Ballin’ Without a Budget

Ordinary players are making extraordinary money, good players are pulling down stupid cash, and superstars are over-the-top, off-the-hook rich. Guess who gets gamed come springtime?

NBAE/Getty Images
NBAE/Getty Images

The Clippers are in a unique situation in that they share an arena—and city—with the Lakers, who are the defending Western Conference Champions, a perennial media favorite and a team that has dominated the hearts and minds of L.A. sports fans for decades. Yet, just two years ago, the Clippers were a better team, and with this signing, they look to get a two- to three-year window to become a significant alternative to the Lakers.

Also, the Davis signing makes it a virtual lock that they will re-sign Brand, who produces films with Davis. Davis is an L.A. native who starred at UCLA. And lastly, the signing gives the Clippers the marketing push of offering two articulate and likable public faces to contrast with Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ often-petulant superstar.

Still, in the three seasons from ’04-’05 to ’06-’07, Davis missed an average of 28 games a year. If the back trouble recurs, he’s going to be a very expensive marketing ploy.

The Arenas signing is a bit more of a head-scratcher. Last season, Arenas played in only 13 games due to injury; the Wizards went 43-39. In ’06-’07 Arenas missed eight games and the team went 41-41, and in ’05-’06, Arenas missed only two contests and the Wizards went 42-40. When healthy, Arenas is a great player, arguably among the 10 best in the NBA, but his impact on the Wizards appears to be, well, negligible. His presence or absence doesn’t appear to make any difference whatsoever in the win column; without him, Washington is a second-tier playoff team and with him, they aren’t any better.

The wisdom of committing fully one third of your payroll to such a player eludes me. Once a team breaks into the win column after many years of losing, which is what the Wizards did four seasons ago, they then have to choose between just being interesting to watch or gunning for a title. With the re-signing of Arenas for $127 million, it looks to me as if the Wizards have chosen looks over rings.

The Udrih signing isn’t a cap killer in a noxious way, but its characteristic of NBA financial incompetence. The Slovenian guard had a decent season as the starting point guard for the Kings after three indifferent-to-bad seasons as a backup in San Antonio.

I could see offering a player of this profile a two-year deal, three if pushed, but five years and $33 million is absurd. Udrih’s production, 14.4 points, 4.9 assists and 46.4 percent shooting per 36 minutes of action, is comparable to several free agent point guards who will happily sign for two years and $3 million each. Committing $33 million dollars to such a player illustrates that even good NBA GM’s (Sacramento’s Geoff Petrie is one of the most respected execs in the league) get caught up in the frenzy of early July.

The toll that this spendthrift period exacts comes due when teams are a piece or two away from a title run. It’s then that the star making superstar money, or the always injured player making eight digits or the bench-warmer making $6 million a year become obstacles. Teams with such players lack the cap room to become real contenders. That isn’t much of an issue in July, but fans bear the brunt of it in April and May.

Martin Johnson is a New York writer.