In a win now league, what does the future of the NBA look like?

In a suddenly win now NBA, what does the future of the league look like?

Imagine, if you will, the 2024-25 NBA season:

  • A 37-year-old Steph Curry is suited up for Golden State, making $55.8M, and still having a year left on his deal.
  • In Brooklyn, a 36-year-old Kevin Durant is pulling down $51 million; if and when James Harden and Kyrie Irving extend their deals, they’ll take in about $100 million more between them. Those three will be a combined 104 years old and their contracts alone may be enough to put Brooklyn in the luxury tax.
  • The Lakers could very well be paying a 40-year-old LeBron James north of $50 million that season. L.A. can also look forward to a 2022-23 campaign where a 38-year-old James makes $45 million and a 34-year-old Russell Westbrook makes $47 million.
  • A 33-year-old Paul George is a Clipper, making $49 million. Lining up next to him, a 32-year-old Kawhi Leonard also making $49 million; by then there’s a good chance he will have inked a five-year extension that pays him 8 percent raises until age 35.
  • In Portland (OK, maybe not in Portland, but humor me), a 34-year-old Damian Lillard is raking in $49 million.
  • In Milwaukee, a 34-year-old Jrue Holiday is making $38 million with incentives that could take him to $40 million.
  • In Miami, a 35-year-old, balky-kneed Jimmy Butler will be making $48 million … and still having a year left on his deal.

Sure, the cap will probably go up — we get a new TV deal in 2023-24. Nonetheless, by almost any math, the out years on these deals don’t seem particularly appealing. I’m not even blaming the teams that signed these deals — one of their rivals would have if they hadn’t.

But it does set us up for a very interesting scenario mid-decade, as a number of players in their mid-30s are going to be entering the sunset of their careers right as their earnings peak. Yes, these are awesome players, but they aren’t immune to the laws of aging. It’s easy to lull yourself into thinking these guys will keep churning out All-NBA seasons forever; the reality is that the last three All-NBA teams have only had two players past their 34th birthday: LeBron James and Chris Paul.

Better yet, go back and look at All-NBA teams from half a decade ago (plus or minus) and you’ll see players who are already either on the fringes or out of the league entirely — names like LaMarcus Aldridge, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. None of them were notably old at the time.

It’s not just the contracts either; most of the teams above have also surrendered most or all of their draft capital:

  • Brooklyn owes a first or a pick swap to Houston in the next six drafts.
  • The Clippers owe three firsts and two pick swaps to the Thunder.
  • The Lakers are out two firsts and a pick swap to New Orleans; devilishly, the Pels can defer an unprotected 2024 pick to 2025.
  • Miami owes a pick swap (likely with Brooklyn’s pick) in 2022, has no pick in 2023 and has traded virtually all its seconds too.
  • Golden State owes a very lightly protected first to Memphis in 2024, right at the time the Warriors may crater from their age and cap situation.
  • Milwaukee owes three firsts and two pick swaps as a result of two trades, plus they Bogdanned themselves out of a 2022 second.
  • Utah, who will have a 32-year-old Rudy Gobert making $43 million in that 2024-25 season, owes a 2022 first to Memphis and has burned through nearly all its seconds.

At least those teams are contenders who either already have rings or can reasonably claim to be positioned for it. But the same thing is happening further down the food chain.

Teams like Chicago and Minnesota both surrendered 2021 lottery picks in a chase for maybe getting into the Play-In Tournament; New Orleans has lots of draft equity from trading Holiday and Anthony Davis, but seems intent on squandering a good chunk of it for their own pyrrhic chase for the eighth seed. New York and Sacramento have avoided this fate so far but are seemingly champing at the bit to join them.

If you don’t understand the trend yet, let me hammer you over the head with it: A win-now mindset has gripped the league, with relatively few teams preaching patience and some clubs that probably ought to instead of focusing on maxing out the present. It’s almost an NFL mentality that has overcome the NBA over the last year. And I don’t think it is healthy behavior in some instances.

Surely the success of the Hawks and Suns this season have led more owners to think they can perhaps turn things around quickly, but that mindset ignores the patience in both places that preceded their 2020-21 success.

Both teams drafted two key pieces in 2018 (Trae Young and Kevin Huerter for Atlanta; Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges for Phoenix) and had another key piece already on hand from a previous draft (John Collins; Devin Booker). Both spent multiple seasons keeping their cap situations clean and hoarding draft picks to strike when the opportunity arose.

They were also patient enough not to push too early. Neither team pushed its chips in until 2020, after it was obvious they had not one, but at least three key young players worth building around. It was only then that the Hawks and Suns surrendered a single first-round pick to get a crucial veteran piece (Clint Capela in Atlanta, Chris Paul in Phoenix) and shifted their free-agent focus to older players (Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jae Crowder).

I fear too many teams are just looking at last season and figuring that there are easy shortcuts to what the Hawks and Suns did, even though in reality those were the culmination of half-decade processes, ones that started by being crappy enough to select Ayton and Young in the first place.

Many teams have set themselves up to be in a pronounced decline phase by mid-decade, while just a small handful — Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, San Antonio and Toronto — seem to have their eyes on any achievement beyond the immediate here and now. You can add the Hawks and Suns to that list, as they have managed to become good without burning through draft picks or inking gargantuan contracts, and thus retain obvious relevance for the future.

We may not see evidence of any of what’s coming mid-decade in the 2021-22 season, or perhaps only the first kernels of it. But like a storm over the horizon, it’s coming. The league has set itself up to have a lot of old players on not-great contracts with asset-starved teams by the middle of the decade.

For those interested in the long game, watching how it plays out and how the small handful of opportunists pounce will be one of the league’s most fascinating long-term stories.

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