I’m not sure how it got to this point. Maybe it was Ali’s powerful self-promotion and important civil rights stance that began the process of moving sports away from organizations into the realm of the individual. Maybe Phil Knight and Michael Jordan finished the job. Whatever the origin, some paradigm shift has taken place in sports that has moved the balance of power into the hands of the individual, and the importance of sport has shifted largely from competition to E Channel-like celebrity obsession. Today’s owners need to put a popular face on their organization to give it a strong recognition factor, bring in endorsements, and sell tickets. They are willing to pay.
None of this is a problem. I’m all for athletes and entertainers getting as much as they can for themselves and their families in the short span that they have to excel in their field. The problem is what arises from this atmosphere of individual aggrandizement and money-powered decision making, and it’s a problem that may have peaked in the NBA where stars are sometimes manufactured too quickly and players lock into long-term salaries that their talent doesn’t merit. Salary cap structures, guaranteed contracts, complex trade rules, luxury tax, expansion to thirty teams, all of it is combining to change the aim of the sport.
Look at Minnesota’s situation. Do they keep the $22 million face of their franchise another year and risk losing him for nothing on the open market when he has the opportunity to opt out of his contract at the end of the 2008 season? Do they trade him for the best talent they can get and attempt to compete in the stacked western conference? Or do they package him with Blount and / or Jaric and make a trade for expiring deals and draft picks to help ease their salary cap situation?
Obviously for the present competitiveness of the team (which we all hope is the chief interest of the fan base), either keeping Garnett or trading him for the best possible players would be in order. But the reality of the salary cap rules is that the only option is to try to get rid of some of the long term contracts that will keep the team from improving with or without Garnett. If he leaves with no return, and the other contracts remain on the cap, the team will be without a face and without an opportunity to get a new one because their salary cap situation will still preclude any major free agent signing.
How can a team be in a situation in which it loses a $22million per year player and still has cap concerns? That goes back to aggrandizement of the individual again. For every major increase that a face of a franchise receives in salary, all the players who are less valuable from a marketing standpoint are still aware and desirous of commensurate compensation from a performance perspective. Surely Latrell Sprewell considered himself worth more than ¼ of Garnett on the court. Why shouldn’t he receive better money than $7million per year? So it goes with all players, and guys like Blount, Jaric, Davis, and Hudson are given contracts commensurate with their perceived talent but not with their value as salesmen for the franchise. Now if you lose Garnett and retain all of those players you have an under-talented, but, even worse, under-marketed organization with no “face”.
So should the Wolves trade away their face and try to dump their veterans with long term deals as well? Should they go into a money conservation mode for as long as it takes to find a new face of the franchise through free agency or good luck in the draft? The Bulls tried that for years and would up with under-achieving teenagers, Jalen Rose, Ron Mercer , and an extended streak of missed post-seasons as their initial payoff for their fans. Lucky teams like Cleveland or Orlando will land a face of the franchise in the draft. Yet even they have trouble finding talent to go with that player and have been forced to overpay for players of questionable fit because all the strongest talent is already attached to other organizations as the faces of those franchises – even players whose talent isn’t necessarily a match for the responsibility.
I don’t know what the long term solution to this money-driven conundrum is. It does seem that trying to put a more reasonable cap on individual salaries would help teams be more flexible. It might be good for the league to get rid of guaranteed deals and use the NFL system of big signing bonuses as lures rather than long, unbreakable contracts. Neither of those is likely possible due to the power of the players’ union and the firm stance of the collective bargaining agreement.
A more feasible approach might be to try to put the emphasis back on the importance of the team, the organization, so that borderline stars like Stephon Marbury, Kenyon Martin and Rashard Lewis are not paid like face of the franchise stars. Lower salaries make them tradable assets. They could be pared with true superstars, and every player lower than them on the talent totem pole would become less apt to believe he deserves an extra $2million per year to feed his family. Flexibility might return to teams with a need for personnel changes, and stability might increase for teams who already have a lot of talent and don’t want to lose it all to overbidding by other teams trying to take their Joe Johnson and Larry Hughes level players away.
But that would require the NBA to be marketed and reported to the fans as a team game rather than having individual players glorified and overexposed by E. I mean ESPN. It’s hard to tell sometimes with LeBron and Beckham showing up as often on one as the other.