Why Superstar Free Agency Is so Important to NBA's Future

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 9, 2014

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Every free-agent signing sets a new precedent in the NBA

When Jodie Meeks and Ben Gordon end up agreeing to contracts far richer than expected, it makes every shooter in the NBA feel as though they can get—and deserve—more money. More comparable players might opt out down the road, feeling as though they'd be underpaid otherwise. 

Superstars are no different, although they're constantly pressured into taking smaller contracts. 

Remember the backlash Kobe Bryant received when he didn't take a discount for the Los Angeles Lakers? Remember the praise that Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki got when they did? 

Grantland's Zach Lowe summed up the two-headed monster brilliantly in a piece that I'd recommend you read in its entirety: 

As long as there is a salary cap limiting what teams can spend, there will be a real tension between players grabbing as much money as they can and their teams’ ability to sign as many quality players as possible.

This puts star players in an impossible position: accept a pay cut 'for the good of the team' or look like a glutton. When stars take pay cuts to stay together, fans rail against their collusion and call the NBA product a rigged game. When stars chase the money, fans rip them as pigs.

It's a weird double standard, and it's rearing its ugly head over and over this offseason. 

LeBron James won't sign for anything less than a max contract, and that's forcing his fellow Miami Heat superstars into accepting smaller salaries if they hope to keep him around. Chris Bosh could almost certainly draw a max deal elsewhere, but he's expected to take less money and stay in South Beach. Dwyane Wade's knees might lead to him leaving more money on the table already, but he's still being asked to take a major discount for the good of the team. 

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

And how about Carmelo Anthony? 

He's been offered max deals by the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, but his best option—from a purely basketball perspective, at least—would be taking a discount and going to the Chicago Bulls. 

The decisions of these superstars will inevitably have trickle-down effects. Should they all take max deals and avoid forming new amalgamations of individual talent—the opposite of what happened in 2010—we're going to see more stars follow suit. Especially with the star-studded 2015 free-agency class looming in the not-so-distant future. 

But if they take discounts, we're suddenly looking at a league where everyone is expected to do exactly that. And such a league shouldn't exist. 

Already Taking Less Money

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 26: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks on against the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on Jan. 26, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this
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Even though NBA salaries seem ginormous, they're simply driven by supply and demand.

Well, kind of. 

The salary cap acts as an artificial ceiling, and it forces players of LeBron's caliber to accept less money than they'd make in a true open market. Does anyone really think that the four-time MVP is worth "only" a little more than $20 million to whichever team he ends up signing with? 

If you do, you're tragically underestimating his impact.

"So it seems like LeBron truly is a free agent," wrote ESPN.com's Darren Rovell after breaking down exactly what LeBron is worth to the Heat, both on and off the court. "As in free money for Miami if he returns to play for the team. That's three years of LeBron being worth $161.3 million, nearly $100 million more than what the Heat would have to pay him over three seasons."

Deadspin's Kyle Wagner runs a different type of analysis, one that focuses only on his on-court contributions, not his value as a marketing tool and in ticket sales. 

"You'd see either a four-year deal for $193 million, or a five-year $247 million contract for LeBron," writes Wagner. To compare that contract to the one Rovell suggests, the three-year deal would be worth around $145 million.

Again, that's just in terms of on-court value. 

Basically, he's already taking a huuuuuuuuge pay cut. He's just forced to do so, as he can't violate the contractual agreements contained within the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. 

And yet superstars are still expected to take further pay cuts. Sometimes, as was the case for Kobe, they're vilified for not taking less than what they're arbitrarily worth, which is already far less money than they're actually worth to the executives cutting the checks. 

A member of the NBA's union spoke with Sean Deveney of SportingNews.com and didn't exactly swallow his tongue: 

Why is it that our best players should be getting less than they’re worth? We have a collective bargaining agreement that already limits what star players can make, and limits the total amount teams can pay. We have a very tough luxury tax. And now you have teams publicly shaming their best players into a bigger cut?

