Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No Guarantees?

In a comment to yesterday's post on intangibles, Knuckleheads (nice name!) brought up the subject of guaranteed contracts in the NBA. I've thought a lot about this issue. In my post on whether character matters (April Archives) I brought up guaranteed contracts as a major reason why it does...because if a guy plays only for himself and not his team, the game, or something bigger, giving him eighty million over seven years takes away all his incentive. The whole "contract year" phenomenon has become sadly commonplace in the NBA, so much so that I'm starting to take it into account when looking at trades. I don't know if real GM's do also, but the fact that it has to be mentioned shows you that things are not ideal.

There's no way guaranteed contracts will ever disappear from the league. The players union would strike a million years or just form their own league before they'd let that happen. Nor, in fairness, do I think they should be eliminated. Injuries are the biggest reason why. Players need some guarantee of return on their investment of putting their bodies on the line like they do. Plus a player is more likely to be worn down by injury in his later years, which is also his prime earning time. Non-guaranteed contracts would work over league veterans, which is something I don't want to see. I know the NFL has essentially done away with guarantees, but with all due respect to the violence and brutality of that sport (much greater than in the NBA), we're talking sixteen game seasons and players that only play half of those games anyway. You see more immediate injuries in football but fewer of the chronic, nagging, career-altering-or-ending variety that come with an 82+ game basketball schedule. I suspect eliminating guaranteed contracts would cause players to be more tentative, less likely to go all-out, and would punish those who do give it all, to the detriment of the game.

I would like to see a middle ground. I'm no contract lawyer, so there will probably be holes, but I'd propose something like this:

--The salary schedules/maximums remain the same, perhaps with a small bump upwards. Salary cap rules remain the same also.

--Teams could offer guaranteed contracts a maximum of four years in length.

--At the beginning of the next-to-the-last season of a three or four year contract (after the second or third year, in other words) the team would have three options:

1. Let the contract play out as written.

2. Offer the player a three-year extension with appropriate raises, to take effect when the contract expires. The player then has the choice to accept the extension or become a free agent after the next season. Extensions may be further extended every three years in the same manner.

3. Waive the player completely. In this case the team is still responsible for the player's salary in the coming season. However a team with enough room under the salary cap to absorb the contract can pick up that player. Though the player's salary is paid by the waiving team, the contract goes off their cap and is transferred to the cap of the team that picked him up. Thus the waiving team pays extra for cap space and ridding itself of an unwanted player and the adopting team gets a player to try for free for a year. If the player is not picked up on waivers his salary remains on the cap of the original team whether they welcome him back or not.

--Players and the league would contribute a small percentage of revenue to an injury fund. If a player under 33 years of age has a career-ending injury in the final year of his contract (rendering him unable to sign a new contract he would have otherwise gotten) he receives one more year of salary at a rate based on his previous earnings. If the player chooses to accept this payment his career in the league is over...he can never return.

--The players' share of league revenue (in other words, the salary cap) gets bumped up by a couple percentage points to compensate for player losses under this system compared to the old way. Thus the players get more money overall but the owners, while paying out more, get better assurance that their money is being well-spent.

This system would offer reasonable certainty of players making money without binding teams to poor prospects in perpetuity. In essence the player has a "contract year" every third season, which should help encourage performance. The waiver option allows teams to make occasional mistakes but pay for them in cash rather than cap space, and consequences for the waiving and receiving team don't last beyond a year in any case. It would probably be used rarely anyway, not just because of the payroll cost but because expiring contracts would still be valuable to teams over the cap.

As I said, it's probably full of holes, but that's my best initial shot.

From time to time someone will ask why contracts aren't simply based on merit and performance. It's a nice ideal, but unworkable because of the nature of the game. As we've said numerous times, basketball is unique among the major sports in that all five players can fulfill any responsibility at any given time. In football responsibilities are divided by rule and position (linemen can't receive passes, quarterbacks don't defend). In baseball they're divided by batting order on offense and physical location on defense. (Barry Bonds may be a great hitter, but he can't shove the 8th guy in the order from the plate and say, "Let me take this one!" Nor will a shortstop usually field the right fielder's fly ball.) In other words, there's relatively little chance of a player at one position competing or interfering with the duties of a player at another position. Not so in basketball. Who shoots on any given trip down the court? Could be Zach, could be Martell, could be Theo. Ideally it'll be the player with the best chance of getting an easy look at the basket that possession. But if you start paying these guys based on how many points they score that's not going to happen. Also imagine the chemistry problems if, say, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton perceived Kobe was taking food out of their families' mouths every time he put up a shot. Same with rebounding or any other stat you can name. You'd totally break down any incentive to play like a team. Also there are many aspects of good basketball that don't show up in the stats, so quantifying "good play" for the purposes of salary correlation becomes near impossible.

Nor would it work to base salary on wins and losses. You'd have the exact same finger pointing and chemistry problems and players would gravitate to the best teams in the league faster than you could say, "Baby needs a new Bentley!"

Guaranteed contracts are not ideal, but they're going to be around in one form or another, like it or not. I think it's possible to mitigate their detrimental effects while still maintaining the integrity of the game. I'd like to see something like this looked at in the future.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)


Anonymous fatty said...

dave the part about taking
food out of players mouths
is 1 of the reasons the blazers
are the way they're today !!!
see we all know these guys
make enough money to feed
3rd world countries, but in
their world playing time
either makes the player or
break the player, no sport
illustrates it more than
the wwe, i mean the nba
to many selfish players in
the nba, that's why the
clippers were the clippers
and now the blazers are the
blazers !!!!!

2:30 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I agree that selfishness is one key to playing horrible basketball. Maybe the biggest key. But I think many of our players--Theo, Joel, Martell, Jarrett, Viktor, Steve Blake--are actually pretty unselfish. I hope we can get some more talented players like them.


2:43 PM  
Anonymous knuckleheads said...

Long-term guarantees must go. High-deductible insurance is for protecting against the downside of catastrophic injuries. Teams do that now to protect against their loss but there is no cost saving to the paying fan. Without long-term guarantees, players would buy the insurance and useless costs (like Portland paying $9 mm/yr x 2 years for DA's pine-riding run to the title) would be curbed. Using contract guaratees for injury insurance is like buying a policy against hangnails - too expensive and no risk-reducer.

I'm a season ticket holder - even renewing during the rebuilding. I would take a strike - even a formation of a players' league (that would soon fold) - to get rid of multi-year contract guarantees.

When the owners surrendered on this issue during the strike-shortened season, they bought a long-term disaster that dampens the competitive spirit compared to other pro sports. Knuckleheads have become the norm as management becomes a crapshoot and the play becomes ... unmanageable.

The team game as conducted in San Antonio & Phoenix, can withstand star-loss, but that is the exception to the rule, and so unlikely when the NBA contracts and rules are about creating a league of individuals superstars - ads with recognizeable knucks sell more sneakers than ads with team logos.

Players are human. Some - but not most - can "play through" the disincentive of guaranteed mega-contracts. But these deals have rarely worked out - the sooner they are gone, the better.

David Stern is smart enough to know that collective bargaining really doesn't work very well when there are collectivists on both sides of the bargaining table. It's like United Airlines. We all pay the price in terms of shouldering too-high prices - for tickets, parking, beer, cable ... and having to endure lackluster play from too many uncompetitive knuckleheads.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Amazing post! Maybe the best ever here. I did find the irony of Knuckleheads calling the players knuckleheads amusing and vaguely disturbing though.


9:07 AM  

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