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Tuesday, August 06, 2019

A Business Model Combining Huge Guaranteed Contracts With Nearly Unrestrained Player Movement is Not Smart

NBA players--or, at the very least, NBA stars--enjoy unprecedented power. They can decide that they no longer wish to honor the terms of their contracts, and then strong-arm their current team to not only trade them but to trade them to their preferred destination. The superficial argument in favor of this business model is that everyone should have the right to choose where he lives and works--but in the real world, that freedom comes with risks and responsibilities that NBA players do not face.

It is true that in many circumstances, a person can quit his job, move to his city of choice and get another job--but that person's salary will generally not be paid during the transition period and there is no guarantee that the person will ultimately be paid as much by his new employer as he was paid by his old employer.

The NBA operates under a franchise model, which means that if enough franchises do poorly or fold then the whole enterprise is at risk (think of the ABA and other rival leagues in a variety of sports that could not maintain enough healthy franchises to survive as independent entities). Taken to its logical extreme, the power plays that we have seen recently by players like Anthony Davis and Paul George could result in a situation where most teams will never have a realistic chance to compete for a championship. Some people may think that this has always been the case in the NBA but the difference is that in previous eras talent was concentrated on a handful of teams because those teams made shrewder personnel moves; a team that acquired a talented roster did not have to worry that another team would be able to raid and pillage that roster in collusion with players who decided that they wanted to leave before their contracts expired.

Some form of free agency is necessary and proper, but that has to be coupled with an understanding that a player under contract is going to honor his contract. Otherwise, if players want unfettered movement then they should agree to abolish guaranteed contracts; if players are willing to assume the risk of being injured or waived without having a guaranteed contract to lean on, then they will have earned the right to leave at any time (and teams will have the right to replace them at any time without any financial obligation to the players).

It was not fair to the players back in the day when the teams had most of the power and true free agency did not exist--but it is not a sustainable business model for the NBA if players are going to decide, while under contract, that they want to play for another team right now.

A player who becomes a free agent has the right to sign with any team--but a player who is under contract should not be able to force his way out and receive the full value of his original contract. Anthony Davis and Paul George did not live up to their contracts with the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder respectively. One way to discourage this type of behavior would be to enact a rule stipulating that players who, by their own volition (i.e., not because of injury or because the team decides to waive or trade them), do not fulfill the terms of their contract pay a 10% penalty on their next contract; if such a player is eligible to sign for three years/$90 million, then he can only sign for three years/$81 million. The difference is paid by the team acquiring the player to the team that lost the player, in addition to the agreed upon terms of any transaction between those two teams involving the player who did not fulfill his contract. These funds would not count against either team's salary cap.

Such a provision may not put an end to the breach of contract situations that have become more common, but it would at least give the players pause before attempting brazen power plays, and it would provide meaningful compensation to the team that is losing a star player much sooner than it could have prepared for or expected.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 PM


Monday, August 05, 2019

The Media, David Griffin and LeBron James: A Case Study

Sports Illustrated recently ran a story containing several quotes attributed to David Griffin, who built the Cleveland Cavaliers' first and only championship team. Griffin explained why he left that franchise immediately after the 2016 title run: "Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable. Literally the moment we won the championship I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money." Griffin also stated, "We won despite our culture to a huge degree" and "LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that's not fun for people. They don't like being part of that world." Griffin questioned how motivated James was to win a title after 2016: "I don't think he's the same animal anymore about winning."

Griffin later backtracked a bit about the last remark, stating that prior to the 2017 season he had this concern but it proved to be unfounded after James led Cleveland to back to back Finals appearances. However, if Griffin was quoted accurately then his statement was in the present tense, as opposed to saying, "I didn't think he would be the same animal about winning." The difference in the plain meaning between those two sentences is obvious. Griffin later amended some of his other comments as well, stating to ESPN that when he talked about LeBron James getting all of the credit and none of the blame that was meant as an indictment of the media, not of James. Griffin's retractions and amendments do not make much sense, because he claims that he was quoted out of context, but unless he was misquoted (which is a different) it is not difficult to understand Griffin's message--and even if Griffin meant to target the media instead of James, there is no denying that James has long used his platform to laud himself (he declared "I am confident because I am the best player in the world" on eve of his Cavaliers to Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals) while directly and/or indirectly throwing shade on his owner, team executives, coaches and teammates. After the 2016 championship, James said that the triumph proved that he is the greatest player of all-time, which is not only a highly debatable contention but also a public assertion that does not leave much room to give credit to anyone else.

