When it comes to sports, the economic models of Europe and the United States are largely flipped. The socialistic nations of the EU allow their professional football clubs to practice free market capitalism. This lets big stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo get their market value, well in excess of 50 million Euros per year. The Big Four sports in America are more socialistic and egalitarian in nature. There is a draft in place that lets the worst teams in the league draft (theoretically) the best players. There is a revenue sharing system that allows the smaller market teams to compete with the giants in New York and Los Angeles. Plus, there is a salary cap that limits players’ potential earnings but (again, theoretically) keeps the competitive balance in check, not allowing one bazillionaire to take all of the best players. In response to NBA free agency earlier this month, many people have taken the agency out of free agency because of the unprecedented contracts being thrown around.
Judging by the reaction on Twitter, many NBA fans weren’t aware that the salary cap was about to spike, or just didn’t understand the implications. There were certainly a few head-scratchers like Timofey Mozgov’s 4 year/$64 million deal. Maybe even more surprising is that Mike Conley Jr. is your newest highest paid player in NBA history. Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly. For now, he has signed the richest deal in league history. With another cap spike next year he will almost certainly be usurped, but that’s not the point. We all know Conley isn’t the best player of all time; he’s not even close to being the best point guard right now. That’s no knock on him – the system in place with the Collective Bargaining Agreement limits a player’s earning potential so that the best players in the league are only allowed to be paid a certain percentage of the cap, and that percentage is also dependent on how many years of service one has. So is Mike Conley’s contract a bad one? Not really for the Grizzlies, who are a Western Conference playoff team. Sure, he’s probably a little overpaid, even by summer 2016 standards, but they had the money and had to keep him to stay a contender.
This isn’t really about Mike Conley – or Kent Bazemore, or Timo Mozgov, or Al Horford, or Chandler Parsons, or Hassan Whiteside. Sure, a few yahoos proclaimed that they won’t watch anymore because of how much the players are getting paid, but even that is not what the backlash has really been about. At the root of the issue is the idea that NBA players are just playing a game and that it’s inherently meaningless. I think we all understand that, even those of us that take in multiple games a night all winter long, watch every playoff game throughout the spring, pore over YouTube videos of draft prospects, watch Summer League games even though more than three quarters of the players will never stick in the NBA, salivate over the chance to watch Team USA every four years, and then feel an insatiable thirst for more basketball in the month before pre-season begins.
Because of the set amount of money brought about by the cap, Kevin Durant’s free agnecy decision was basically about where he wanted to play and where he wanted to live. In fairness, Oklahoma City did have his Bird Rights so he technically could have made a little more if he stayed there, but not really a significant amount in the grand scheme of his life when you include his massive Nike contract and other endorsement opportunities. Given that he always claimed to want to play a more up-tempo style with ball movement, the Warriors were the obvious choice for him to go to. Durant was a bit of a ball stopper in his own right in OKC – Russell Westbrook wasn’t the lone culprit – but it remains unclear if that’s the style he wanted to play, or if that was the style he felt he needed to play for the Thunder to be successful.
The other factor that plays in is where he wanted to live. He could choose between the progressive Bay Area with Silicon Valley for investment opportunities and beautiful weather year-round, or Oklahoma City. A place so boring the helicopter shots ABC used as a transition between commercials had to be a rotation around the one big building in town. It just can’t really compete, can it? When looking at his Decision™ through this lens, it’s hard to see him going anywhere else. Sure, I get the argument that it eliminates a budding rivalry that’s good for the league. I would posit that both teams will be more entertaining next year (Westbrook with sole control of the team is a triple-double-amassing lunatic), but that’s neither here nor there. What reason did the Thunder give for him to be loyal to them? They weren’t loyal in any respect. They moved the franchise from Seattle after his first year, they were too cheap to re-sign James Harden, and finally they traded away Serge Ibaka. If they hadn’t gotten the injury bug, the Thunder probably win a championship at some point and Durant wouldn’t be seen as taking the “easy way out” when he left.
It’s easy for fans to fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome when discussing their favorite teams. Oklahoma City’s ownership didn’t do everything they could to keep their Big Four together. It’s odd that fans often side with ownership more often, because they are inherently tied to the team while players often move around, and free agency is the only place where it is completely up to them to make their own decisions. Nobody faults their friends for getting a new (and better) job. They get congratulated and celebrated, as they should.
Fans’ exclusive focus on RINGZZ is also a major driving factor in this saga. Players can’t be ridiculed for never winning, and then ridiculed for going to the best situation to win. Fans and writers can’t have it both ways. Charles Barkley has been among the former players who have criticized Durant heavily, saying that he’s “cheating” is way to a championship. Perhaps he forgot that he forced a trade to the Rockets who already had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, then bragged that he “called the shots.”
Though I don’t agree with most of the reactions to Durant leaving, the Warriors turning heel for the whole season will be great to watch. The transition of them from the darling of the league over the past few years to villains late in the playoffs was awkward at best. Seeing Draymond and co. fully embrace that role will be one of the best story-lines the NBA could have asked for.
Thoughts About the Thoughts:
Brian: The Barkley quote is most interesting here because of the semantics surrounding “cheating” – is it actually cheating if what Durant is doing is perfectly within the guidelines of the league? Is it cheating when you’re in a position to use the system to your advantage? With the money being thrown around, there is something almost admirable in somebody actually living by the championships-first mantra and forgoing the OKC contract in favor of what he thinks is his best chance at a title(s).