Thursday, July 3, 2014

4 comments Josh Levin Thinks The Spurs' Stars Shouldn't be Praised for Taking Less Money; May Misunderstand How the NBA Cap System Works

I'm a free market guy. I think athletes should be able make whatever amount of money teams are willing to offer them. I also understand how a salary cap can create more parity and I think adds a certain amount of intrigue to a sport. NFL/NBA teams can't just outspend other teams to get the players they want and have to be careful with the salary cap room they have. Josh Levin thinks it is bad for the Spurs' stars to be praised for taking less money to win games. Yeah fine, players should be able to make as much money as they want to make. That's a position I can understand. The problem is players can make as much money as they want, but if these players want to be on a team with other great players then a sacrifice may have to be made. Tim Duncan may make $12 million instead of $15 million and Tony Parker may make $13 million instead of $15 million. It's up to the individual player to make the decision and I don't think it's a bad thing for NBA players to choose to give up money in order to have room to sign other players.

The main reason Josh Levin seems to not like players like Duncan, Parker, Ginobili taking less money is that these funds end up back in the pocket of very wealthy owners. There are two very fundamental issues with this point of view.

1. The problem isn't Spurs players taking less money, it's the NBA system and the NBA salary cap. Don't take issue with players who want to win and say they shouldn't be praised. Guys like Duncan, Parker, James, Wade, Bosh, and Ginobili made a personal decision within the NBA salary system to take less money. This is the decision they should be praised for. These six players aren't taking less money to put back in the pocket of wealthy owners, they are taking less money so other quality players can play on their same team. The decision should be praised, because while working within the NBA salary system, they are taking less money for team gain. The constant is the NBA salary cap system and that can't be changed.

2. There is a thing called the "luxury tax" which teams pay once they have exceeded the soft cap the NBA has. Now, as I just said, the constant is the NBA salary cap system which can not be changed. So the ideal that Levin works towards is players like Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili getting paid what they are worth on the free market. Say the Spurs choose to sign all of these players to market value contracts and then end up with a total cap amount of over $100 million (like the Nets had this year). The Spurs will then end up with a luxury tax bill of $80 million. Where does this money go? I'll give you a hint...not to the poor, not to the hungry, not to middle class tax breaks...but to the owners of each NBA team. So if the Spurs' three stars did choose to make free market value for their services and the Spurs were willing to pay it, then Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili would actually be putting money in the pockets of wealthy owners anyway. It's the system and it isn't going to be changed soon. Don't blame the Spurs' stars and say they shouldn't be praised for taking less money. The alternative either means Parker/Duncan/Ginobili will play for a different NBA team that will work hard to not go too far over the soft cap (thereby giving the wealthy owners more money) or the Spurs will pay the luxury tax (thereby giving the wealthy owners more money). Guess what? The system is set up to pay wealthy owners more money. It's almost like this isn't a coincidence.

Anyway, here is Levin's article about why the Spurs stars should not be praised for taking less money.

The Spurs play a beautiful game. They show the value of hard work, team play, and humility. San Antonio has one of the best coaches in pro sports, and their general manager is a genius. All of these statements are true, and they merge to form a positive feedback loop.

"A positive feedback loop." Not that Josh Levin is trying to sound super-extra technical when discussing that the Spurs seem to resemble many of the positive attributes sports fans look for in a team.

The players work well together because their GM, R.C. Buford, did a great job acquiring talent, which makes the team more successful, which makes more players buy into Gregg Popovich’s team concept

Those who don't buy-in go find somewhere else to play basketball. Those who are fat (ahem, Fatty Mills) lose weight and buy-in or lose minutes to another player. Nice set-up for an NBA team if you can get it.

This isn’t how things have typically worked in the NBA. When he was the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley—now the president of the Miami Heat—said his team succumbed to the “disease of more.”

Levin's titles this article "The Disease of Less." So wanting "more" is the way towards a team imploding and not succeeding, while so wanting "less" is the way towards a team succeeding and winning titles. And yet, wanting "less" is a bad thing supposedly. I always thought the purpose was to win games.

