to lock him into a lower cost contract than he would have had if they waited another year. And because of this, the Warriors have four players who are making more than Curry in 2015-16. According to Spotrac, it goes as follows:

  • Klay Thompson: $15.5 million; 22.14%
  • Draymond Green: $12.3 million; 20.37%
  • Andrew Bogut: $13.8 million; 19.71%
  • Andre Igoudala: $11.7 million; 16.73%
  • Stephen Curry: $11.4 million; 16.24%

Shaun Livingston, who gave them 20 points, four rebounds and three assists last night, costs them 7.92% of the $70 million salary cap and Harrison Barnes costs them 5.53%. Leandro Barbosa who had a terrific performance last night all over the court gave them 11 points and he only cost them $2.5 million this year or 3.57% of the cap. Marreese Speights cost them just $3.8 million and 5.45% of the cap and he gave them a highly efficient performance all season. His per 36 minutes average for the seasons was 22.2 points per game, 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game during the regular season. They don’t just find efficiency through starters, but they find efficiency through building a roster filled with mismatches for whoever their opponent is.

As I learned when I realized they eclipsed the $70 million salary cap, the NBA has a soft salary cap like the MLB and, while the cap is $70 million, the luxury tax limit is $84.74 million. For the sake of this conversation it doesn’t matter if we use $70 or $84.74 million as long as we’re judging the Warrios and Cavs off the same number.

The Warriors main strategy from my layman’s perspective is to play fast paced, so they can hoist up more shots because they’re shooting at a higher percentage than their opponents. Simultaneously, they’ve got long athletes all over the court who are able to create mismatches defensively that force their opponents into lower percentage shots, thus widening the gap of efficiency between the Warriors record setting shooters and their opponents, who are already not able to compete with the Warriors percentages. While the Warriors hit 41.6% of three pointers as a team this season, the Cavaliers sharp shooter, JR Smith only hit 40.0%, while Matthew Dellavedova hit 41.0%, but only shot 3.1 threes per game compared to Smith’s 6.6. By comparison, Curry shot 11.2 three pointers per game this season and hit 5.1 per game, which is 45.4%, while Thompson hit 42.5% of his 8.1 three point attempts per game. Brandon Rush who played two minutes last night actually started 25 games for the Warriors and his 41.4% ranked tied for tenth in the NBA. What the Warriors are doing is simple math: we are going to shoot three pointers at over 40% and we’re going to take a lot of them.

The Warriors took 31.6 three pointers per game during the regular season and made 13.1 of them, which means that’s 39.3 points on those 31 possessions. The NBA average for three-point attempts per game is 24.1 and 8.5 of those go in, so 35.3% compared to the Warriors who made 41.6% of them and shot more of them. A more interesting way to look at it though is that the NBA average on two-point attempts is 45.2%, so in 100 shots that means the average team is going to score about 90.4 points. If the Warriors take 100 three-pointers, that means they’ll score 124.8 points.

Here’s what I wrote in full from chapter one of Caponomics:

I didn’t watch a game this season, but the reason why the Golden State Warriors became the greatest regular season basketball team in NBA history seems simple to me: they have historically efficient three-point shooters. The Warriors were second all time with a 41.6% three-point shooting percentage, which was only edged out by a 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets team that shot 1210 less three-pointers than the Warriors shot. The Warriors shot 1.8 times as many three-pointers as that Hornets team, so they hit 486 more threes than that Hornets team.

 

While they were slightly less efficient in terms of three-point shooting percentage than that Hornets team, they had such great shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson who hit 402 and 276 three-pointers respectively to rank first and second in the NBA. By himself, Curry hit 68% of the number of three-pointers that the most accurate three-point shooting team in history hit, so the Warriors must have seen an opportunity to construct a team in this manner. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Curry has flourished into the MVP player he is today under all-time great shooter Steve Kerr.

 

The Quality the Warriors defined was simple and it allowed them to identify and acquire the players they needed to build around in Curry and Thompson. The Warriors locked Curry into a four-year, $44 million contract after his 2012-13 season in which he returned from an injury-shortened year before and jumped from 14.7 to 22.9 points per game. That was largely driven by an increase in threes per game from Curry to 7.7 per game from 4.7.

 

While I don’t think the Warriors could have seen Curry developing into the mega-star he is today, their hypothesis was simple and they saw that his 44.6% three-point shooting percentage was extremely valuable and could be expanded on as they had just done in that season. This year, the 2015-16 season, Curry shot 11.2 threes per game and achieved his second best three-point shooting percentage of his career at 45.4%.

 

Let’s just look at that number by itself in terms of round numbers, so let’s use 100 shots to make it simple. If Curry hits 45 out of every 100 threes, that means he scores 135 points. DeAndre Jordan led the NBA with a field goal percentage of 70.3%. As a big man, most of his shots are twos, so if he’s hitting 70 out of every 100 two-pointers, then he’s scoring 140 points. Considering the emphasis that Marc Cuban puts on making intelligent, analytical decisions as a businessman, as a “shark,” I can really understand why he was going after Jordan now.

 

Jordan is an outlier with Dwight Howard coming in at 62.0% at number two, so the second best two-point shooter in the NBA will be outscored 135 to 124 on every 100 shots taken by Curry and Howard. Curry was actually third in the NBA this year with a three-point shooting percentage and his career average of 44.4% is proof that this efficiency is sustainable. The added bonus is that Curry was also eighth in the NBA with a 56.6% shooting percentage on two-point field goals, so he was dominant there as well. Curry is the master of efficiency in the NBA and his speed, quickness and athleticism allows him to create open looks all over the court. Klay Thompson was sixth in the NBA with a 42.5% three-point shooting percentage, while Warriors small forward Brandon Rush was tied for tenth hitting 41.4% of his threes.

