National Sports

The NBA wanted parity with its new CBA. It might get mediocrity.

You need an accountant to follow the NBA offseason. You can’t just approach any standard bean counter, either. You must find an absolute basketball nut who also loves bureaucracy, spreadsheets, contractual fine print, the jargon of wealthy people, puzzles, mazes and knots. If your new friend can do all this while juggling, consider them a keeper.

All of these skills seem necessary just to conjure a proper trade scenario in this new NBA. We’ve advanced to the second week of this so-called apron era, and it has been as cumbersome as the name would indicate. Since the NBA implemented a salary cap 40 years ago, the business operation has grown more complicated with every new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players. But the one that’s now in effect makes the NFL, known for its tricky system of funny money and funnier math, seem rudimentary.

To codify its newfound parity, the NBA has created a model that demands unprecedented competitive balance. A league of dynasties was already experiencing a shift, crowning a different champion each of the past six seasons. The change had occurred in a fairly organic manner, with a slight nudge coming from harsh luxury tax penalties for perpetual big-spending franchises. But now the rules are force-feeding parity, too. It’s an overcorrection that has taken much of the fun out of this free agency period.

For the first time in more than a decade, the offseason isn’t an edge-of-seat drama. It’s kind of a turn off. This definitely isn’t 2010 anymore, the summer of LeBron James and “The Decision,” the seismic event of a banner year of player movement. That spawned 13 years that became breathlessly referred to as the player empowerment era because the league’s stars realized ways in which they could join forces and have greater influence in the team-building process.

With a new generation taking over the league, the superteam mentality was fading. But there was still lingering bitterness from some owners, as well as legitimate concern about all teams having an opportunity to succeed. The latest CBA feels like a rebuke of the wealthiest, most ambitious owners and of superstars who think they’re clever enough to do things their own way. Still, there’s going to be a price to pay for imposing parity.

This stagnant offseason is a glimpse of the potential problems. Of course, we should give the new system time and allow teams grace as they navigate a different way of doing business. However, it seems that timid dealmaking might become common.

The NBA has compromised its many conflicting interests into an awkward reality. The league has never had a hard salary cap like the NFL. It has always wanted to create exceptions for teams to have wiggle room above the cap. But unlike Major League Baseball, it doesn’t want a $200 million gap between the teams that spend the most and the least on payroll. Since 1999, the NBA has had a luxury tax system, one more effective than what baseball employs, and over multiple CBAs, that tax has grown more punitive.


The apron system applies taxes and shackles to fat-wallet franchises. The NBA salary cap sits just below $140.6 million for the 2024-25 season. Teams must spend at least 90 percent of that number, or $126.5 million. The first apron is set at $178.1 million. The second apron is $188.9 million. In addition to paying taxes into the owners’ revenue-sharing pool, teams above the first apron are prohibited from acquiring players through sign-and-trade deals. They cannot use trade exceptions to acquire players, and they have no wiggle room to take back money in trades. That means, if they’re trading a player who makes $20 million, they cannot acquire a salary (or multiple salaries) totaling more than $20 million. There used to be leeway for teams to take back up to 120 percent of the salary they shipped, but not anymore for teams over the first apron.

If your team has a payroll above the second apron, the rules are even more restrictive. In addition to the first apron rules, these teams cannot aggregate contracts in trades, limiting them to one-for-one player trades. They cannot include cash to finalize deals. If they complete a season above the second apron, their first-round pick seven years into the future is frozen, meaning they can’t include it in a trade. Then, if a team is over the second apron in any of the ensuing four seasons, the draft pick immediately drops to No. 30, the final selection of the first round.

Now, it’s hard to know which teams can trade with each other - and then you must figure out how they can execute these deals.

The system is cruel, but it’s understandable as a deterrent against inorganic team building. The days of stripping a team bare and creating salary cap space to sign multiple franchise players in free agency are basically over for the league’s most coveted destinations. So is the urge to trade away all your assets to acquire big-name talent because then you would have to replenish the roster with minimum contracts and a bunch of lower-tier, hit-or-miss draft prospects. But for all the intricate restrictions, there wasn’t ample consideration of enhancing the benefits for teams that prefer to draft, develop and reward their own players.

No one should cry that Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers broke up partly because of the apron ramifications. But the Golden State Warriors and Klay Thompson, their 2011 first-round pick and homegrown foundational member of a dynasty, is a different consideration. And if you’re tired of the Warriors, what about the Denver Nuggets? They drafted their best three players: three-time MVP Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. They made smart trades for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon to solidify a starting five that led them to the 2023 championship. But they just lost Caldwell-Pope in free agency to the Orlando Magic. They can’t afford to keep a valuable role player because they’re afraid of this new system. In essence, they’re being punished because Jokic, Murray and Porter grew into significant players, and the system treats the Nuggets the same as a team that collected talent inorganically. There should be at least one drafted player exception, or franchise tag, that doesn’t count against the aprons.

I’m not anti-parity. Smart policies that limit the extreme advantages of some franchises are worthwhile. I’m pro-greatness, though. Enforced parity peddles mediocrity if you’re not careful. A true NBA superstar ranks just below an NFL franchise quarterback in importance. In football, a special quarterback erases a lot of problems in a balanced league. But you must wonder whether the talent of NBA stars can circumvent rules that make it all the more difficult for good teams to advance to great. And even if they get there, their stay is almost guaranteed to be short.

The reigning champion Boston Celtics are the next great test of this system. They built through the draft and made good trades. Their top five players are under contract for multiple seasons. They could win multiple championships, perhaps even reignite the Celtics’ dynasty.

They’re also for sale.

They are the NBA’s best team, its greatest hope and the model for this weird new apron era, in which everything good is fleeting.