The NBA's Summer of Stupidity

LeBron James will get paid what he deserves, but a lot of teams will end up spending too much on free agents who won't help them win titles.

Posted:
 
99039028
Getty Images

We're witnessing one of the most ballyhooed off-seasons in pro-sports history. Often referred to as "the Summer of LeBron," this NBA off-season will feature competitive bidding on three of the NBA's four best players: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh. In addition, another top 10 player, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, and four other top-tier talents--Atlanta guard Joe Johnson, Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire, New York Knick pivotman David Lee and Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer--are available as consolation prizes.  

For nearly three years now, teams have carefully sculpted their payrolls to ensure that they could be players in the free-agent bonanza of 2010. The ballyhoo over the summer auction reached such a crescendo that it nearly drowned out an exciting regular season and an NBA Finals between the league's most storied franchises--the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers--that went to Game 7.

Something with this much overheated expectation can't help but be a letdown, and this summer almost certainly will disappoint. While all the attention has been  focused on the players, it's important to look at the other side of the table: NBA general managers, vice presidents and other decision-making personnel. These aren't superstars of Human Resource Management; the NBA has a "soft" salary cap governing its payroll, which means teams can--and often do--exceed the cap limit to re-sign their own players. And, for the most part, those contracts are guaranteed.

So, despite the fact that Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the season for bringing guns into the locker room--and he ultimately pled guilty to a related felony charge--the team is stuck with paying the balance of his contract, just over $80 million for the next four seasons.  

Due to his high-profile legal trouble, it's easy to make Arenas the poster boy for bad NBA contracts, but look closely at a list of NBA contracts and you will double over in derision. Rashard Lewis of the Orlando Magic, Michael Redd of the Milwaukee Bucks, Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz and Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies are in the top 10. All are good, but none of them belongs on a list of best players in the NBA.

What's more, all of these contracts were signed during a notably uncompetitive market in which few teams had the salary cap space to make these players a competing offer. Although outrageous, this is business as usual in the league, where player-personnel decision makers seem to have little grasp of player value or the impact of a long-term contract on the payroll flexibility of the franchise. This is why so many NBA trades amount to "our contractual mistake" for "your contractual mistake."