What’s Wrong with the NBA?
It seems like everyone is complaining about something regarding basketball these days. Players are complaining that they are not getting paid what they are worth, owners are complaining that the league’s talent is being diluted, all while the fans are complaining that their nosebleed seats are closer to the stratosphere than to the court. So who is to blame? Everyone. The answer lies in a simple case of supply and demand.
Players like Kevin Garnett have every right to command 100 million dollar salaries, regardless of the financial situation of their fans. Why? Because basketball no longer is a game about love, it is a business. For most NBA players, their current position is only as stable as their boss’s trigger finger. Case in point: Nick Van Exel was the key component in Dallas’s playoff run last year and willingly accepted a back-up role in the hopes of winning a title; it is obvious that without Van Exel’s clutch shooting, the Mavs would not have made it past the second round. Fast forward to summer 2003, Nick the Quick is sent into exile once again to Golden State, a dark horse playoff candidate at best because the Mavs needed to bulk up their frontcourt. Van Exel was the epitome of a role player, an essential ingredient of any contender, and he was rewarded with a slap in the face by the Dallas organization, not out of spite, but out of Mark Cuban’s desire to win. NBA owners want to win championships, either for the revenue or the glory that it brings. Before free agency, when a contract was extended to players, it was a commitment of faith that ensured that players were on board for the long haul. In today’s NBA, the constant shuffling of players takes away that bond between owners and players. The only power that players have is their ability to control their salary, the larger the salary, the larger the commitment. If owners are willing to pay the salaries, then players should not be blamed for demanding such high wages.
Owners, on the other hand, are to blame not only because of their desire to make money, but because they employ these players. When you hear owners complain about the influx of young players and how they are diluting the competition in the league, this is not a cry for the improvement of the NBA, it is a cry because more money is needed to pay these players. This is confirmed when looking at the structure of player contracts. When a player is drafted into the NBA and signed to a contract, his salary is already determined. After three years he can command a long term contract and a salary raise, the majority of these contracts are for five to seven years. Now here is the catch, at the end of this second contract, players who entered the NBA from high school are only twenty-eight years old, and are still in the prime of their careers so they can usually command another large contract. Compare this to college graduates who are thirty-two years old and are near the end of their careers, most of these players will either be out of the league or signing shorter, less lucrative contracts. This all equates to hundreds of millions of dollars that are being spent on younger players. The owners will say that there should be an age limit to keep the competitive standards of the NBA high, but if you look at the biggest names in the NBA today they are either players who left college early or skipped college altogether: Kobe Bryant, Rashard Lewis, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal, Amare Stoudamire, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James. Sure, for every Kevin Garnett there is a Leon Smith, but this is not a knock on young players, it is a criticism of owners. Owners and General Managers are the ones who make the draft day decisions, if they scouted better then they would not have made the mistake of drafting players who do not deserve to be in the NBA. If owners truly wanted to steer young athletes away from the NBA, they would not draft them. However, there is a demand for potential, thus there is a supply of ample athletic ballers. The fact that owners continue to draft, and pay, these players validates the high salaries that these players make.
Despite the multitude of complaints from fans about the high salaries of players, the fans ultimately are responsible for the salary increase of NBA athletes. While many owners are already millionaires, their previous earnings do not pay the contracts of their employees, the fans do. Fans are the reason why the league gets a national television contract, fans are the reason why the Lebron James jersey is the most popular jersey in professional sports, and fans are the reason why NBA teams sell out arenas in three different continents. This all adds up to profits for NBA owners, which is then used to pay players’ contracts. Fans may be upset that players make more than they ever could dream of, but if they were truly unhappy about it, then all they would have to do to put an end to it would be to stop caring. Owners would not be able to pay players’ contracts without fans’ revenue and players would not be able to command their large salaries because owners could not afford to pay them. However, basketball is a way of life in America, children dribble a ball before they can run; while many Americans may be upset about KG’s salary, no true fan would miss a Lakers-Kings playoff match-up. Sure fans are upset that they have a better chance of receiving a million dollars through the lottery than by working at Burger King; but if fans are not willing to trade basketball for burgers, then they also cannot complain about dollars and cents.
While the NBA may seem like it is in a bleak situation currently, the only way to appreciate it is to love it for what it is. The NBA may be fueled by money, but basketball is fueled by competition. Once the whistle blows, it is this competitive spirit which makes the players and fans alike look past the dollar signs. If fans are not willing to forego the sport of basketball then they must take pride in knowing that they are an integral part of the NBA. Without fans, the owners will not be able to pay their players, without a contract the players will not play, and then no party will be happy. Once this interdependent relationship is acknowledged and appreciated, then fans, owners and players can sit back, and enjoy the sport of basketball.