Wherein the best-laid plans have been known to go astray.
Hast never come to thee an hour,
A sudden gleam divine, precipitating, bursting all these bubbles,
These eager business aims—books, politics, art, amours,
To utter nothingness?
–Walt Whitman, “Hast never come to thee an hour” (DayPoems Poem No. 2010), 1891
[Note: The following essay imagines an alternate future in which more than half of NBA teams are in financial straits, the salary cap shrinks, the U.S. economy is wheezing, the Dow Jones has plunged below 7,500, the three or four banks left standing in the country have absconded with about $1 trillion of our money, and dogs and cats are living together. In short: mass hysteria.
You see more and more of them these days, the handwringing naysayers wearing the emotional equivalent of a sandwich board proclaiming the end is nigh. It’s tempting to shrug shoulders slumped by the spreadsheet tracing bills ever higher and paychecks that seem to be built of pesos in a Euro world, and give in. To underestimate the power of a single smile counteracting the frowns that pervade our world today is to surrender the human spirit itself.
It’s doubtful that Walt Whitman looked up long enough from his leaves of grass to contemplate the future of the NBA, given that he died just as basketball was being invented. But he sure had a read on the clown car that’s absorbed an ever-increasing posse of Pollyanna NBA GMs, a group of good-natured fellas who are seemingly transmogrifying morphine into Zoloft for all the daydreamer drawings they’re sketching in their cap-clearing coloring books (2010 edition).
On your very screen mere days ago commenced a debate over the merits of wunderkind executive Joe Dumars, the man who has applied a Wonka touch to all manners of trades and draft choices in his decade at the Detroit Pistons helm. Joe D. found his winning streak snapped last November after a panic move that shipped out Pistons heartbeat Chauncey Billups for waterbug assassin Allen Iverson. The trade torpedoed a team coming off 59 wins, a seventh division championship in eight years, six straight trips to conference finals, two NBA Finals berths, and the 2004 NBA title.
Yes, at worst, acquiring Iverson gave Dumars salary cap space for 2009 and beyond. But is he to be truly trumpeted for playing savvy accountant? It’s a bit too convenient, and damningly revisionist, to say that Detroit had no shot at a title this season with Billups.
To say now that the trade just gives Detroit more time to prep for the Chris Bosh Mardi Gras in 2010 merely provides Dumars with a warm waterbed on which to fall. When Iverson was shipped north, the word was that the Pistons were “going for it,” not “freeing cap space.” Now that the team is a game over .500 and free falling, no one needs to rush out and pat Joe on the tush in admiration of his slide-rule dexterity.
The Boston Celtics core is old and vulnerable to series-altering injury. Orlando is applying Magic, playing defense with mirrors, with the good fortune to be anchored by the Baddest MF in the conference. The Cavaliers are much better than expected, but even with accidental All-Star Mo’ Money patrolling the backcourt, no one fears Cleveland. Miami, Atlanta? Please.
Why not give Rodney Stuckey another year as understudy to All-Stars Billups and Rip Hamilton? Stuckey having proved an able sub for Billups in last year’s playoffs—a stretch of a half-dozen games—was no reason to toss the kid the keys a couple of games into his sophomore season. Chicken and egg it if you wish, but Billups’ value has never been more evident than this season, where he has invigorated Denver and convinced a weakened Nuggets team to climb in the fierce West, while every rotation player left in Motown has seen their game take a step back without him. The Pistons were not some decrepit crew outstaying their welcome.
And on top of it all, to paraphrase the new acquisition, we’re talking about Detroit as a destination for free agents. Detroit. We’re talking about Detroit. We’re talking about Detroit, man.
But we have not come to bury the Pistons’ Panicking Crew; Dumars’ move was merely the most spectacular failure of the trading season. This speaks more to an alarming trend, GMs from oceans A to P chasing the fools’ gold of cap space.
Introductions to Poetry in Pros aside, the NBA, and the business world in which it resides, is black and white. So many millions change hands, the players themselves continuously remind us that basketball is “business first.” [Cough] And as much as we all might want to believe in President Obama and the power of positive thinking and Carla from Top Chef baking her way to a win by infusing her food with “love” and a Livestrong wristband levitating me to a win at Tour de Fond du Lac, well, merely smiling doesn’t make it so.
So why oh why oh why are GMs selling fans a false bill—“clearing cap space”—they cannot possibly hope to pass? Or alternately, what if the salary cap began to…shrink?
That wacky huckster Pete Vescey claims he’s counted up 26 teams currently “clearing cap space” in anticipation of 2010 spoils. That appears to be a hyperbolic estimate—sorry Memphis, you may be lucky to have an off/on ABA team in town in two years. For argument’s sake, let’s say 15 teams are in play for the coming free agent classes.
The world economy is darkening. The U.S. Government has just passed a Ponzi scheme purporting to bail out our banking system so massive it makes the empty promise of cap space clearing in the NBA seem like a modest Madoff Plan.
The salary cap has grown 815 percent in the past two decades, from $7.2 million in ‘88-89 to $58,680,000 this season. Since the turn of the century alone it has nearly doubled. Franchises that once could well have been built atop some land in the juicy-rich oil country of Monahans or Odessa, just waiting for it to barf Benjamins with the light tap of a derrick, are now dry wells destined to drain some owners dry.