The CBA is in place, at least until the next time it's up for negotiation after the 2016-17 season, when either side can opt out of the current agreement. Interestingly enough, that's the same time the new massive television deal kicks in, which will make owners even more well-off after a year of reaping the benefits. 

Players aren't going to be able to make more than the maximum salary. That's as black and white as it gets. 

But they can control whether they're willing to cave to public perception and the external pressure to sacrifice more money for a shot at building a better team. And that's a sacrifice that the owners are perpetrating. 

Owners Winning all the Way Around

Jun 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks during press conference before game two of the 2014 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Right now, there are workarounds for the soft salary cap. Exceptions and Bird Rights allow teams to go over the artificial ceiling. If they go too high, they can just pay the luxury tax, as the Brooklyn Nets did this past season while coming fairly close to doubling the actual cap. 

But that might not be the case going forward.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking with Tim Bontemps of the New York Post, explained the league's desire to implement a hard cap last August, and it's still relevant now: 

I would say it's no secret that we went into collective bargaining seeking a hard cap. So, for the long-term health of the league, we would rather do more to level the playing field among our teams, so the teams that have disparate resources are all competing with roughly the same number of chips so to speak.

What I'll add is that what we've seen with the Nets, ultimately there’s no prohibition if you’re willing to pay a very substantial tax — there’s no prohibition on signing the players they did, but the new rules also dramatically limit those players that are available to sign, especially once you move into the tax. So we’ll see [what happens].

Why not? 

The owners dominated the last round of negotiations. Players caving and taking less cash in free agency would only add ammo to the owners' overflowing clips, giving them evidence that the players don't even feel a universal need to make more money. 

Turning back to Deveney, that very fear is impacting LeBron's current desires: 

That, a source told Sporting News, is one of the reasons why James reversed course and now reportedly would like to get his maximum payday. He is the best player in the league, and there is a bad precedent set if the best player in the league is not being paid as such. There is a fear that other owners could use that as a cudgel in negotiations with their stars, much like Jackson has did with Anthony.

What makes this even more important is the lack of concessions being made by the owners, who are already in great shape and set to be in even better straits after that TV deal kicks in. 

"There is this whole brainwashing thing going on and teams are selling it to their fans that this player or that player should take less, that they would not take their money if they truly cared about winning. That's BS," an anonymous agent told Deveney. "If you want to win, you're the owner, go over the tax line."

Think about the Indiana Pacers. 

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

They're staunchly refusing to go over the luxury-tax threshold, instead trying to pressure Lance Stephenson into taking less money, even if that means risking that he goes elsewhere. Somehow, some way, that's going to be turned around to work against "Born Ready" if he declines the discounted offer and switches teams. 

"He wasn't loyal," some will say. 

"He's being greedy," others will proclaim. 

Really? Is that really what we think about a man who's trying to make the money the market is willing to offer him elsewhere?

Imagine your employer trying to pay you a substantial amount less than you're worth—while he or she has the budget to meet your reasonable demands—and then pinning the blame on you when you go to a competitor. Obviously, that wouldn't fly in a more traditional setting.

"But sacrifice is a two-way street, and every situation is a beehive of complex variables," writes Lowe. "No choice is easy, and the hero/villain lines are never as clear as we’d like. If it’s so virtuous for a great player to give up salary, why shouldn't an owner also be called upon to lose money if it will help his team win?"

They should. 

However, that's not what's happening here, and this summer has the potential to make it worse. Much worse, in fact, between the precedent that could be set and the arguments that could be levied against the players should superstars take drastic pay cuts this summer. 

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Even though they're still rather limited in terms of what they can do, this is the opportunity for LeBron, Melo, Bosh and the rest of the remaining free agents to exert what control they have at their disposal. 

Some players should take discounts, especially later in their careers as they seek more—or first—rings. Duncan and Nowitzki are the perfect examples, and their willingness to sacrifice is a positive simply because it shows players do still have options they can choose to pursue. 

But if LeBron and Melo both follow suit? That's when we're setting a rather dangerous precedent. 


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