NBA owners making same bad decisions as before the lockout


Pacers center Roy Hibbert, a former Hoyas star, has been offered a max contract by the Portland Trail Blazers. (BRENT SMITH/REUTERS)
Jason Reid
Columnist July 8, 2012

With their reckless spending in free agency last week, NBA owners proved yet again that the people who run the league are also the biggest impediment to its long-term financial health.

Despite all the lockout-inspired talk about the need for change because of their massive losses, owners displayed a business-as-usual approach in making questionable eight-figure offers to non-superstars. Although owners succeeded in wresting a bigger piece of the revenue pie from players during the 149-day work stoppage, they apparently made no progress toward making wiser basketball decisions.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Until that happens, owners will need protection from themselves that can’t be collectively bargained.

The NBA handed out bad contracts as if it were the federal government. And the hard-line owners in the recent labor negotiations were among the worst offenders.

Robert Sarver of the Phoenix Suns and Paul Allen of the Portland Trail Blazers were reportedly in the group willing to detonate the entire 2011-12 season in a failed effort to persuade the NBA players’ union to capitulate across the board. Then they made two head-scratching proposals at the outset of free agency.

Sarver is attempting to lure New Orleans Hornets shooting guard Eric Gordon with a maximum-salary, four-year contract worth $58 million. Allen offered Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert the same top-of-the-line deal.

Gordon and Hibbert are restricted free agents, so New Orleans and Indiana could retain the players by matching the offers (free agents cannot sign offer sheets until Wednesday). The fact, however, that either is in such a favorable position is ridiculous.

I’m opposed to the concept of “maximum contracts.” Placing an arbitrary cap on an individual’s earning potential is contrary to the free-market principles owners exploited in becoming billionaires.

But since max salaries are part of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, owners should show better judgment in determining who actually deserves them. Gordon and Hibbert shouldn’t be on that list.

Gordon possess a nice long-range shooting touch and is a productive scorer, but he has never played on a playoff team or been selected as an all-star. He’s coming off knee surgery, which limited him to nine games last season.

The hard-working Hibbert developed into a first-time all-star this past season. Since his college days at Georgetown — “To put it bluntly,” former Hoyas assistant Ron Thompson once said, “Roy was awful” — Hibbert’s game has improved as much as LeBron James’s image has over the past few weeks.

Still, Hibbert has career averages of only 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. Last season, he established personal-best marks with 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and ranked fifth in the league in blocked shots.

Regardless of how Hibbert’s numbers are totaled, though, they don’t add up to $58 million.

Gordon, 23, and Hibbert, 25, are promising young players who could have many strong seasons ahead of them. Teams evaluate free agents on their body of work and make projections about future performance.

It’s just that in the NBA, max players are supposed to be the best of the best. They should be among the most recognizable faces in the game.

James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant — those guys are superstars. They’re the ones who merit the biggest possible paydays.

To understand why owners would do so much for the Gordons and Hibberts of the hoops world, you first have to know how they think.

The actions of owners in all sports are mostly driven by one of two factors: Either their desire to win, or their desire to make it appear as if they’re trying to win to appease ticket-buying fans. In both instances, owners often overbid for talent because, as one Western Conference general manager told me Saturday, “billionaires are unaccustomed to forgoing things they want due to the cost involved.”

Well-run teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have good records of paying players in accordance with their value.

The lockout, owners said, was needed to give small-market clubs like the Thunder and Spurs a fighting chance against the big-market behemoths in New York and Los Angeles. Fact is, the Thunder and Spurs have been doing just fine.

They’re proof that the size of the market doesn’t matter. It’s mostly about the choices teams make.

While citing losses of more than $300 million in each of the previous three seasons, NBA Commissioner David Stern said the league’s previous economic model was “unsustainable.” Owners negotiated a better revenue split (players received 51.5 percent last season, down from 57 percent in the previous CBA), and players also agreed to reduce the length of their contracts and the raises they could receive.

Owners got all those givebacks and are already being wasteful. They complain that bad contracts prevent them from being profitable yet rush to give more.

Too many have overpaid for players who aren’t even established in the league. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander is the leader in that race.

The Rockets are wooing New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin with a four-year deal worth close to $30 million. Chicago Bulls backup center Omer Asik is weighing a three-year, $25-million windfall.

The Harvard-educated Lin was one of the NBA’s best stories in years. The twice-waived player made a Big Apple-sized splash with his scoring and passing while reviving the Knicks — until a knee injury ended his season after only 35 games, including 25 starts.

Lin became a global rock star as much for his trailblazing status (he’s the league’s first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent) as his no-look passes. Problem is, with such a small sample size, there’s no way of telling whether Lin, 23, is the real thing or a one-hit wonder.

Granted, there are other considerations with Lin because of the millions in marketing income he could generate for his employers. From a purely basketball standpoint, however, investing so much in Lin is a huge gamble.

In 148 career NBA games, Asik, 26, has been in the starting lineup twice in the regular season. He has career averages of 2.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.

Some NBA observers argue that it’s wrong to measure Asik’s value in stats alone. They point to his intangible contributions, such as the energy he provides off the bench.

Well, if the going rate for intangibles is now $25 million, the NBA is in bigger trouble than I thought.

The next time NBA owners cry poverty and shut down the game, just remember this: Their actions with their checkbooks speak louder than their words.

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