In the NBA, every team isn’t fortunate to have the appeal of a big market franchise.
The glits and glam of New York, the flashing lights of Los Angeles and the paradisiacal aura of Miami, among others, are enough to lure players to an organization.
There are cities like Houston, that are fun in its own right, but doesn’t draw big name talent without overpay. It’s partly why the Rockets weren’t hesistant to give a maximum contract to James Harden to acquire him from Oklahoma City.
Since landing in Houston, Harden has embraced the role of being the face of a franchise and has become one of the best players in basketball. In addition to committing a five-year, max contract to Harden, the Rockets ransomed promising rookie guard Jeremy Lamb, proven veteran sharpshooter Kevin Martin, two first round draft picks and one second round pick.
So far, so good, right?
The Rockets have a young, franchise shooting guard to build around and lead a young, inexpensive and progressive Houston lineup. It’d be impossible to pinpoint the direction of Houston without Harden in the fold.
Last week the Toronto Raptors made a bold move of their own in acquiring Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay. Toronto is largely hoping that a change of scenery will energize Gay, and he will become the efficient, shot-creator and scorer that Memphis was hoping he could be. Gay, who signed a maximum contract in 2010, hasn’t lived up to his contract, but with the Raptors not being a prime destination for free agents, they decided to roll the dice on a really talented player in Gay.
Oddly enough, the Bobcats were rumored suitors for both Harden and Gay. The financial commitments could have scared the team off, or maybe it was the trade package itself. This would contradict the gameplan of general manager Rich Cho, who from his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder is all about drafting well, carefully managing the cap, and collecting cheap, controllable assets.
It’s an acceptable strategy in a rebuilding phase, though plenty of general managers find themselves treading water as a result. There’s a reoccuring view that because you’re not spending lucratively on talent, you’re doing something right. Though you could just as easily, if not more rationally make the case that if you’re not spending lucratively on talent, you’re not doing anything right.
Ideally, every organization wants to play Moneyball. It’s a statistical concept famously spotlighted by the MLB’s Oakland Athletics where skilled, inexpensive players collectively replace the impact of players who demand rich contracts. The Athletics were able to put together a winning record multiple years with a payroll dramatically less than perennial playoff contenders.
The closest teams get to this is drafting players who turn into all-stars over the course of their rookie contracts, as the Thunder did with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden for the past three seasons.
However, that result ended with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all getting big contracts and Harden being the odd man out due to his demands of a max contract. The fiscally-responsible Thunder kindly passed, and Harden’s crafty playmaking is now home to the Houston Rockets.
Good players cost big money in the NBA.
Sure, Rajon Rondo signed a five-year, $55 million extension in 2009 and then proceeded to make four consecutive all-star games to become one of the most underpaid players in basketball. But cases like that are the exception rather than the trend.
Any team that acquires Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, will likely have to overpay to keep him in the fold long-term on potential and size alone. The Bobcats were rumored to be in discussions for Cousins, though talk of him being traded has quieted down. Hawks forward Josh Smith isn’t a star, but his talent, athleticism and age will certainly be weapons to draw a maximum contract from a team in free agency.
The Bobcats are in a position where their payroll is flexible enough to make substantial offers. The team hasn’t been reluctant to throw their hat in the ring when it comes to acquiring big talent. But if any reluctance comes from their part on overpaying talented players, they should reconsider and look at the NBA landscape for support.
If you aren’t lucky enough to win a draft lottery for a superstar talent or land a big name in free agency, the urge to overpay for talent rises.