As Bill Simmons described it in a 2007 column, “Everyone wanted more money, playing time and recognition. Eventually they lost perspective and stopped doing the little things that make teams win and keep winning.”

In San Antonio, the opposite has happened.

Those Lakers also had a group of younger players with large egos (namely Magic Johnson), while the Spurs best players are older and wiser. I know Levin isn't making a direct comparison, but the "Disease of More" tends to strike teams with players who have leaders that are younger and less able to subjugate their egos.

A little bit of fun from that column is the cockiness and shocking wrongness of Bill's writing. Here are some of the gems from that column:

If you aren't picking the Spurs to take the 2008 NBA title, your reasoning is simple: They won last year.

(And while we're here, if you're turning your back on a proven winner for a McGrady-Yao combo with zero playoff success between them, or a Dallas team with the emotional makeup of the Spears clan, or a Celtics team coached by the immortal Doc Rivers, or a Bulls team that's collectively younger than the cast of "Hannah Montana," you deserve what you get.)

Oh yes, this is back when Doc Rivers wasn't a genius because he didn't have a team of three Hall of Famers surrounding by a probable Hall of Famer (Rondo) and a very deep bench with skilled role players. Amazing how Bill bashed Rivers when Rivers didn't have the talent to succeed, only to forget that he bashed Rivers once the Celtics started winning. And yes, that's a "Hannah Montana" reference.

When the Sox were trying to win in 2003 and 2004, it felt like life-or-death to me. Three years later, I found myself just as caught up in October, but a small piece was missing -- every game carried urgency and tension, only that life-or-death component had vanished. As much as I wanted the Sox to keep winning, my life wasn't going to fall apart if they lost, because they'd already won in 2004. Oddly, it was somewhat liberating to watch these 2007 playoffs. I found myself thinking about how great it would be if they kept winning, not how painful it would be if they lost.

There is a lot of Red Sox talk in this column. Because the column was about the NBA and which team would win the title it obviously makes complete sense to talk about the Red Sox.

It's the boring pick, the logical pick, but as much as we hate to admit it, sometimes sports is boring and logical. That's why I'm going with the Spurs over the Bulls in five, and that's why, eight months from now, you won't even remember that I was right.

No one will remember Bill was right, because he wasn't. The Celtics were NBA Champs and the Bulls didn't even make the playoffs. I like how cocky Bill was about his prediction though. Anyway, back to the Spurs and why the fact their big stars take less money puts money into the pocket of wealthy owners.

As the Spurs’ Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have gotten older and more established, they’ve willingly taken on less, playing fewer minutes and taking smaller salaries. These sacrifices have allowed San Antonio to pay for and develop valuable complementary players like Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and Marco Belinelli. It’s a simple salary-cap calculus: There would be no team ball if Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili weren’t team players when it came to their own contracts.

And this is obviously a disease that should be avoided. Why would these stars take less money for playing fewer minutes so the Spurs can put a better team around them? Don't Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan know doing this puts more money in the pocket of NBA owners who would obviously be extremely poor if it weren't for the corporate welfare these three NBA stars are providing to them?

the same basic story can be found in Miami. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all took less than the NBA’s maximum salary to team up together on the Heat. The trio learned to play together and have won two championships in the take-my-talents-to-South-Beach era—one more than the Spurs in that time.

It's taking Josh Levin quite a while to get to the point of this column. These three players can make up some of this money in endorsement deals they would receive for playing on an NBA team that wins multiple championships. Sure, that money be available regardless of whether James, Bosh, and Wade took less money, but the championships very well could not be there.

Elite NBA players are now effectively serving as their own general managers. By slashing their own earnings to fit themselves and their teammates under the salary cap, they’re sacrificing money in addition to the lucre they’ve already given away in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

This is true. This is how the NBA salary cap system is set up. It is set up to try and prevent a team from signing 3-4 max contract players and dominate the NBA. Of course, it hasn't worked out that way because NBA players are choosing to take less money in order to win NBA championships, which obviously is a good thing in terms of setting an example of teamwork, but a bad thing for these NBA players receiving market value for their services.

