Thursday, February 18, 2010

The NBA's Biggest Star? It's Not Who You Think

Venture some guesses as to who is the biggest star in the NBA right now. LeBron James? Nope. Kobe Bryant? Nope. Dwyane Wade? Uh-uh. Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitki, or Steve Nash? No, no, no, and no (and no, it's not T-Mac either for those of you trying to take a hint from the picture. This isn't 2002.). Alas, my brothers, the biggest star in the NBA right now has neither a name nor a face. The biggest star in the NBA these days is The Expiring Contract.

Pay any attention to non-Olympic sports coverage this week and I'm sure you've been awash in Tracy McGrady trade talk. T-Mac used to be one of the best players in the Association despite never winning a playoff series. But these days McGrady is on the wrong side of 30, has not played close to a full season in three years, and this year has spent about 46 more minutes in an NBA game than yours truly has. Why, do you ask, has he become relevant again for purposes besides those of the tongue-in-cheek variety? Because his Texas-sized contract, which pays him about $22.8 million this year, will be up at season's end. In layman's terms, whichever team holds him at that point wakes up to find $22 million shiny new dollars of salary cap space under its pillow. And with an A+ free agent class coming this summer (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh are the headliners), teams are in a mad race to free up as much money under the cap as they can.

The Houston Rockets drew more suitors for T-Mac's contract than Elin Woods after depositing the alimony check. As events have turned out, the New York Knickerbockers have paid a handsome bounty of players and draft picks for the honor of saying bye-bye to T-Mac come April. The move has been so lauded by New York media and fans that you'd half expect playoff tickets to be printed up soon - for the 2010-2011 season. The Knicks couldn't care less what McGrady does for them on the court. It probably doesn't even matter to them if he shows up or not. His expiring contract now gives them the financial leeway to sign not just one, but two of the big three free agents. The Knicks have been targeting this coming offseason for over two years. July 1, 2010 will be LeBrondependence Day.

This scenario is Exhibit 1A of how FUBAR'd the NBA is presently. The combination of guaranteed contracts (with buyout clauses that vary on an individual basis, unlike in hockey) and the salary cap leave franchises zero room for error when it comes to signing players to long-term deals. The Knicks are still trying to dig themselves out of the hole of bad contracts 9 years after a ridiculous extension for Allan Houston set them on the wrong track. The Sixers are presently handcuffed by the garish Elton Brand pact signed before the 2008-2009 season. There are countless other examples. Too many things can go wrong - injury, subpar play, feuds with coaches or teammates, etc. - during a player's time with any team in any sport, which is why guaranteeing nearly every dime in a contract is a hefty liability. A big contract gone bad is not as crippling in the NFL (annual salaries are not guaranteed) and Major League Baseball (no salary cap) as it is in the NBA.

It gets worse. The draft is now littered with one-and-done college players and foreign-league imports, many of whom are supremely talented but woefully underpolished. Building through the draft is a crapshoot. Building a team through trades is equally tough, because there is just not enough league-wide talent to make for quality trades. That leaves free agency as the one timely savior of a floundering NBA franchise. Since we already know the risk with big free agent contracts, it puts even more of a premium on the sure-thing free agents of 2010, 2011 (Carmelo Anthony), and 2012 (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose).

The end result is a cash-strapped league with about 10 teams good enough to actually warrant charging United States Dollars for tickets, and about 5-6 teams within that subset with a legitimate chance to win a championship. In two-thirds of NBA cities, you could give someone free tickets to a game and whether they'd go or not would depend largely on who the visiting team is that night. Oft-injured and underperforming players become hot trade commodities. My basketball fandom pales mightily in comparison to my following of baseball and football, but I can still remember many nights watching big NBA games in the Jordan era and even into the first half of this decade. I cared then. Everyone who watched cared then. The NBA Playoffs still get good TV ratings, so people still watch. But how many actually care?

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