Three years from now, when the baseball owners are again saying that without a salary cap some teams can’t compete with the Yankees, cast your mind back to the summer of 2003 and remember what happened in the NBA free agent market.
The NBA has a strict salary cap, with a heavy luxury tax imposed on those who violate it. The idea is to put a brake on the rich teams, to prevent them from gobbling up all the best free agents every year and simply buying their way to a title. With a limit on the upper crust’s spending, the theory goes, small-market teams like the San Antonio Spurs can compete with the behemoths like the Los Angeles Lakers.
So what’s happened this summer? Of course you know: Gary Payton has announced that he’ll take a $7.7 million pay cut to sign with the Lakers and Karl Malone has said he’ll take a $17.8 million pay cut to join him. The Staples Center will be home to four future Hall of Famers this fall, not to mention a Hall of Fame coach. The Lakers have already been anointed 2004 NBA champions in some circles.
That’s just a bit premature. There are serious questions about Shaquille O’Neal’s conditioning and durability, Kobe Bryant’s possible criminal case in Colorado and Payton’s and Malone’s advanced age. And there’s no guarantee that these great players can meld themselves into a team.
Still, listen to one anonymous NBA coach quoted by the New York Times after the Lakers’ two signings: “I didn’t lose any championship aspirations from my team because, looking at the top, I didn’t have any.”
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs couldn’t lure Jason Kidd away from New Jersey, couldn’t lure Alonzo Mourning — who chose to join Kidd in the Garden State — away from Miami, couldn’t lure P.J. Brown away from New Orleans. The Spurs are the defending champions, they have around $18 million worth of room under the salary cap and they’re led by Tim Duncan, a humble, likable superstar who isn’t going to whine if someone else is getting shots and headlines.
So why don’t the big free agents seem to want to sign with the San Antonio Spurs? Because they play in San Antonio and they’re the Spurs. Can you imagine any of those guys turning down the exact same team in the exact same circumstances if they were the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers?
Denver has a nice chunk of salary cap space. Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Memphis, Golden State: There are plenty of teams around that missed the playoffs last year but are on the upswing and could make a major leap with a big-time free-agent signing. And there are plenty of nice boys on campus who would be wonderful dates for that head cheerleader who looks like Carmen Electra, but she always seems to end up with the quarterback, doesn’t she?
Malone signing with the Lakers makes it unlikely he’ll be able to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabaar as the league’s all-time leading scorer. He’s been clear he was willing to sacrifice that and all that cabbage in order to have a shot at winning a title, something that always eluded him with the Utah Jazz. (Salt Lake hoop fans: “Yeah, because you couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean in the Finals against the Bulls, Karl!”)
But the Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that as late as the night before he made his decision, the Sacramento Kings were trying to make a sign-and-trade deal for Malone that would have paid him a lot more than the Lakers will.
It’s chic in NBA expert circles to write off the Kings, to say their moment has passed. But they were the best team in the NBA at the end of the year, and I think they would have beaten Dallas fairly easily if Chris Webber hadn’t gone down with a knee injury. Even without Webber, the Kings gave the Mavericks a pretty good series, and the eventual champion Spurs had trouble beating Dallas even after their star, Dirk Nowitzki, was hurt. The Kings, with Malone, would have entered the 2003-04 season as favorites to win it all.
But he signed with the Lakers for a big discount. Why? Because they’re the Lakers. There are ways to be rich that spending limits can’t offset.
Remember that the next time someone tries to convince you that salary caps and luxury taxes are designed to benefit you, the fans, by fostering competitive balance. The only balance owners care about is the one on their bank statements.
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