There are at least three possibilities regarding Griffin's statements followed by Griffin's retractions:

1) Sports Illustrated misquoted Griffin and/or published his statements without providing full context.
2) Griffin regretted his comments after they were published and decided to back away from publicly criticizing LeBron James.
3) ESPN, which has a substantial financial commitment involved with promoting LeBron James, decided that it would be best for all parties involved to suggest to Griffin to use their platform to clarify his message.

Regardless of which possibility is true, the coverage of Griffin's comments is yet another example of the extent to which sports journalism has lost its way. Sports Illustrated has a responsibility to accurately quote its interview subjects and to report those quotes in proper context. If ESPN is to be taken seriously as a journalistic enterprise--a ship that has perhaps long since sailed off without ESPN realizing or caring--then it cannot just be a mouthpiece for LeBron James and certain select, favored athletes. In the wake of the comments and retractions, many media members seem to care less about determining what Griffin said or meant than they do about figuring out how to spin the situation to support their preferred narrative; one preferred narrative is that James is a great player who is unfairly criticized, while another preferred narrative is that James is a very difficult individual with whom to work.

We may never know what Griffin actually said and/or what message he meant to convey about James--but we do not need to read Griffin's mind to know that even though James is one of the most athletically gifted and multi-skilled basketball players of all-time he lacks certain psychological qualities, and the qualities that he lacks prevent him from reaching the level that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant reached. We can figure that out by examining James' actions and the way those actions have been characterized by people who have a much more extensive basketball pedigree than Griffin does.

We know that Adrian Wojnarowski reported that James was such a poor leader and teammate that Coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to leave James off of Team USA, but the powers that be insisted that James must be selected.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals.

We know that the media hyped James as the star of Team USA in 2012, but Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were the team's leaders.

We know that even after James learned how to be a champion he still was a difficult co-worker for his teammates, coaches and team executives; after James left Miami, Pat Riley referred to "No more smiling faces with hidden agendas." You did not need a decoder ring to figure out who Riley was talking about.

We know that by signing a series of one year contracts LeBron James hindered the Cavaliers' efforts to build a sustainable winning culture; he forced the Cavaliers to live year to year, to make stop gap moves, and to overpay players who LeBron James and Rich Paul liked. The reason that the Cavaliers collapsed both times after James left is not just that he is a great player but also that he creates chaos and leaves chaos in his wake. Riley did not let James wreak quite that much havoc in Miami, and the Heat did not become a moribund franchise after James departed.

We know that James and Paul destabilized two franchises last year in their efforts to pry Anthony Davis from New Orleans and send Davis to the Lakers.

We know that most star players who have played alongside James have seen their individual numbers go down, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love being the most prominent examples.

We know that throughout James' career--with the notable exception of his time in Miami--he calls the shots on personnel moves but will not accept responsibility when those moves do not work out.

What we don't know is where the tipping point is when the negative factors about James' personality will outweigh the positive factors about James' on court skills. Up to this point, James has been such an incredibly talented and impactful player that multiple franchises have been willing to deal with the negatives. At some point, that will not be true. 

So, we do not need to parse Griffin's words to understand who LeBron James is: LeBron James is a supremely gifted basketball player who has had a great career but who has also been disruptive to multiple franchises. Have other great players been demanding and difficult at times? Yes, but in most instances not to the extent that James has been and not in ways that make it appear that winning as many championships as possible is not the top priority.

I have often said that James mystifies me more than any other great player who I have covered or researched.

The coverage of Griffin's comments tells us much more about the media than it does about LeBron James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:31 PM