There are obviously worse things than being paid millions of dollars to play professional basketball, so many in fact that the experiences of NBA players are often discounted on the basis of their privilege. This, for the most part, is understandable; those who have much have less theoretical reason to complain, as a successful burst of an NBA career (not to mention all of the opportunities that arise as a result of that status) has the ability to sustain a player and their family for some time — if not their entire lives.
Still, with the contemporary sports media culture dissecting players, teams, and the finances behind them at every turn (and this portal can surely be counted among that group), a few names get dragged through the mud on a regular basis for reasons of bloated contracts alone.
Stephon Marbury. Steve Francis. Eddy Curry. Jared Jeffries. Jerome James. Just about anyone who suited up for the Knicks in the mid-2000s, apparently. These players — who have worked their entire lives toward the singular goal of succeeding as an NBA player, mind you — made it to the best basketball league in the world and were/are openly ridiculed because some general manager or owner was willing to let go of a bit more money than was necessary. The player’s only fault was not being quite as good as advertised, and for that horrible injustice they shall never be forgiven.
Luke Walton doesn’t quite deserve to be grouped in with the aforementioned overpaid players (he’ll make $5.8 million, an excessive but league average salary, in the final year of his contract in 2012-2013), yet he’s often used as a cautionary tale for teams misusing the power of Bird rights. Walton is not deserving of pity for this reason, but the targeted, incessant negativity that seeps from NBA coverage towards players like Walton is something that the average NBA fan either refuses to acknowledge or refuses to understand. Walton reflects on the subject of being cast as unworthy and overpaid in an interview with Petros and Money of Fox Sports Radio in Memphis (via Sports Radio Interviews):
“It obviously bothers me. I haven’t really noticed it because I kind of stay out of the media during the offseason. But obviously it bothers you as a player. You want to feel your worth. Obviously I’m getting paid a salary that was for a much larger role back when we agree upon the deal. I was a playmaker, I was playing 30 minutes a game and I was able to do a lot of things for a team. And I had offers from other teams to do the same thing. … For the most part, fans have been great out here. Then, all of the sudden you bring in Pau Gasol and other players of that caliber and my role kind of gets smaller and smaller. I can still play the game … then all of the sudden my back goes bad on me and mentally I’m frustrated. … The role that I was paid that money to do kind of got taken away in a sense.”
Again, this isn’t about poor, pitiful Luke, just obtaining a fuller understanding of the experiences of marginal — and yes, overpaid — NBA players. It’s true, Walton doesn’t produce at any level even remotely near what his salary would suggest. But he’s correct in asserting that he signed his current deal to return as a member of a very different Lakers team, one that saw him as an active creator in the triangle offense. The Lakers have improved significantly since that point, and though retaining Walton once seemed important, his presence is now superfluous in terms of the team’s success.
Yet when the unwavering criticism falls, Mitch Kupchak — the man who brought Gasol to L.A., and elevated the Lakers to contenders once again — is more or less spared. Walton’s shortcomings as a player are something he owns, but along with those, too, comes any perceived responsibility for the team agreeing to overpay him. There was no trickery involved, no sleight of hand; just a different player playing a different role for a different team, and a series of natural and organic changes that marginalized what once was.