By Ben Fisher
It’s become an annual rite of summer: the NBA free agent frenzy opening to hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown around on players who may or may not lead their new team to new heights. Any and all perspective is thrown out the window, as analysts point to who overpaid and who secured bargain deals (as if a ‘bargain’ can exist for an athlete being paid at least seven figures to put a ball through a hoop).
This summer, alone, has seen $119 million shelled out to a player last seen being booed off his home court in an embarrassing play-off loss (Joe Johnson), $100 million put towards an oft-injured center (Amar’e Stoudemire) and over $250 million spent on a superstar trio (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) with one championship ring between them.
All of this coming in a time of economic uncertainty in which commissioner David Stern projected $370 million in losses among the 30 team owners for 2009 and the prospect of a 2011 lockout looms large over the league.
The question, as it should always be in preparing to make a significant financial commitment, is whether it’s worth it. In short, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’.
A recent Wall Street Journal piece, titled “For That Salary, a Title Would Be Nice,” explored 14 contracts which writer Tim Bella had identified as being max or near-max deals dating back to 2000. Despite the exorbitant sums of money changing hands and the high-profile nature of the players in question, Bella found that only one deal (Shaquille O’Neal to Miami in 2005) led to a championship in the player’s first season with the club and only three (O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant) have ultimately resulted in at least one championship.
Aside from the trio of championship winners, the NBA has seen a long string of high-priced players fail to achieve the ultimate end goal for a wide variety of reasons. Orlando’s sign-and-trade deals for Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, costing the team over $160 million, would wind up being expensive mistakes thanks to Hill’s constant injury woes and McGrady’s inability to lead the Magic to any postseason success.
Sometimes, as in Hill’s case, injuries have plagued a high-priced athlete following their signing of a big money deal. Chris Webber, who agreed to a seven-year, $126 million contract with Sacramento in 2001, led the talented Kings to the Western Conference Finals but failed to build on that success due largely to a career-threatening knee injury in 2003.
Jermaine O’Neal (Indiana – seven years, $126 million) and Michael Redd (Milwaukee – six years, $91 million) would later experience similar struggles.
Much like McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas – six years, $90 million) and Ray Allen (Seattle – five years, $80 million) seemed unable to answer the challenge of being ‘the Man’ on a play-off contender. Nowitzki, as we will discuss below, has grown into the role of featured postseason performer, but still has yet to lead the Mavericks to the Promised Land. Allen, simply did not have it in him to be the guy for Seattle and only played 11 play-off games as a Sonic. He would, of course, thrive in a secondary role in Boston years later.
Some players, meanwhile, have come painstakingly close to raising the Larry O’Brien trophy before ultimately falling short. Nowitzki falls into this category, after carrying Dallas to the 2006 NBA Finals before coughing up a 2-0 series lead and losing in six games to a Miami Heat squad with, arguably, inferior talent. Jason Kidd (New Jersey – six years, $103.6 million) knows that kind of heartbreak all too well, failing to lead the Nets to a championship despite consecutive Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.
As the public has grown more skeptical of throwing tons of money at big names, sports media has become quicker to criticize gaudy deals for undeserving players. Those who questioned the Magic for arranging a sign-and-trade deal for Rashard Lewis that would cost them $118 million over six years have been proven partially right, as Lewis has reached the NBA Finals but only as the fourth-best player on Orlando.
In the same vein, those who ripped Gilbert Arenas’ six-year, $111 million contract with the Wizards look positively ingenious now as ‘Agent Zero’ embarrassed Washington with a much-publicized gun-related incident last season.
With superstar-calibre talents changing teams and the NBA landscape transforming, this free agent class could be different. After all, the Heat have to be considered the prohibitive favourites now with a competent cast surrounding James, Wade and Bosh.
But, to paraphrase an age-old saying, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”