 

Again, I’m not a big basketball fan, but I would assume the Warriors came to the conclusion that three-point efficiency was an undervalued commodity and they were able to exploit that inefficiency in the marketplace. They identified great three-point shooters so they could lock them in at a lower cost, like they did with Curry, then built a complete team around them, while increasing the opportunities for Curry, and other sharp shooters, to shoot three pointers.

Outside of just the three-point shooting, what I realized last night is that this team’s length allows them to create more scoring opportunities through their across the line-up athleticism whether that’s through offensive rebounds, turnovers, or any other manner with which they increase their number of possessions, while simultaneously decreasing the opponent’s opportunities to score.

The discussion regarding LeBron James reminds me of the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate and the article I wrote on the topic in February 2015, which you can find here. Here’s how the Cavaliers spending looks:

  • LeBron James: $23 million; 32.82%
  • Kevin Love: $19.7 million; 28.13%
  • Kyrie Irving: $16.4 million; 23.44%
  • Tristan Thompson: $14.3 million; 20.37%
  • Iman Schumpert: $9 million; 12.84%
  • Channing Frye: $8.2 million; 11.70%
  • JR Smith: $5 million; 7.14%
  • Timofey Mozgov: $5 million; 7.07%

At just 1.64% of the cap and $1,147,276, Matthew Dellavedova is a nice role player for them, but purely from a value perspective, we can see the difference in the quality of the two rosters and it’s all in the salary cap.

While Curry and Thompson cost the Warriors 38.38% of the cap, LeBron and Love cost the Cavaliers 62.42%. The Splash Bros and Draymond Green cost the Warriors 58.75% of the cap, which is still 3.67% of the cap lower than LeBron and Love, which is enough of a difference to add a guy like Barbosa at 3.57%. Add in Kyrie and the Cavs Big 3 costs them 85.86% of the cap. You get the idea.

This was all set up for the Warriors by their ability to recognize their potential if they increased Curry’s three-pointers per game and constructed an offense around that idea with him and Thompson as the centerpiece of it. They then built a roster filled with long athletes who created mismatches on offense and chaos on defense. A lesson that every NFL team should take from this is the way the Warriors worked their plan. They created a team that could run the pace all game, used their knowledge of shooting percentages to create a winning formula, had the kind of athletes to match-up with any opponent and they used the salary cap as a lever to create what might be the greatest basketball team of all time. This is why they were able to beat the Cavs by 15 with Curry and Thompson scoring just 20 points. They have a complete roster, thus mitigating the risk of their sharp shooters having an off night, which even happens to the best shooters when they can’t find that rhythm.

If LeBron wants to win a championship in Cleveland, he might need to take a page from Tom Brady’s book. I mean, Nike did just give him a contract worth $1 billion and he apparently actual drives a Kia, whom he’s also sponsored by, so I don’t know what he needs an extra $5-10 million a season for if he wants to be known as the greatest basketball player and silence all his critics. I hope he does because he deserves to overcome that agent induced disaster that was The Decision and be recognized and appreciated for being, arguably, the greatest athlete the world has ever seen. As one GM said to Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, he would have been Rob Gronkowski before Rob Gronkowski.

OneBillionDollars_DrEvil

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: Moneyball Thinking for the NFL” and host of The Zack Moore Show podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. He graduated from Rutgers Business School in 2015 with a double concentration in entrepreneurship and marketing after playing football at the University of Rhode Island where he graduated with a degree in communications and business. You can find him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL or on LinkedIn.

  • McGeorge

    >>If LeBron wants to win a championship in Cleveland, he might need to take a page from Tom Brady’s book.

    Or take a page from his own book when he, Duane Wade, And Chris Bosch too pay cuts in Miami and won a couple of titles.

    The foolish thing for LeBron is he makes A LOT on endorsements outside of playing basketball so he doesn’t need to suck the team dry. I suspect he makes way more than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady for endorsements.

  • eddiea

    While saying LBJ should do a “Tom Brady”,one needs to remember the NBA is different from NFL but you are right. The other thing is who handles the balls,imo. Anyway, i always wonder what would GSW look like if Curry hadn’t been hurt and got a Max contract instead of the “injury insurance” $44M one. Guess it doesn’t matter,but things would look different team and Cap wise. Also,would comparing a Pats/Seahawks SB to GSW/Cavs Finals be wrong? I ask b/c one team has players grabbing all and the other has players giving up some to make team better.

    • I like what you just said, “injury insurance.” That’s a good way to put the extensions at a lower-price for a player before he hits FA. In terms of the Pats/Seahawks comparison, I think that’s unfair because that Seahawks team was still built from within and you can’t blame a bunch of position players drafted in the 5th round for getting theirs, ya know?

      • eddiea

        You’re right,the S’Hawks were the wrong team to use,but all i remember is everyone complaining about how much/high the new deals were. Then again like you reminded me,those that got paid were Mid-Low Rndrs and the high picks either were traded or released. Anyway,is there a team built similarly to Cavs that i could’ve subbed for S’Hawks or is it too hard with the Hard NFL Cap to “pull a LBJ/Cavs”?

        • The Colts basically try to pull this as a franchise as they’ve built rosters that are almost solely focused on the QB since they drafted Manning and maybe even all the way back to Johnny Unitas in a sense. In the cap era though, Manning’s huge cap hit was always an issue and now they’ll have the same issue with Luck as they’ve been unable to build a defense or running game around him.

  • McGeorge

    One big difference between the NFL vs NBA – hard cap vs Soft Cap

    Why should LeBron take a pay cut? Let the Billionaire owner pay the luxury tax for exceeding the salary cap.
    Can’t do that in the NFL