Today’s NBA demands that free agents maximize their earnings — and that means loyalty and obligation take a back seat.
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The arrival of NBA free agency is once again upon us. Each July 1, at precisely 12:01 a.m., once vague rumors commence their annual march from heresay to high-level talks to completed deals, with the resulting fireworks lighting up every corner of the basketball internet.
This year, the soon-to-skyrocket 2016 salary cap promises to have a significant impact on player signings, particularly as it concerns max contracts. Still, despite the record league-wide profits and unprecedented global strength of the game, the antiquated notion of the the hometown discount (“HTD”) remains. Ostensibly, the HTD occurs when a veteran player (typically active for a decade or more) agrees to take a significant reduction in compensation in order to give his team more room under the salary cap to sign quality players.
The NBA’s most prominent HTD triumvirate currently consists of Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs), and Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat). Each has taken less money than they’ve deserved in order to bolster their team’s chances at a championship. The gambit hasn’t been without its fair share of successes: The Mavericks won their first-ever title in 2011 as a result of Nowitzki’s contractual generosity the year previous, and made a respectable run in subsequent years with the addition of Chandler Parsons (again, on Nowitzki’s dime) and a reunion with Tyson Chandler.
The Spurs copped ring number five in 2014 by bringing back virtually their entire team, which wouldn’t have been possible had Duncan insisted on his usual — and wholly commensurate — $20-plus million salary, rather than the $10.3 million he got in 2014–15. (Duncan did get a rare and coveted no-trade clause in 2011 when he re-upped, so there’s that).
By contrast, LeBron James wouldn’t have come within sniffing distance of South Beach had Wade not taken one for the team in eschewing the max to create room under the cap for The King and Chris Bosh to join him.
Being a team player is essential in any sport, particularly at the professional level. Loyalty plays well to team ownership and the fans, and gives players a sense of value, security and stability —which, if you have a family, are undoubtedly important things.
But at what cost?
“The organization must come first. It’s the most important thing — protecting that and investing in that.” — Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder GM
A storm is currently brewing in Miami around alleged reneging of monies “promised” to Wade as a reward for leaving so much money on the table in 2010 so James and Bosh could join him. After twelve years with his first and only team, Wade wants to be the highest-paid player on the Miami roster (that honor on the HEAT currently goes to Bosh). Which is why he opted out of his $16.1 million second-year player option, thus becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Even boasting a no-trade clause — one of just six in the league (Nowitzki, Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Garnett hold the others) — isn’t enough to compensate Wade for what he could’ve earned over the years. Granted, his streaky playing time, a product of oft-injured knees and various other minor maladies, is one of the biggest thorns preventing the Heat from dropping $20 million. That’s just good business sense, particularly given the other contracts (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic) the team needs to address this summer (Dragic is reportedly receiving a five-year/$90 million deal).
Then again, Wade — the self-proclaimed “Heat-Lifer” who helped hang all three of the team’s banners, and whose committment to the community has always been strong — shouldn’t be treated like some 37-year-old journeyman bench guy, either.
Duncan only missed five games during the 2014–15 season, due in no small part to head coach Gregg Popovich’s noted emphasis on strategically resting veteran players. During the other 77 games, Duncan dragged an injury-laden and often under-performing team to the franchise’s sixteenth year of winning at least fifty regular season games, and a record eighteenth consecutive playoffs appearance. He more than held his own in the post against the much younger and more athletic Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan during the first round of the NBA Playoffs, at one point famously fending them both off to swat away a shot.
During this, his eighteenth NBA season, Duncan posted a PER (player efficiency rating) identical to that of his rookie year in 1997–98 (22.6). More impressive still, he did all of this with a shaky left knee and a 39-year-old body. Yet the current scuttlebutt is that, if Duncan re-ups for a nineteenth season (no word yet at the time of publication), the Spurs hope he’ll accept a two-year contract of $6 to $7 million, with a player option for a partially guaranteed second year. The Spurs don’t want to clog up the books with rising franchise face Kawhi Leonard having just agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal and big-name free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol very much on the offseason radar screen (Gasol has since cancelled meetings with other interested teams, instead concentrating on a new and expected deal with the Grizzlies).
Wade, Duncan, and Nowitzki are all future Hall of Famers, league and Finals MVPs, and multiple-time All-Stars. Each has provided consistent, quality production for one team over an extended stretch of time—to say nothing of, you know, championships — but ownership clearly does not place the same value on those accomplishments.
The discounts these players are encouraged to take are at the very least surprising and, at most, out-and-out insulting. Particularly when you consider Duncan (#7), Wade (#9), and Nowitzki (#14) all landed on the NBA’s top-selling jerseys list for 2015, or that the Spurs and HEAT are consistently among the top ten highest-selling teams with respect to merchandise.
Ironically, both Bryant and James have been vilified in the media for being, to paraphrase Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks, “all about that money action, boss.” Bryant even moreso for the bloated contract extension that kept his pockets lined as he sat out most of 2014–15 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and will see him netting a cool $25 million in 2015–16.
James, meanwhile, has once again opted out of his year-two player option to sign a new, more lucrative deal, though it is widely expected that he will stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Love them or hate them, Bryant and James seem to be clued in to what a lot of players are reluctant to admit to themselves: It’s business, not personal. Any businessman worth his salt would advise that maximizing profit should be a key goal, if not the goal, in an industry where the average career lasts five years and most players end up broke due to bad financial management.
Add in the fact that the players’ union has often acted contrary to the best financial interests of the people it was ostensibly supposed to protect (e.g., 2011 lockout concessions and current Collective Bargaining Agreement), and you get the idea. It’s an unspoken rule of business: The less one tries to gain the most lucrative deal for oneself, the less respect that person is granted.
Sad? Certainly. True? Absolutely.
The NBPA’s current executive director, Michele Roberts, is trying to keep money in the pockets of the players she represents. To that end, she’s speaking out against another wage-depressing tactic.
Getting top dollar for one’s services is the core tenet of the capitalism upon which America was founded. For better or worse, it’s a movement that is slowly catching hold in the NBA. Take Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls, who famously bet on himself when he declined a lower contract extension offer at the beginning of last season, leading to a first-ever All-Star appearance, the Most Improved Player Award, and now a potentially hyper-lucrative payday (which the Bulls have now offered at 5 years/$90 million max, leading Butler to postpone meetings with other interested teams).
How ironic that Kobe and LeBron, hoops prodigies that came straight into the league from high school, have a better grasp of the NBA’s economics than their peers with three or four years’ worth of collegiate experience. In Bryant’s own words:
“It’s a big coup for the owners to put players in situations where public perception puts pressure on them to take less money, because if you don’t, then you get criticized for it. It’s absolutely brilliant. But I’m not going for it. And I know the new head of the players’ association ain’t going for it either.”
It would behoove the rest of the league to emulate not only Bryant’s and James’s championship-caliber style of play and work ethic, but also their understanding of the players’ value and leverage. They — and James especially — have long since understood that there is no love in the NBA streets, and that the next generation of NBA stars best heed the sage advice of the Wu-Tang Clan: “Protect ya neck.”
Or, in the parlance of a simpler time, something a bit more straightforward: “Show me the money.”