Let's not forget these players aren't exactly going broke taking less money. This past season Tony Parker earned $12.5 million, Duncan earned $10.3 million, Ginobili earned $7 million, LeBron/Bosh earned $19.07 million and Wade earned $18.5 million. It's not like they are cutting their earning potential in half or anything like that.

While Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera signed a deal that will pay him what averages out to $29 million a year, James makes $19 million annually, which is just below the league’s maximum salary.

And the result of this is the Tigers are having to trade away pitchers like Doug Fister, who wasn't traded away due to the Tigers wanting to save money but to get "flexibility," and not being able to hand Max Scherzer the type of contract he and Scott Boras want. Poor Jon Heyman, now he's going to have write a few articles talking about what a great pitcher Scherzer is in an effort to help Boras get max value for Scherzer's services.

My point is that even in the free market league that is MLB, every team has a budget whether they want to admit it or not.

Though the players agreed to this system—it was collectively bargained, after all—it puts them in the awkward position of having to sacrifice salary in order to preserve their public image.

In terms of "sacrificing money" they are still very wealthy millionaires. I realize they aren't maximizing their value, but this is the same system the NFL has, except theirs is a hard cap.

If guys like Duncan and James were paid closer to what they’re worth in the NBA’s version of an open market, they’d risk being labeled selfish superstars who care more about money than winning...But if you take less and win more games, you’re praised for your selflessness—well, at least if you’re in San Antonio.

I fail to see why the Spurs (and even the Heat) stars should not be praised for being selfless. The fact is these players can't make their market value anyway, so they choose to take less money than they could receive according to the CBA, which means this is a somewhat selfless move.

Seattle Seahawks fans are not aggrieved by the fact that Super Bowl–winning quarterback Russell Wilson made a mere $500,000 in 2014. Rather, they’re overjoyed that he’s so underpaid, which allows the team to spend that much more on other positions. And Saints fans aren’t supporting tight end Jimmy Graham’s quest to be paid as an upper-crust wide receiver rather than a middle-class tight end—the less money he gets, the better players the team can put around him.

What a shocking turn of events that fans of the Saints and Seahawks want their team to put a quality product on the field. Gosh, it's so selfish of Saints and Seahawks fans to want Wilson/Graham to be underpaid so their respective teams can be more flush with open salary cap space. Because I'm sure Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham are very concerned that Seahawks and Saints fans may be underpaid for the quality of the job they do.

For some players, taking less money is the best possible decision. I’d imagine that Tim Duncan has more cash than he’ll ever need, and that another championship ring will bring him more happiness than another couple of million dollars. It’s also hard to empathize with a player who’s already superrich and passes up the chance to be super-duper rich

It's not about empathizing or not empathizing with a player. It's about whether a player is willing to take less money for the greater good of the team. Some players do, other players don't. I fail to see why not taking the maximum amount of money possible should not be praised.

But when a player doesn’t get paid what he’s worth, much of that money—the portion that doesn't end up in the pockets of lesser NBA talent—just ends up in the pocket of an even wealthier owner

If the player does get paid what he is worth then an NBA team can go over the luxury tax threshold and this goes right in the pocket of more than one wealthy owner. Either way, the system is set up for the owners to get paid. When a player doesn't get paid what's he worth, that money can go to the lesser NBA talent, and then yes, the money can go to making more money for that specific team's owner. But if that player gets what he's worth then that owner is still going to make that money. It's just the team won't spend money on the lesser player.

Josh Levin is working under the false assumption that an owner doesn't have a set salary limit he's willing to allow his team to spend up to. For example, say the owners of the Spurs sets the team's budget at $73 million. That's the budget. Now how that money gets split up to get to $73 million doesn't matter. The owner of the Spurs probably isn't going to say, "Set the budget at $73 million unless Duncan wants a max contract in which case I'm willing to spend $78 million." The owner will say, "If Duncan wants a max contract then make it work to where the team is only spending $73 million and staying as far below the luxury tax as possible."

