Lack of Drama
9:32 AM EDT on July 7, 2010
For NBA fans, 2010 is always going to be remembered--for better or worse--because of the free agent bonanza. In many ways, the availability of a plethora of the league's best players and the upcoming labor dispute that is bound to derail the league next season, has influenced the entire league for the past three seasons.
In 2006, the vaunted draft class of 2003 became eligible to sign extensions. Many of the players taken that year had become superstars quickly in their careers, and--arguably--the three best players chose to leave money on the table rather than take the maximum allowable. There were many reasons to explain the seemingly odd decision (I mean, how often do you tell your boss you appreciate the raise offer, but you'd rather take less now so you can make more later? You take the money on the table, right?). For LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh they had the confidence that they could continue building their brand for three more years when they would hit the magic number for years experience right before armaggedon was scheduled to hit the league.
With agents that apparently forecast the Wall Street meltdown, housing collapse, and nationwide reception better than anyone on Capitol Hill, these three players are now in perfect position to cash in before the league owners destroy the player's union when the collective bargaining agreement ends prior to free agency in 2011. When that happens, most expect the league's current financial crunch to give owners all the leverage they need to reduce the size of player contracts and/or even institute a stricter salary cap that would limit player salaries even more.
So, to get paid, players need to get paid now, and as a result, half the league has tanked ever since the big-3 chose to go this route in order to have an opportunity to snatch them away right now. For those who don't know, "tanking" is the practice of intentionally making a team worse in hopes of the short term pain leading to a long term reward. It usually is related to jockeying for a better draft slot that allows the team to get a better college player a few months later. In this case, though, the spectre of getting an established young star has led to prolonged tanking by half the league.
The New York Knicks, who had a horrible roster to begin with, have been intentionally making lop sided trades against their favor in order to clear cap space to sign LeBron. The Nets sold part of their team to LeBron's favorite rapper to get an advantage, and are probably moving the team to Brooklyn to impress him specifically. Miami, on the other hand, has already had one of the stars (Wade) since drafting him in 2003, but they have managed to shell off every player on their team (aside from him and two low wage earners) with hopes of signing all three of them. So, if Wade chooses to go elsewhere, they will be looking at a core of Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley for next season. Other teams like the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, and Minnesota Timberwolves have also maneuvered their rosters so that they can afford to offer at least one player a maximum contract.
Do the math. Three players and at least six teams who have gone all-in in hopes of getting one star. If the rumor that both Bosh and Wade have decided to go to Miami is true, with James potentially joining them after he selects a team by choosing a hat during ESPN primetime on Thursday, that means there are a lot of teams who intentionally got worse who are likely to remain that bad for years. Did you notice one team not mentioned?
The Oklahoma City Thunder.
Keep in mind, because of the shrewd dealings of general manager Sam Presti, the Thunder actually had the cap space to get in the bidding war. Thanks to the great young talent he had assembled, they actually had a pretty enticing argument that any of those players would have had a chance to win a lot of championships by coming here. But instead, Presti made the decision to sit out this Summer.
While most of the league was trying to sell their draft picks to preserve cap space, or save money because they actually were hemorraghing from the awful economy, Presti and his enviable cost structure took advantage. He acquired Eric Maynor last season simply by taking on the salary of a player the Jazz overpaid long ago (it cost OKC almost nothing since the player was hurt and the contract was insured, but because Utah was so overextended, they still had to pay luxury tax for his salary). He acquired a boatload of draft picks by taking on other team's bad contracts and used those to assemble an orgy of young talent that compliments the team's stars--Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Now, acquiring a high paid player to go with them is simply a luxury, but one that Presti has determined to be unneccessary. Why join in the bidding of a sellers market? Once the big three have made their choices, the second tier guys are going to end up getting more money than they rightfully deserve. For instance, Nets fans aren't going to be satisfied if their team--which has been teasing them with the hopes of adding LeBron while the team sputtered for years--chooses to wait another year to make significant improvements. They'll give a good, not great, player like David Lee a contract paying him as if he were LeBron as appeasement.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder continue with their brilliant--albeit boring--plan to steadily improve internally. Like the tortoise in the classic children's tale, Sam Presti makes minor tweaks with high character players that can grow together as a team. Sure, Dequan Cook (picked up in Miami's salary dump) and Cole Aldrich (acquired by saving New Orleans from themselves) are not going to make ESPN devote hours of programming, but the Thunder don't need a big splash.
Sure, we're missing out on the drama, but instead we get to rest assured we will have a good team next season, anyway.