The 2010 NBA Free Agency Fallacy

Teams are promising to spend big money on big talent next summer, but is it mostly an excuse to be cheap now?

Wade has the title box already checked, having led the Miami Heat to a championship in 2006, so Heat fans will rightly be nervous about the prospect of his departure. His likely destination wouldn’t be the open market, though, but rather to his native city of Chicago, where the Bulls are only beginning to shake the shadow of the ‘90s title teams. With Derrick Rose, another superstar in the making, the Bulls would be an attractive destination for Wade.

Bryant is a god in Los Angeles, and the Lakers are well positioned to contend for an NBA title for the next three or four years. I can’t imagine him leaving that situation. Nowitzki loves playing in Dallas, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has shown he will spare no expense to keep his stars. It’s unlikely that Phoenix Suns all-star point guard Steve Nash would have signed an extension if he wasn’t assured that Stoudemire, the Suns front-court star, would get a new contract.

Now look at the teams that are selling this bizarre hope. Try the following sentence: The Los Angeles Clippers/New York Knicks/New Jersey Nets (or Brooklyn Nets, if you prefer) are title contenders. It’s hard to say without a chuckle and hard to write without an eyebrow rising in skepticism. These aren’t teams that are a superstar away from a title; these are teams that need a lot of work, and a superstar is just one of their several needs. The Atlanta Hawks, which won 47 games last season, are a different case, but until they can resolve the disputes among the owners, it’s unlikely that they will spend the necessary cash to build an elite team.

The thing is that the executives running these teams know the odds of them landing a superstar talent via free agency are only a little better than their chances of buying a winning lottery ticket. Why mount this charade? It facilitates cost cutting, and fiscal prudence in and of itself is probably the least sexy activity in the world. The free agent class of 2010 has allowed several teams to cut costs while selling a dream of glory. The possibility of that glory is very small, but the first step to rebuilding a team is to get the salary cap issues in order. That’s what the Portland Trail Blazers were doing three years ago, and now they have the youngest team in the league coming off a 54-win season.

Teams are selling dreams of superstars while engaging in good, old-fashioned solid accounting. Done right, it will produce a winner—just not the winner that fans are expecting.