Sunday, December 11, 2005

Staying Power

After going after the teams and the League a little bit on Saturday (if that post made any sense—sometimes I'm not so sure), I figured I'd talk a little about the players today. (I actually started writing this on Sunday thanks to the wonderful world of the NFL, where the ONLY nationally televised game on at 1 p.m. was Raiders/Jets.)

Ben brought up a good point in his comment on my last post, and that is that it's hard to have an ideal League when the players keep moving around. Which is true. And while I'm undoubtedly a fan of free agency (Curt Flood!), it definitely makes it more difficult for smaller-market teams to stay competitive. It also makes it easy for a skinflint owner like Donald Sterling to save money by simply turning the team into a revolving door of lottery picks, never quite getting good enough to make the playoffs, but never quite getting bad enough for all the fans to take their ThunderSticks and go home (I know, this year the Clippers are good, and some guys have actually gotten extensions. We'll see how long it lasts). Everyone gets rich in the modern game, but if anything, the heightened salary scale has seemed to INCREASE player's needs to get more than the next man. Each new ridiculous deal sets a new benchmark that every agent and player re-figures their own worth by: "Hey wait—(A) is making more than I am? I averaged more (points/rebounds/assists/post-game interviews) than him!" It doesn't occur to player B that his salary is already higher than 99.9999999999999999999 percent of the population, and maybe that it's quite enough to live on. (It's a good thing the NBA instilled a salary cap when they did, or the Juwan Howard $100 million deal may have led to the planet's financial collapse.) So everyone seems to be constantly on the move, making themselves available to the highest bidder, loyalty be damned. I can't count on both hands the number of players I've heard (either directly to me, or in other interviews), that "the NBA is a business." They're right, of course.

But it's a shame. The thing is this—a few high-profile exceptions (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson) aside, the best of the best generally played out the majority, if not all, of their careers with one team. From Bob Cousy to Larry Bird, from Bill Russell to Hakeem Olajuwon, from Willis Reed to Patrick Ewing. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, David Robinson. For the most part you knew, as a fan, that your star was going to stay YOUR star. You could comfortably buy his jersey without worrying that he was going to get traded for a backup center and four second-round picks. Reggie Miller retired last season after remaining a Pacer for life, and the first thought was "what was he thinking?"

I'm not sure exactly when this changed—Dr. J being sold to the 76ers was an anomaly (and a special circumstance), so I'm thinking it was either Dominique Wilkins being traded to the Clippers, or the Sixers trading Charles Barkley to Phoenix. But trades like Barkley and Nique were exceptions, not the norm. The face of the franchise was rarely let go. After all, a team's identity was as important as its record, and the money being thrown around wasn't nearly what it is today. You could actually afford to have a superstar AND build a team around him. (Remember when Magic Johnson signed his last deal with the Lakers, and it was 25 years for $25 million? That amount seemed shocking at the time.) Loyalty actually seemed to mean something—Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were able to retire as Celtics, and Robert Parish probably would have if he didn't decide to play for 200 years. (Sure Boston ran aground in the end, but that was more because Len Bias and Reggie Lewis DIED.)

I decided to go back through NBA Drafts one at a time, to see how many players I could find who were still playing for their original teams. The most recent was in 1995, where one player—Kevin Garnett—is still with the franchise that drafted him. The 1996 Draft? One as well—Allen Iverson (although Kobe Bryant was traded to the Lakers on draft day). From 1997 there are two, Tim Duncan and Adonal Foyle. And from 1998, yep, one—Paul Pierce (Dirk Nowitzki was drafted by Milwaukee and traded to Dallas). There were a shocking four from 1999 (Wally Szczerbiak, Shawn Marion, Andrei Kirilenko and Manu Ginobili) and two (Morris Peterson and Michael Redd) from 2000. 2001 is the first year's draft where you actually have to count carefully.

So between 1995 and 2000, including the draft-day trades, that's 13 guys. The lucky 13 in six years, stuck on their original teams (only two overall number ones, Duncan and Iverson). And most of them, with the exclusion of Duncan, Ginobili and Kirilenko, have been linked to various trade rumors over the years. Six of them—Garnett, Iverson, Bryant, Duncan, Pierce and Nowitzki—are the undisputed faces of their respective franchises. Hopefully it stays that way.

Because with other guys—put it this way: If you buy your three-year-old a jersey, you have to hope he outgrows it before it becomes just another throwback. Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephon Marbury, Vince Carter, Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, Alonzo Mourning, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Keith Van Horn, Kenyon Martin, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Elton Brand, Sam Cassell, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Baron Davis—how many franchise saviors or would-be saviors have left, or been dealt, either before they were given a chance to succeed, or after their demands ran too high?

There are a lot of factors for this, obviously. One is the rookie contract scale, which means that players are coming up for their first big deal before teams have a good idea about what they're going to be able to do. Combine that with the influx of high-school guys, and teams were forced to decide whether they should invest $70 million or so in guys like Jonathan Bender, Tracy McGrady, Tyson Chandler, Jermaine O'Neal before they really knew what they were capable of—or, at least, before they saw solid in-game numbers. Better than Glenn Robinson asking for $100 million straight out of college? Maybe. But not by much.

Another is impatience—simply that, with SO much money tied up in payroll, teams are on a "win now or else" track. Coaches are hired and fired, rosters are shuffled so fast that experienced card sharps would have trouble keeping track. Player turnover is so high that some teams need to make their media guides monthlys. Instead of picking a roster and a coach with a particular system, then having patience and seeing if things work, GMs just do patchwork fixes—and end up with situations like Don Nelson coaching a rookie Chris Webber, or Larry Brown with a whole mess of rookies.

The solution, of course, is that there is no solution. Extending the rookie deals and setting an age limit should make it easier for teams to invest money in players—by the time they come up for their first extensions, they should be closer to finished products. But there are still no assurances. When LeBron's deal is up, despite his solid ties to the Cleveland area, he's be silly not to consider the financial implications of a move to a bigger market. Or what about Dwyane Wade? Miami is fun and all, but with Shaq on the decline, why not seek out greener pastures later?

Until then, hold off on the jerseys.

Gotta run out for now, so I'm just going to post this while reserving the right to edit later.

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