The free agency landscape is tough terrain to navigate. The very best players in the league want to play in the best cities for the most money. But not only that, they want to play with their friends and they want to win a lot of games at the same time.
In some way, the NBA is becoming a highly paid adult version of AAU ball where players just want to be with like-skilled friends and make a boatload of cash while doing it.
The more things change
"They don’t want to compete," former Phoenix Suns player and Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley lamented on KTAR at the start of free agency. "I never heard of this before, with players wanting to get together as a super team and not compete."
LeBron James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami four years ago thanks to the shrewd maneuvering of Pat Riley, who cleared his decks to give huge contracts to those three and then fill out the roster with filler. The HEAT got to 4 straight Finals before LeBron decided to "return home" last week.
Riley proved that a super-team can work. And now LeBron is trying to team himself and Kyrie Irving with Kevin Love to make a new super-team in his home town while he makes the most money possible under the CBA.
Daryl Morey is trying to do it in Houston, one player at a time. Everyone would love to do it.
The more they stay the same
Charles said he's never heard of this before.
Ehh, I've heard of it before. Before free agency and such, the Los Angeles Lakers were a star-studded team that never had to be broken up by the salary cap rules. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and many more graced the Forum floor for a decade. In Boston, you had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish (and Jerry Sichting, by the way). None of those teams were broken up by salary caps.
Of course, none of them made a bunch of money like today's stars. The average player salary in 1984-85, the first year of the salary cap, was $330,000. Stars like Bird and Jabbar needed to make more than that, so the league had to devise a term called the "Bird Rights", named after Larry Bird, to exceed the cap to retain your own player. Bird and Jabbar made as much as two-thirds of the entire cap itself in those days.
Barkley whined himself off the Sixers in 1992 because they weren't good enough to win a championship (shades of LeBron in 2010) and got traded to a star studded team in Phoenix. But the Suns lost the well-constructed Bulls team (two stars and a bunch of role players) and Charles eventually got himself paired up with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in Houston (a super team?), but they came up short as well.
When is a max contract not really too much money?
"It would be great to win a championship," Barkley said in that interview, of Anthony's decision between NY and someone else. "But it would be greater to have $35 million dollars."
Today, players are not allowed to exceed 30% of the cap by themselves - even LeBron James is "stuck" at $20.2 million this year. Considering he's been estimated to generate half-billion dollars per year in team revenue by himself, I'd say he's underpaid. And the cap itself is coming to be a sham, given that franchise values are soaring already while TV revenue is set to soar within a couple of years. Expect another player strike in 2016.
If LeBron James generates a half-billion dollars per year, what does Eric Bledsoe generate? Not nearly as much, but what if it's even $50 million? We're talking extra ticket purchases, concession revenue, merchandise sales, higher local TV packages, etc. etc. The money can add up quick.
But I'm not an economics guy, so I won't go any farther than that. I have no idea what economic impact a player like Eric Bledsoe has on Phoenix - or could have on Phoenix if he makes All-Star teams and starts getting national attention. But I do think it's fair to ask that question.
But it's a business
The other side of the coin is that, now that the CBA is signed, teams have to stay within that confines of the CBA. Every dollar saved on each contract is a dollar that can be spent on another. $63 million is not enough to field the best team in the NBA. It is enough to field a competitive one, and with some luck you can put together an exciting season like the one the Suns just finished.
However, that was a one-time thing. Nearly every player outplayed their contract. Three of them became eligible for new contracts.
- Total contract value for Eric Bledsoe, Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker in 2013-14: $9.9 million, or 17% of the salary cap
- Total contract value for Bledsoe, Frye and Tucker in 2014-15 (estimated): $28 million, or 44% of the salary cap
That's staggering how much those guys were underpaid last year, and it underscores why the Suns had to let (at least) one of them go. You need to field a team of 13 players, so spending 44% of the cap on three is tough to swallow.
Next summer, you've got Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Goran Dragic all coming up for new contracts. This year, they will make less than $17 million combined, or 27% of the cap. That's a great deal for four of your 13 active players. However, in 2015-16 their total contract value could be as high as $40 million. With only one real starter in that group, you're starting to see the picture.
So we are at a standstill. Bledsoe's team think he is worth more than the most money the CBA can allow. At the least, he wants to be paid like Russell Westbrook, who got his own max extension recently.
Players have collectively decided that they need to get theirs and let the teams lay in the bed they made for themselves. LeBron insisted on max money on Cleveland. Bosh got max money in Miami. Carmelo Anthony got (a hair short of) max money in New York. Kobe Bryant got more than all of them in LA.
Restricted free agents are getting theirs as well. Gordon Hayward. Chandler Parsons.
And now Eric Bledsoe wants to join the group. He wants the most the Suns can offer (5 years, $84 million), but would likely settle for the most some other team can offer (4 years, $63 million). Still, he wants the max, and doesn't think it's his problem to deal with the salary cap implications.
He is not going to give a home town discount unless he's forced into it. And he shouldn't be expected to do that either.
I would love it if Bledsoe signed for $12 million per year because that leaves more money for the Suns to spend on other players. If he gets $16 million per year, that's a loss of a really good rotation player. One that might spell the difference between winning a playoff series or losing it.
But is that Bledsoe's problem? Or is it the team's problem? Or, the NBA's problem?
Frankly, I don't think Robert Sarver would mind paying Bledsoe all that money. He gave richer contracts to Amare Stoudemire. STAT took one (in 2005) but not the next one (in 2010, because it had non-guaranteed portions).
But he also lost Joe Johnson over a few million dollars. And other players have left with a bitter taste in their mouths as well over the limits he puts on the spending. But he says he's learned his lessons.
"Two big things I learned," he told John Gambodoro before the Draft this year. "Sometimes if you have something really good, you think the grass is greener somewhere else. You try to get better but you also have the chance of getting worse in trying to get better."
Well, the grass is pretty green right here. The Suns have a good thing going with this team and it would be a shame to break it up over a little money.
But they got caught up looking over that fence at LeBron this month. They lost Channing Frye in the process, but managed to recover enough to keep Tucker. Now there's Bledsoe sitting all alone, but getting really antsy.
"Eric is our #1 priority," GM Ryan McDonough said reassuringly on NBATV last week.
The Suns don't want to bid against themselves, but they need to keep their own players happy when they are the #1 priority. Losing Bledsoe now would make the Suns appear cheap once again, and you'll never get the best players to come to Phoenix if you can't keep your own players.
Plus, losing Bledsoe would be a step in the wrong direction. This team is on the rise, and they cannot afford to lose their best players over contract problems. Don't do a "Joe Johnson Revisited" here.
This is the time to strike. Find a deal with Bledsoe and get it done. Even $15 million won't be as big on the cap in two years as it is today. Maybe next year and the year after, players will want to come to Phoenix because they know they will be treated well financially and that their teammates will be treated well too.
And worry about next year, next year.