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The NBA’s Summer of Stupidity…

July 7, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Sports, Weekly Columns

( LeBron James will get paid what he deserves, but a lot of teams will end up spending too much on free agents who won’t help them win titles…

We’re witnessing one of the most ballyhooed off-seasons in pro-sports history. Often referred to as “the Summer of LeBron,” this NBA off-season will feature competitive bidding on three of the NBA’s four best players: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh. In addition, another top 10 player, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, and four other top-tier talents–Atlanta guard Joe Johnson, Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire, New York Knick pivotman David Lee and Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer–are available as consolation prizes.

For nearly three years now, teams have carefully sculpted their payrolls to ensure that they could be players in the free-agent bonanza of 2010. The ballyhoo over the summer auction reached such a crescendo that it nearly drowned out an exciting regular season and an NBA Finals between the league’s most storied franchises–the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers–that went to Game 7.

Something with this much overheated expectation can’t help but be a letdown, and this summer almost certainly will disappoint. While all the attention has been focused on the players, it’s important to look at the other side of the table: NBA general managers, vice presidents and other decision-making personnel. These aren’t superstars of Human Resource Management; the NBA has a “soft” salary cap governing its payroll, which means teams can–and often do–exceed the cap limit to re-sign their own players. And, for the most part, those contracts are guaranteed.

So, despite the fact that Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the season for bringing guns into the locker room–and he ultimately pled guilty to a related felony charge–the team is stuck with paying the balance of his contract, just over $80 million for the next four seasons.

Due to his high-profile legal trouble, it’s easy to make Arenas the poster boy for bad NBA contracts, but look closely at a list of NBA contracts and you will double over in derision. Rashard Lewis of the Orlando Magic, Michael Redd of the Milwaukee Bucks, Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz and Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies are in the top 10. All are good, but none of them belongs on a list of best players in the NBA.

What’s more, all of these contracts were signed during a notably uncompetitive market in which few teams had the salary cap space to make these players a competing offer. Although outrageous, this is business as usual in the league, where player-personnel decision makers seem to have little grasp of player value or the impact of a long-term contract on the payroll flexibility of the franchise. This is why so many NBA trades amount to “our contractual mistake” for “your contractual mistake.”

But on July 1, we entered a period when these men began bidding on players in a competitive market. This won’t mean much for James, Wade or Bosh, who are certain to receive maximum contracts. They deserve it. Using John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, which tallies a player’s production on a per-minute basis, James (31.19), Wade (28.10) and Bosh (25.11) are three of the four best players in the NBA (the fourth is Kevin Durant, 26.23, who rates a shade ahead of Bosh).

The outrage will be that all of the players in the second tier, Stoudemire (22.69), Boozer (21.42), Lee (22.68) and Johnson (19.33)–each a fine complementary player–will land superstar contracts from teams that have hoarded salary cap space just for this moment but were spurned by the biggest names. What’s worse for their new teams, Johnson is 29, Stoudemire and Boozer turn 29 later this year, and Lee is 27. Most experts say a player’s peak years are between ages 25 and 29. Five-year contracts to any of these players will have a very deep, slippery slope after a couple of years. The result will mire some teams in mediocrity for years to come.

The NBA has the least competitive balance of any major sports league. The San Antonio Spurs have missed the playoffs only once since Barack Obama’s days as a Harvard Law student; the Los Angeles Lakers only twice. The reason for the hegemony is because most teams fail to differentiate between nucleus players and superstars, between role players and nucleus players, and between bench fillers and role players.

Thus, every NBA payroll has an overpaid player, or three, and few teams have the cap room to make moves that could augment a good draft and move them into the elite. Instead, the same small cadre of teams vies for the title every year; a less fortunate bunch are stuck between being a first-round playoff loser and a low-level lottery team; and others are just plain laughingstocks.

After millions of words of speculation, no one really knows where the superstars will land during the NBA’s equivalent of Christmas in July, but some lucky team will find itself with one or two new franchise faces in the next couple of weeks. The other teams are more likely to settle for players who are good but not superstars, even if their new salaries say they are. Those teams will probably also set the ceiling for their achievement well short of the NBA Finals. It isn’t quite a lump of coal, but it’s close.

Written By Martin Johnson

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