When tragedy occurs, be it death, divorce, or illness, you eventually get to the stage of wondering how could this be your own fault? What did I do wrong? During the waning days of the lockout, I felt forced to turn my anger and angst inward. I was searching for a scapegoat, a villain to satisfy my need to make sense of things. Directing ire at the owners was like throwing pebbles at the castle. Pointing fingers at the players only fed the fire of NBA naysayers, who spout clichéd lines about spoiled thug millionaires wanting more money. Not satisfied with blaming the players or owners, I had to ask if we did something to cause this mess. The one thing I could come up with is this: horrible, bloated contracts were one of the major causes of the lockout, and it was we, the fans, who demanded them.
We fans wanted the bad contracts, the poisons that contaminated the NBA and were largely responsible for the lockout, as much as anyone. They became emblems for David Stern’s “broken system” rhetoric. But there’s no way these contracts would exist without a collection of individuals—players, agents, and, yes, fans—asking for them. Whether directly or indirectly, the fans demanded that these moves be made. They had seen superstars leave franchises that did not or were unable to build teams around them—Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, most notably—and said, not us, no way. In a state of perpetual anxiety, fans now want too much too soon.
Let’s look at three types of bad contracts: Pippens, Poseys, and Possessions. The Pippens are guys acquired to be paired with a budding superstar: take Carlos Boozer, Kenyon Martin, and the dreaded Larry Hughes. At some point, these guys were acquired to complement an ostensible franchise player—Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, respectively. Kenyon Martin can’t be blamed for his ineffectiveness to lead Melo to the finals—he simply has bad knees and a limited skill set. But he also has a terrible contract that had to be acquired for the Nuggets to make it seem like they were adding pieces around Melo. Boozer, the topic of much disgust around Chicago, was acquired by the Bulls to be a sidekick for Derrick Rose after the Bulls lost out on LeBron James, for whom Boozer declined to sidekick in Cleveland. Of course, after Boozer left Cleveland, the Cavaliers lost out on a weak offseason sweepstakes to net Michael Redd (who would have also been a disaster in the long run), and signed consolation bad-shot-taker Larry Hughes, also a future Bull.
Granted, LeBron put pressure on the team to build. But, at some point, Cleveland made moves for the sake of doing so. To make up for losing out on Redd and settling for Hughes, the Cavs also signed Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones, end-of-rotation players at best, to $4-5 million-per-year contracts. Yet what else could the Cavs do? They had already lost a Pippen in Boozer, and new general manager Danny Ferry would have been blasted for not attempting to build pillars around LeBron. There was no way the fans would accept the logic that missing out on Redd allowed the franchise to save their cap space for the next offseason.
The second type of player that fans clamor for is the Posey, a guy who fans think is the ideal component to get a talented team into the NBA Finals or a hovering team into the postseason. They saw what James Posey did for the Heat in 2006 and the Celtics in 2007 and imagined what could be “if only our team had a guy like that, who could play defense and hold it all together while [superstars X and Y] get their shine.” How many mid-level exceptions have been wasted on the myth of the stabilizing presence expected to take an above-.500 team to elite status or a sub-.500 team to playoff status? Players like Jerome James (5 years/$29 million to be a backup center) are the easy targets here, but let’s also consider the dead weight of a full mid-level contract like that of Jermaine O’Neal, who contributes nothing but cap trouble to a Celtics team with a narrow window. Sure, it’s always the GM who pulls the triggers on these deals, but as fans, we are overconfident in the ability of our teams to get “over the hump.” So we demand that our teams sign that one more guy instead of admitting to defeat and rebuilding or keeping expectations realistic.
Finally, there are the Possessions. These are guys already “owned” by a fanbase and are nearing the end of a rookie deal or similarly underpaying contract. Their contract-year performances (and often the seasons before, as well) put them in positions to earn a decent salary upgrade in free agency, but the cloying fanbase just can’t bear to see them go. This sense of ownership creates an endowment effect, whereby we overvalue things that we own compared to what others would pay for them. Because of the human tendency toward loss aversion,, we would much rather overpay for something that already is ours than to look for better-valued players elsewhere. I’ll speak from personal experience here, and talk about one of my favorite players ever: backup wing Trenton Hassell, of the swooping jumpshot and competent defense. Once the Timberwolves acquired Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in the summer of 2003, the window for KG to win a title with Minnesota became slightly greater than nonexistent for the first time in franchise history. That season, the Wolves, hobbled and running on fumes from a seven-game conference semifinals against the Kings, lost a devastating conference finals series to the Lakers. Yet they seemed to have one more shot left if Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson, and Sam Cassell could rebound from injury. The only hitch was that the guy who seemed to hold this star-laden team together, Trenton Hassell, was up for free agency. Wolves fans would have crucified Kevin McHale had they let Hassell walk. Instead, McHale was forced to overpay Hassell at $27 million for six years. The rest, of course, is gut-wrenching history, but we asked for it.
As fans (and as humans), we are impatient, overconfident, and loss-averse. We don’t make the deals, but we pressure general managers with career lifespans shorter than NFL running backs into signing subpar “best available” free agents, overpaying “glue guys” who have never shown the ability to start consistently, and holding onto fan favorites. And then, in hindsight, we bitch about these signings. As the free agency period is beginning anew, it would do us good to remember the terrible contracts of ages past. Stern and the owners halfheartedly marketed the lockout as an attempt to “fix the system,” but there are no checks on a team’s capacity to make bad decisions. The beauty of the NBA is that contracts are still guaranteed, which means that free agents from Shane Battier to DeAndre Jordan should be viewed as investments, not mere spins on the roulette wheel. As fans, before clamoring for the next big signing, we should do our part and show that we have learned from the past, and have better foresight than the owners and GMs we later hold accountable.