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Ballin’ Without A Budget in the NBA

When looking at how the teams with the highest NBA payrolls are performing on the court, one thing is clear: money helps, but it can’t buy a ring.

The NBA is often labeled as a league in which you can “buy” a championship. Spending big on five players in the NBA versus 10-plus in football or baseball makes it much easier to accomplish.

But if we’ve learned anything in our collective lifetimes, it’s that money can only get you so far in the Association.

In the new era of basketball, people often forget that no one or two players can carry a team on their backs. Take a look at some of the most recent championship teams. The Warriors, Bucks, Lakers, and Raptors all had complete rosters constructed around their highest-paid players. Load management, the randomness of the play-in tournament, and team-oriented ball all play a major factor in succeeding over the course of an 82-game season… and beyond.

Last week, we took a look at the art and science behind teams ballin’ on a budget. Now, we’re checking in on the teams ballin’ without a budget — specifically, the three teams with the highest payrolls in the league.

Finals odds are via our friends at FanDuel Sportsbook.

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1. Golden State Warriors

Record: 11-11
Payroll: $202 million

The Warriors have been a bit of a mystery early on, sitting in ninth place despite extending Jordan Poole and re-signing Andrew Wiggins. Mind you, these guys are the reigning NBA champs after spending the most last season ($184 million), but their second-highest-paid player, Klay Thompson ($40M), is having the least efficient season of his career (40% FG). Steph Curry is still lighting up defenders (31.4 PPG) and the offense is flowing just fine, but their defense is allowing 117.2 points — the fourth-most in the NBA. They’re far from perfect, but expect them to figure it out.

CBA Impact: After paying a staggering $354 million in salary and luxury tax during the 2021-22 season, the NBA is discussing ways to implement stricter penalties for teams that disregard the luxury tax. The issue here is that eight of the 10 highest-paid players on the team are Warriors draftees. What example does that set, especially when the league wants players and teams to honor their contracts?

2. Brooklyn Nets

Record: 12-11
Payroll: $182 million

We don’t have enough space to fully encapsulate all that’s gone on with the Brooklyn Nets, but we’ll do our best to summarize. They fired head coach Steve Nash after a 2-5 start to the season, Kyrie Irving was suspended for eight games after promoting an antisemitic book/film, Ben Simmons was in and out of the lineup, and the team’s best three-pointer shooter, Joe Harris, is currently a shell of himself.

Kyrie, Simmons, and Harris make up 50% of the Nets’ payroll. Jacque Vaughn took over for Nash, and he’s done a stellar job, but it was yet another wasted training camp in terms of coaching and continuity. To make matters worse, it’s another year where they can’t rebound the basketball (28th).

They’ve since found their way, though. Kevin Durant is having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 37 points over his last four games as the Nets achieved an above .500 record for the first time this season. And we can’t forget Yuta Watanabe. He’s arguably the biggest bargain in the NBA, currently leading the league in three-point percentage (57.1%).

  • Attendance: 11th
  • Avg. Ticket Price: $109
  • 2021 Merchandise Sales: No. 2
  • Highest-paid player: Kevin Durant ($42.9 million)
  • Finals Odds: +1600 (7th)

Nets Revenue Report: Last season, the franchise lost the most money in the league — somewhere between $50 and $100 million, per the NY Post. Owner Joe Tsai told NetsDaily that the team would be profitable “without luxury tax payments.” They have a $108 million tax for 2022-23, though Irving’s $37 million and Seth Curry’s $8.5 million come off the books this offseason.

Spike In Ticket Prices: The average ticket price jumped to $144 this offseason — an 18.6% increase since 2018-19 and roughly double the rate of inflation.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

Record: 13-10
Payroll: $193.7 million

It hasn’t been a bad start for the Clippers, all things considered. They sit in fifth place with only three games separating them from the top spot. But it’s been frustrating. Kawhi Leonard has only played five games due to lingering knee issues from his ACL tear in 2021, which sidelined him last season. Paul George is holding down the fort (23.6 PPG), while the Clippers’ defense has been fantastic — fifth-best in the NBA to be precise. Without Kawhi, however, they’re just another good team in a league filled with parity.

  • Attendance: 21st
  • Avg. Ticket Price: $118
  • 2021 Merchandise Sales: Not in top-10
  • Highest-paid player: Paul George ($42,492,568)
  • Finals Odds: +950 (5th)

Notes: Steve Ballmer ($78.6 billion) is the richest owner in all of sports. Not only is he committed to spending for a championship team, he’s willing to go above and beyond to make the Clips a first-class organization — not just the Lakers’ “little brother.”

New Home: The Clippers are more than a year into building their own home, The Intuit Dome. After breaking ground in September 2021, the team is hoping to play in the 18,000-seat arena in Inglewood for the 2024-25 season.

ClipperVision: Before the season started, Ballmer decided against renewing a deal with cable network Bally Sports, and instead built his own streaming service for the team called “ClipperVision.” Rather than negotiating a new deal and sharing the network with other LA teams, Ballmer delivered a regional subscription streaming service that offers six channel options for fans to watch their beloved Clips.

Will It Work?

Stay tuned. There’s a weird mixture of good, decent, and really bad basketball teams that are spending big this year, with the three franchises mentioned above among the actual contenders. The Bucks (4th) and Celtics (5th) are two of the best teams in the NBA with NBA Finals trips to back it up these past couple of seasons. Then, you have a team like the Lakers (6th) who are five games below .500 and have little reason for hope.

The same way money doesn’t buy happiness, it certainly cannot buy you a championship. You can still cry in a Mercedes Benz.

That’s why there’s no right or wrong way to build in the NBA. Some teams ball on a budget and others struggle ballin’ WITHOUT a budget. Finding that middle place of spending, cultivating homegrown talent, establishing continuity, and maintaining chemistry results in winning basketball games. The intangibles matter.

Perhaps some of these owners, general managers, coaches, and players should remember that.

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