In the course of the NBA lockout, one of David Stern's favorite lines has to do with the league being unable to function when a team like the L.A. Lakers spends $100 million on player salaries and the Sacramento Kings spend just $45 million. The comparison is very clean in its optics, as the Lakers were a good team last season (albeit one that was summarily dismissed by the Dallas Mavericks in four games in the playoffs) while the Kings were pretty bad. The narrative that Stern wants fans and scribes to take away from that comparison is that payroll matters in who wins and who loses.
Payroll does matter ... to a degree. But let's look at the final eight teams in the playoffs last year, those eight teams that won their first playoff series. What ranks were their payrolls?
1, 3, 4, 8, 10, 18, 26, 27.
No. 18 was Miami, who paid out three near-max contracts, gave Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller some scratch, and offered out minimum deals to almost everyone else. No. 26 was the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had two All-Stars on rookie deals. (That changes this season, when Kevin Durant begins his max deal.) No. 27 was the Chicago Bulls, who had the MVP on a rookie deal, and a near-All-Star in Joakim Noah on another. (That changes this year, when Noah gets paid. Rose has another season.)
This is how you win: you get a franchise-level star through the draft, you build him into an All-Star, you hopefully surround him with a second All-Star caliber player and strong complements. You pay your star when he gets to that second deal.
Where were the Kings at last summer, when they could have paid for some complements or maybe a second All-Star caliber player? (Consider that even guys like Rudy Gay were signing near max deals as restricted free agents.) They had the Rookie of the Year and a No. 5 pick they really, really liked. They were in no position to spend more than they did, and if they had spent more, they wouldn't have won many more games.
Look at other teams down at the low-end of the salary scale. The Clippers: a rookie scale All-Star in Blake Griffin and a near-All-Star on his rookie deal in Eric Gordon. Tried to spend, but couldn't. The Wolves: a rookie scale All-Star in Kevin Love and ... nothing else. Had to spend on Darko Milicic and, eventually, Eddy Curry (to get Anthony Randolph). More spending would not have helped the Wolves at all. The Wizards: the No. 2 ROY finisher in John Wall, a decent piece in JaVale McGee and no reason to spend more as the team rebuilds. The Nets tried so hard to spend, but came up with Jordan Farmar and Travis Outlaw. (It worked out in the end, as the salary space helped get Deron Williams to town.)
Now take the current system and put flexibility at a premium by hardening the cap. Teams that are rebuilding are going to mimic the Kings and spend as little as possible. Teams that can compete for the playoffs or a title will spend as much as they can. There will be teams spending as much as legally possible -- to Hell with reasonable, look at how much Mark Cuban has spent over the past decade -- and teams saving every dime in terms of future flexibility. There will be a substantial salary spread as large as is possible under salary floors and caps.
The Kings didn't suck because they didn't spend. They sucked because they had a shallow talent base they sought to grow organically. They could not buy a playoff berth last season. It was impossible. Money matters -- I won't claim it doesn't -- but it's very rare that you buy your franchise player. It's very rare that a rookie scale All-Star is good enough to lead your team to the playoffs; Derrick Roses are really rare. Dwyane Wades are rare. Tyreke Evans clearly wasn't there last season, and as such, the Kings had no reason to blow future flexibility while still building the youth core.
It's wrong to imply that the Kings sucked because they didn't spend. They didn't spend because they sucked. (And also the Maloofs are broke.)