We’re starting to see some scary signs of the real world creeping into the NBA, and not just in the form of “clearing cap space.” Seats near and far from the sidelines sit empty—a small-market club like the Bucks feel lucky to avoid hearing echoes dribbling in a half-full Bradley Center these days. And now news has leaked of a league “emergency fund” of borrowed monies, intended to help keep the weakest NBA teams afloat.
The salary cap is going down—perhaps as fast as it shot up.
A conservative estimate might peg the ‘09-10 salary cap at $50 million, a drop of 15 percent. If all things economic aren’t righted by miracle cure, it’s reasonable to think the recovery might not be underway by 2011, so expect the cap to take another plunge from there.
When the dust settles on the storied Class of 2010, teams could be squeezing players into a salary cap that’s rolled back to $45 million or less.
Think professional team sports are such a steamrolling sure thing that there’s no possibility of scaling back costs and salaries? Look at what happened in baseball this past offseason. Opting out of a contract in the NBA is roughly the equivalent of declining arbitration in baseball, and not a single ball-and-stick player who declined arbitration this winter acquitted himself well. A few stars, including shortstop Orlando Cabrera, remain unsigned as Spring Training begins.
At the beginning of this season, a NBA player in the market for a max contract could have signed with a new team starting at 25 percent of the salary cap, or $14.6 million. In the frighteningly realistic summer of 2010, that contract now starts at $11.3 million. To think that DWade snickered to Fave Fiver LeBron a couple of years ago when ’Melo took the sissy route and re-upped with Denver for an extension starting at $13 million per year!
Remember, the reason that superstar players like LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh signed mini-extensions in 2007 was in anticipation of a new collective bargaining agreement three years later that would, theoretically, rake in untold riches from a salary cap that was continuing to soar. That prognostication appears to be a failure.
Of course, no one will be shedding any tears for $10 million in wages Bron-Bron or DWade gambled away. One new Nike or T-Mobile deal alone should take the edge off of any of their losses. But how about the endorsement-free, max-contract star most likely to leave his team, Bosh?
C. Wesson could have locked himself up in Toronto for the same five-year, $80 million extension ’Melo inked in Denver. How much will signing the mini-extension instead cost him? Re-upping with Toronto looks like it will now net Bosh about $3.5 million less than ’Melo over five years. An outright jump to another club, admittedly a rare move in a free agency system that decidedly favors the home team, could cost Bosh more than $7 million over five years.
Ironically enough, by the time Anthony is up for another contract extension in 2013, the economy is likely to be running full tilt again, with a salary cap again skyrocketing toward the $100 million mark.
It was so minor, you may have missed it, but much earlier this ‘08-09 season, LeBron acknowledged that he’d consider signing an extension with Cleveland this summer. Not coincidentally, the report came on the heels of some of the first devastating economic downturns of the fall. With some older Americans selling businesses or retiring in anticipation of the economy getting worse before it improves, why should a younger businessman—er, player—like LeBron treat his future salary any differently? If LeBron decides to stay in Cleveland—which he will—signing this summer as opposed to 2010 will save him several million dollars over the course of his extension. Wade’s not headed anywhere, either—certainly not to join LeBron among the Superfriends in Gotham—so he’d be smart to re-up with haste as well.
Not to go Grinch on you, but the anticipated flurry of free agent movement over these next two years is simply not going to happen.
So, we have 15 suitors with cap space aplenty in coming seasons. Who’s left to jump teams?
Kobe can terminate his contract this summer and jump to another team. Will he? Right. Nor will Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Hedo Turkoglu, Michael Redd or Richard Jefferson. That leaves a 2009 free agent class of Iverson, Rasheed Wallace, Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Grant Hill and Shawn Marion.
Hill has already said he’ll retire rather than move from the Phoenix Suns, while Odom and Miller could well offer hometown discounts to remain with their current clubs. Wallace is having the worst season of his career, and couldn’t be less motivated at this juncture if you spotted him a down pillow and an extra-long rollaway. That leaves two stars likely to switch teams in 2009, and Marion’s delusional belief that he’s a front-line scorer and AI’s addiction to touches translate to steep cuts in pay for both.
Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire, Peja Stojakovic and Kenyon Martin can terminate their contracts in 2010. Not a single one will. The Mavericks have a team option on Josh Howard that would be refused in another city, but Dallas is governed by the deep pockets of Mark Cuban. Bosh, it seems, will negotiate a sign-and-trade, so he’ll move, but not for free.
That leaves a “pure” free agent class in 2010 of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal, Steve Nash, Marcus Camby, Shaquille O’Neal and Manu Ginobili.
Shaq and Nash will still be useful players, if on last legs. Z, Jermaine O’Neal and McGrady have equal odds of medical retirement as they do continuing their careers as contributors in 2010. If the Atlanta Hawks let Johnson go, they might as well move the team to Quito. Allen has a good enough thing going in Boston that it’s easy to imagine him re-signing at a Beantown discount. That leaves Manu and Camby as the prizes, both with their shares of cuts and nicks. Manu will make a lasting stand in Alamo City; Camby will pack his bags and bring his Gumby D to a new city.
All in all, players likely to move from their current clubs and produce star numbers for a new team include Bosh (sign-and-trade), Camby, Iverson, Marion, Shaq and Nash. That’s six players, spread across two seasons, with a feeding frenzy of 15 teams going after them. It’s as if the highlight reels will run out before we can settle in to seats and dig into Milk Duds.
So, Donnie Walsh, how do Bosh and Nash sound? They’re no LeBron and DWade, but then, those guys were never going to be rocking Knicks kicks in the first place.