Brought to the discussion table by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst after Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors’ fourth championship in eight seasons has reignited the debate of NBA salary cap equality.
Now seen as a controversial take that produced plenty of backlash, Windhorst said –
"“They have a $340 million payroll when you consider taxes. You don’t just have to beat the Warriors on the court, but you have to beat their checkbook. Nothing against Andrew Wiggins, but this was a checkbook win for the Warriors.”"
The Warriors’ payroll, the highest in the league, paid the ultimate dividend with a championship this season. But how far should we actually stretch the correlation between an expensive team and the ultimate success?
Why NBA history proves checkbook championships are a myth
The salary cap system is designed to reward teams who find and develop talent from the draft, as long as owners are willing to pay exorbitant tax on top of player salaries.
The Warriors are the prime example of this, with eight of their 15 players having been drafted by the franchise. That’s not to mention those who were undrafted or were picked up from the NBA scrapheap – Gary Payton II, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Damion Lee.
The debate on whether this was a ‘checkbook championship’ has been widely discussed, with many alluding to the Warriors drafting and in-house development as the optimal path of roster construction.
But while the Warriors may have won the championship with the league’s highest payroll, history would suggest that although it may help, an expensive team hardly guarantees success.
Golden State are the third team this century to win the title with the highest payroll, following the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. Across the last ten NBA championships, only four teams have had a top-five payroll in their title-winning season. Furthermore, four of the championship teams have had a payroll outside the top ten.
We also shouldn’t simply quantify success by winning the championship. Recent history would also suggest that you can make an inspired, deep playoff run with a low payroll. In eight of the last ten seasons, we’ve seen a team reach the conference finals with a bottom 12 payroll in the league.
So, while spending more may provide an obvious, distinct advantage, it’s not an assurance on where you’ll end up – just ask the Brooklyn Nets and both Los Angeles teams who sat second to fourth in payroll this season.
Simultaneously, a low payroll doesn’t necessarily correspond with the bottom rung of the standings, especially if a young player, say Luka Doncic or Trae Young, develops into a superstar while still on their rookie contract.
“Checkbook championships” are a myth.