Why Grossly Overpaying Players Has Become a Ritual in the NBA
The NBA, first and foremost, is a business, and a ruthless one at that.
There's more to navigating the Association than meets the eye; hardly any transactions are as simple as Player X wanting to sign with Team Y.
Simply put, everything that means anything in this league comes down to dollars and cents.
And that's why not just overpaying, but grossly overpaying, NBA athletes has become a ritual—a tradition that all teams buy into.
But why? Why has the league and its franchises allowed this to become a tradition? Why is it such a rarity to see players ink justified contracts? And why are obscene amounts of money being handed out without so much as an afterthought?
We have the very first powerhouses to thank for that—all of it, in fact.
The NBA is no longer a place where a team hopes to rebuild through the draft by selecting an eventual superstar whom they can surround with complementary talent.
Instead, the league has become a place where star-studded tandems, triumvirates and even quartets are running rampant. The age-old team consisting of a single pillar is history and the era of numerous cornerstones is officially a reality.
And that's where the money—more specifically, the boatloads of money—comes into play.
Superstars never came cheap to begin with, but now that nearly every team can never have too many, the market for them has become even more competitive.
Teams are offering max deals to free agents in hopes that the money alone will be enough keep them in their current digs. Do you really think the Atlanta Hawks wanted to offer Joe Johnson over $120 million? Of course not, but if they didn't, he'd have played somewhere else the past two seasons.
Then there are the teams who offer wads of cash in hopes of prying talented players away from their current homes. And in some cases, it works, forcing the incumbent team to enter desperation mode, where they in turn throw small fortunes at a second-tier player just to save face and sell seats.
In other cases, like restricted free agency, it's a matter of bidding up your opponent. It has become a tradition for a team to let its restricted free agent set his own market value, leaving said franchise free to decide what to do from there.
This leaves competing teams throwing down large amounts of cash in hopes of either, again, prying the player away from his current team, or forcing the other organization to pay top dollar just to retain their athlete (Daryl Morey knows what I'm talking about).
That's all just a little thing we'll call strategy.
But it doesn't end there.
With these so-called super teams now hotter than ever, teams are gearing up years in advance just to make a play for numerous stars on the open market. Franchises are holding fire sales to create enough cap space to make a local powerhouse a reality.
Crazy? Perhaps. Smart? You bet. Unique? Absolutely not.
And that's another problem. We don't have just one or two teams decimating rosters in an attempt to position themselves for upcoming free-agency spending sprees. Instead we have five, or more.
What happens then?
I'll tell you what, at least one or two teams are left in the offseason dust, missing out on their primary targets. Now, what are they to do? Can a team really embrace having scrapped and saved for years only to come up empty?
Absolutely not, which is why desperation comes into play again. I mean, we all remember the summer of 2010, right? The New York Knicks had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in their sights, but when the going got tough, they went to Plan B.
And what was Plan B? Throwing five years and nearly $100 million Amar'e Stoudemire's way—time and money that no other team was willing to offer.
Picking up on what I'm saying?
Good, but we're not done. That's right, more comes into play.
So, we have these blueprints for super teams, right? These are teams that are laden with stars, who are essentially players with massive egos. And what better way to satiate one's near-insatiable self than by taking one's talents to a big market.
I'm talking about New York, Los Angeles, Boston and now Brooklyn, among others. These aren't rinky-dink, run-of-the-mill markets—they're the big time.
And playing in the hottest spots, on the brightest stage, leads to an increase in exposure and revenue streams. Not bad at all, unless you're a team in a smaller market.
I'm talking about teams like Memphis, who have to pony up the dough immediately, before another team in a more favorable market does. Being forced to act in such an impulsive manner doesn't exactly give teams time to think. After all, their main concern is keeping their player out of the hands of another team.
Has overpaying NBA players become a necessary evil in a team's pursuit of a championship?
That's why teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder are never out of the woodwork, even if they built their team from the ground up through the draft.
It may have been easy for the Thunder to line the pockets of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but don't think for a minute they didn't second-guess Serge Ibaka's extension before issuing it.
He did Oklahoma City a courtesy by foregoing the opportunity to snag a fifth-year this summer, but they did him a favor by paying him an average of $12 million, money he's not worth—not yet anyway—but money another team was sure to pay him.
The same will ultimately hold true for James Harden. The Thunder will either have to pay him or accept losing him to a bigger market, or to a team that was offering more.
Simply put, for smaller markets to have a chance against bigger ones, they have to strike first, and early. Because if it comes down to a similar contract offered by two teams, more often than not, the organization situated in a less desirable market is at disadvantage.
This is all supply and demand and mom-and-pop shops vs. mega conglomerates at its worst.
Superstars keep a team's heart beating; they win championships. To snag or retain a superstar, you must be prepared to offer large, often unwarranted, amounts of money. If you're in a smaller market, you must be prepared to do so early on, without thinking.
But if you miss out on a superstar, simply trying again next time isn't enough—you have to take the next best thing, no matter how much he may cost.
Sure, there's the always a team or two that winds up out-bidding themselves (the Pacers re-signing of George Hill, anyone?), but more often than not, the source of obnoxious contracts doesn't come down to worth.
It comes down to circumstances.
This is no longer a league where loyalty is considered a viable negotiating tactic. After all, look how well that worked out for Cleveland two years ago, Denver but over a year ago and Orlando weeks ago.
Chivalry in the NBA isn't dead, but it's wavering. We're now in a time where money talks, recklessness spells victory and shrewd spending is looked down upon.
So while there are those of us who would like to believe that the teams are in control and others who know the players are in the driver's seat, the truth is, both sides are wrong.
Because nowadays, it's not just about the teams, the players, the fans or the opportunity to win; it's all about the Benjamins and how many of them can be tightly packed into an athlete's wallet in the shortest amount of time.
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