In the wake of star center Andre Drummond signing with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday after being bought out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, some small-market NBA teams are becoming increasingly concerned with how buyouts are affecting the competitive landscape of the league.
In an annual practice that takes place after the trade deadline and is somewhat unique to the NBA, a player will agree to take a small pay cut to the remainder of his contract and then be released so he can sign with another team, usually a contender, for short money.
In addition to Drummond signing with the Lakers following a buyout, the Brooklyn Nets have snagged forwards Blake Griffin from the Detroit Pistons and LaMarcus Aldridge from the San Antonio Spurs.
By adding Griffin and Aldridge, Brooklyn could theoretically field an all-All-Star lineup that would also include Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden. The addition of Drummond in L.A. will give the Lakers, when healthy, arguably the best frontcourt in the entire NBA with the former Cav at center, Anthony Davis at power forward and LeBron James at small forward.
It is a system that allows, in most years, the rich to get richer — on the cheap and without any long-term implications for the salary cap. For example, Drummond, whose actual salary this season is $28.8 million, will play with L.A. for less than $800,000 for the rest of this season, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
“It’s a definite concern,” a team executive working in a small market told Sports Illustrated. “Without a doubt, players that are entering the buyout market will only be looking at contending teams. And most of the time, historically, their preference has been to go to the teams in the bigger markets. And it gives teams an opportunity to sit back and add players on minimum deals that they normally wouldn’t be able to acquire.”
For a league that already has some questions about the competitive balance due to the prevalence of so-called “super teams” like the Nets, buyout season creates even greater concerns about whether all teams have an equal chance of making and advancing in the playoffs. But as it is usually star-packed teams like the Lakers and Nets who benefit from buyouts, the NBA is in no rush to change the system as it results in increased opportunity for marketing and is good for ratings.
“The way you know the NBA doesn’t think it’s a problem is they’re reticent to acknowledge it’s been a problem,” another small-market exec told SI. “The inaction tells you, ‘We’re cool with it.’”