Two and a half weeks ago, Business Week released a study on the “smartest spenders in the NBA.” Kurt talked about the top and bottom ten here. It’s nothing shocking. The Lakers spend really well! The Wizards and Kings spend really badly! Turns out there’s a high correlation between “being a really good team” and “spending your money well” as well as between “being a really crappy team” and “wasting your money.” These lists are primarily talked about in the discussion realm of “what franchises are awesome/terrible.”
Setting aside how flawed that is (payroll is such a small and contextual factor in how a team should be considered as a business), the whole outlook of just ranking the teams independently or on some merit scale is adorable headlines for thirty seconds, but the bigger point gets missed completely.
Here’s the list in its entirety:
Let’s consider the list primarily not through the lens of judging the franchises. Let’s instead consider the relative value of the franchises on this list and their standing in free agency and as a draw for players. What are the top free agent or traded player destinations and their relative ranks on this list? This is in no particular order and based on my subjective interpretation of events, so this is where arts meets science, or whatever word you want to use for gibberish meets science:
Los Angeles Lakers, Rank: No.1 It’s sunny, you win championships about every four years or so, there are movie stars, etc. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom on the cheap (for his last contract which just expired).
New York Knicks, Rank No.29. Big city, bright lights, television appearances, Fashion Week, Madison Square Garden, pizza. Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby.
Miami Heat, Rank No. 3. Beaches! Nightclubs! LeBron! DWade! Chalme…. LeBron!
Boston Celtics No. 2. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry. The history. The legacy. The complicated racial and class lines that divide the city. Oh, and the parks are really nice.
Brooklyn Nets No.28: New building! Flashy! New York! Jay-Z! A weird Russian guy who splurges on everything! Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez, Reggie Evans.
So overall some really good teams on that list. Also, some downright horrible, awful, God-forsaken teams. The Nets you can excuse, though, because so many of their losses came in the franchise’s attempt to bottom out before Brooklyn. With the move, they’re a whole new team under Prokhorov. It’s like a clean slate. Kind of.
But here’s what I find interesting. Teams like the Magic (No.4) , Spurs (No.5), Hawks (No.8), Nuggets (No.9), Jazz (No.12), Rockets (No.15) and Sixers (No.16) can’t get free agents to pick up the phone for them. The Spurs’ summers are so quiet if you told me the entire franchise goes into cryogenic deep freeze and I’d believe you. The Jazz could hold a contest where the first big-name free agent to show up in their office would win a million dollars just for being there, and they’d still have a million dollars to spend trying to figure out whey no one will come to their offices for a million dollars. The Rockets gave $60 million dollars to two guys who were NBA invisible two years ago.
But the Knicks? The Knicks are beating players away with a stick trying to sign up. The Nets are suddenly one of the hottest places for agents to try and set their players up. The Dallas Mavericks had to fill out their top-eight roster using the amnesty wire and players whose teams did not pursue them for a re-sign, for Chrissakes. (Dallas came away great, but they whiffed on Deron Williams and did not connect on whatever effort they put into the Nash chase and instead got Chris Kaman. No matter how good Mark Cuban thinks Chris Kaman is, that’s a drop-off).
What I’m getting at is that agents continue to throw their clients into situations where they are not well-suited to win, which is going to hurt their value on the subsequent contract. No, it doesn’t matter for players like Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby, but these patterns are not new. The Clippers have spent $13 million less than the NBA average on payroll, and yet still gave a massive contract to Baron Davis, would have given Elton Brand one, and still managed to be the place Chris Paul decided was cool enough to come to.
I’m not even necessarily blaming the agents, if the client wants to go somewhere, it’s their job to get the deal done. And in cases like Texas and Florida, the tax situations apply. In L.A., the endorsement opportunities and quality of life matter. And it’s not like Chicago would have that hard a time landing free agents if Jerry Reinsdorf decided to release his death grip on his wallet.
But these teams, the Hawks, the Nuggets, the Jazz, the Rockets, they’ve all been smart, quality spenders driven by fiscally responsible yet aggressive management or ownership willing to pay for its talent… but their cities aren’t cool enough. This study is a reflection of a free agency market that talks about how much winning matters, and yet always gravitates towards the cool.
It’s not even about the money! That I could understand. If this were baseball, I’d understand. But in the NBA, the players whose salaries really matter have set rates they can make under the CBA. There’s only so much money to be passed around, and from there, it’s personal preference. But the preference isn’t towards teams with a proven track record of success, it’s toward what feels cool to them? We focus so much on trying to help the teams to reach the level of their competitors in order to level the playing field. Maybe instead we should focus on educating the players to make them realize that the beach is still a nice vacation spot, but that nothing does more for your earning potential in sports like winning.
Because from here, it doesn’t look like that matters much at all.