Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2017

Under Very Different Rules Two Dynasties Rise

A NOTE TO READERS: To accommodate the scheduled Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Championship, as well as the possibility of a playoff the following day, the next post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks as always for reading and for your ongoing support.

The Golden State Warriors laid claim to the Larry O’Brien Trophy Monday night. The previous evening the Pittsburgh Penguins had captured the Stanley Cup. As the final curtains came down on the NBA and NHL seasons, the two teams taking their bows and planning victory parades were among the least surprising champions in the recent history of both leagues. The emerging West Coast dynasty by the Bay had been widely predicted from the moment Kevin Durant announced his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of the Warriors. But while Golden State’s 16-1 run through the NBA playoffs for a second title in three years was one for the record books, in many ways the prolonged excellence of the Steel City’s hockey team is even more impressive.

For the third season in a row the NBA Finals featured a matchup of the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. While Cleveland is clearly the class of the Eastern Conference – the Cavaliers dropped just one game through the first three rounds of the playoffs – even LeBron James seemed to concede after the Finals that his squad was no match for Golden State. “Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down,” James told the press after the Warriors sealed the championship with a 129-100 victory in Game Five. From Miami to Cleveland, James has led his team to the Finals eight times, including the last seven years in a row. As an individual player, he remains without peer among this generation of NBA superstars. But his record in each season’s ultimate series is just 3-5, a reminder that even the best player in the game needs a supporting cast.

At the end of last season Golden State was a well-rounded team with its own superstar in Stephen Curry, a team that failed to defend its 2016 crown only by blowing a three games to one lead over James and the Cavaliers. The addition of the 28-year old forward, the consensus top free agent on the market after last season, turned the Warriors into a super team. At the time of Durant’s signing more than a few wags suggested Golden State might go through the regular season undefeated.

The Warriors didn’t do that of course. But they nearly managed the trick in the playoffs, dropping only Game Four of the Finals to post the best NBA postseason record since the league went to its current playoff format of seven game series in all four rounds. In each of the past three years Golden State has had the best regular season record in the league, compiling a 207-39 mark over that time, unmatched in the history of the league.

As James pointed out, Golden State remains a young team; and while much of the roster is eligible for free agency, there is little doubt that all the core players will return. Both Durant and Curry have already raised the possibility of taking less money to free up salary cap space for other players. Besides, who would want to play anywhere else?

But the NBA has a soft salary cap, with the ostensible spending limit of $94.14 million and luxury tax threshold of $113.29 million both subject to myriad rules and exceptions. Golden State’s general manager Bob Myers was blessed with a significant increase in the cap limits thanks to the NBA’s burgeoning television revenue, but also used the cap’s rules, including the mid-level exception and the qualifying offer rules to make Durant’s deal work within those newly increased limits.

In Pittsburgh, the work to build a dynasty has been much more challenging. The NHL has a hard cap, a straightforward percentage of revenue that can be spent on salaries, with no exceptions or special rules, as well as a cap “floor” or minimum amount that a team must allocate to paying its players. This gives general managers considerably less flexibility in building rosters for the long term.

Owners pushed for the hard cap to ensure profitability of the league’s smaller market and less successful franchises, but one of the side effects has been to increase parity. It’s now been twelve seasons since the cap was introduced, meaning a maximum of twenty-four teams could have skated in the Stanley Cup Finals. In that time eleven teams have made it to the Finals once while three more, the Bruins, Kings and Red Wings, have two appearances each. And for those three the multiple appearances were over a maximum of three years. In short, the hard cap has made it very difficult to hold a dominant team together.

Only Chicago and Pittsburgh have more than two appearances in the Cup Finals under the cap. Chicago skated in the Finals in three different seasons over a six-year period. Many considered the Blackhawks to be worthy of being called a dynasty, but general manager Stan Bowman had to blow up his roster after winning in 2010, and after hurriedly rebuilding was again forced into major changes after winning the third championship two seasons ago.

That leaves the Penguins, the most successful NHL franchise in the cap era with four appearances and three wins in the Finals spread out over a decade. With the triumph last Sunday over the upstart Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh also became the first franchise since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. A league-leading 467 regular season victories over the past decade is proof that the Penguins’ postseason record is not just a matter of springtime good fortune.

Pittsburgh has done it with multiple general managers and head coaches, but with a consistent approach of retaining a dynamic core of players who could probably make more elsewhere but have bought into the idea of contending every season. At $8.7 million and $9.5 million respectively, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are certainly not poor; but given their talent they are both working on bargain contracts.

The Penguins have also been willing to make business decisions without sentiment. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. But 23-year old Matt Murray, whose cap hit is $2 million less than Fleury’s, was between the pipes when the final horn sounded in Nashville Sunday.  In a symbolic gesture Fleury handed the Stanley Cup to Murray during the postgame celebration. Look for Fleury to soon be a former Penguin.

What is certain is that whether working the byzantine rules of the NBA’s soft cap, or piecing together a winning franchise despite the harsh restrictions of the NHL’s hard cap, the Warriors and Penguins have both found winning formulas. They are the class of their leagues, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, both are already listed as the early favorites by Las Vegas bookmakers to add another championship to their legacies come this time next June.

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