Law and Norms: The Case of Kevin Durant and the NBA

Conservatives and some other stripes of political thinkers have placed great emphasis on the importance of norms in a society.  It is not just the law that matters.  It is the norms that operate in conjunction with the law.

The same thing, of course, happens in other areas.  Recently, the Golden State Warriors became NBA champions and by some measures they may have been the best team of all time.  But I regard the team as having been formed in an illegitimate way, through the inappropriate actions of Kevin Durant, even though his actions were perfectly in accord with NBA rules.

At the end of the 2016 season, Durant – one of the best two or three players in the NBA – chose to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent and to move to the Golden State Warriors.  The Warriors had just set the regular season record of 73-9, but had fallen one game short of winning an NBA championship (and of winning two championships in a row).  The idea that Durant would be able to join one of the best teams of all time seemed an affront to the idea of NBA competitiveness.

Durant’s action was able to occur because of a failure of the NBA rules (and labor contracts).  The NBA has a salary cap for each NBA team to prevent one team from spending too much and getting all of the best players.  But Golden State was able to exploit a loophole of sorts to secure 4 of the best 15 players in the game.  (How did it happen?  It is complicated, but in short the salary cap was set to rise dramatically in a single year, the owners wanted to raise it gradually, the players refused, and so Golden State had a one year window to secure Durant.)

But while Durant could go to Golden State legally, he violated some norms of the game.  It is considered unfair and perhaps cowardly for a player of Durant’s prowess to go to a team of Golden State’s caliber.  Durant could have gone to many teams that would have challenged Golden State.  His going to Golden State created an all star team.

His violation of this norm was shown in the beginning of last season when Golden State was booed throughout country.

Bill Simmons expressed this norm when he criticized Lebron James’s decision to join Dwyane Wade in Miami earlier in the decade (another violation of the norm, but one not nearly as bad as Durant’s):

Michael Jordan would have wanted to kick Dwyane Wade’s butt every spring, not play with him. This should be mentioned every day for the rest of LeBron’s career. It’s also the kryptonite for any “Some day we’ll remember LeBron James as the best basketball player ever” argument. We will not.

So when my wife asked in all sincerity, “What’s the big deal if they play together?” I couldn’t really explain it to her other than to say, “It’s a basketball thing. You just don’t do it.”

If two [alpha dogs] ended up on the same team by coincidence — like Kareem and Magic, Shaq and Kobe, or Michael and Scottie — that’s one thing. That’s sports. S[tuff] happens. But willingly deciding that it would be easier to play together than beat one another?

This norm applied all the more strongly to Durant’s decision to play with the MVP Stephen Curry and the 73 win Golden State Warriors.

Yet, the norm has proved weaker over time than I would have liked.  Durant has his championship now and one hears less and less criticism of his action.  One explanation is that criticizing Durant and the Warriors is bad for the NBA, and sadly sports writers, especially those who work for ESPN, do not want to be disliked by the NBA.  (Simmons, himself, lost his ESPN job in part for criticizing the NFL.)  So, with the “corruption” of the sports writers and the league (does this press connection sound familiar?), the norm is weakened.  And without the norm, the main constraint is the law, which is unfortunately inadequate.