It's a zero-sum game. Even if the owner did go to $78 million then that's over the luxury tax threshold and other very wealthy owners will reap the rewards of the Spurs owner going over the soft cap. These owners are getting paid regardless. Bet on that. It's not like the money Duncan is choosing to not receive in a salary is going into the owner's pocket. It's being spent on players like Tiago Splitter. So yes, the owners are getting rich but it's not like the Spurs owner is pocketing the money Duncan doesn't receive. It goes to other players. There is only so much of the pie to go around in terms of salary spent on Spurs players. The end result is the same regardless of whether Parker, Duncan, Ginobili take up 85% of this space or 60% of this space. NBA owners are going to spend what they care to spend on players.

There is a reason Parker, Duncan, Ginobili are sacrificing money and it isn't because they just like to. They know the Spurs' budget and they know the owner is getting paid regardless. It's only a matter of how much talent is around them and how much money it takes to keep/acquire that talent.

a fellow whose earnings aren’t capped in any way, and who could sell his franchise for north of $1 billion whenever he gets bored or gets caught being a racist.

But again, Levin is missing the point that the owners are going to be paid anyway. Players sacrifice because the amount ownership will spend is set. If the amount isn't set and a team goes over the soft cap then ALL owners get rich from the luxury tax implications of a team going over the soft cap.

So, let’s praise the Spurs’ selflessness on the court—their crisp passing, movement without the ball, and tireless team defending. But the Big Three’s willingness to reduce their salaries isn’t something that should be celebrated

Yes, their willingness to reduce their salaries is something that should be celebrated. The NBA salary system doesn't have to be celebrated, but the willingness of star players to reduce their salaries within the system should be celebrated. The argument that NBA owners pocket the money not spent on Tim Duncan, LeBron James, etc. isn't a persuasive argument because the reason these players took less money is to fit other players on the team. The reality is an NBA team is going to spend a certain amount of money, so these players have to take less money or else have a crappy supporting cast surrounding them. The NBA salary system is fixed and the amount an NBA team is willing to spend on salaries is somewhat fixed. Tiago Splitter got paid because Duncan/Parker/Ginobili weren't paid market value. If these three players were making more money then Splitter wouldn't be on the Spurs team and the Spurs owner would still be filthy rich.

Instead, let’s stump for a system in which a team like the Spurs can win a title by playing a beautiful game on the court, and NBA legends like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili get paid something closer to what they’re worth.

These are two separate issues that Josh Levin is failing to separate out as two separate issues. Within the NBA salary system Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were unselfish in taking less money. Outside of that issue, it is fine to stump for a system in which these three players can get paid closer to what they are worth. Go for it. Do it. Just don't write that these three players shouldn't be praised for taking less money within the confines of the current system. These players should be praised for working within the current system to achieve team success. The fact Josh Levin doesn't like the system these three players are working within is a different issue that has nothing to do with how the Spurs play basketball or whether the unselfishness of taking less money should be praised or not. 


Snarf said...

Seattle Seahawks fans are not aggrieved by the fact that Super Bowl–winning quarterback Russell Wilson made a mere $500,000 in 2014. Rather, they’re overjoyed that he’s so underpaid, which allows the team to spend that much more on other positions. And Saints fans aren’t supporting tight end Jimmy Graham’s quest to be paid as an upper-crust wide receiver rather than a middle-class tight end—the less money he gets, the better players the team can put around him.

What a shocking turn of events that fans of the Saints and Seahawks want their team to put a quality product on the field. Gosh, it's so selfish of Saints and Seahawks fans to want Wilson/Graham to be underpaid so their respective teams can be more flush with open salary cap space. Because I'm sure Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham are very concerned that Seahawks and Saints fans may be underpaid for the quality of the job they do.

One thing he seems to not get is that Russel Wilson just completed his second season. He can't even redo his deal until after his third season per the rules of the most recent CBA.

HH said...

I know what you mean to say, but I want to quibble with the phrasing anyway. These players aren't taking less money "for the good of the team." They're taking less money *for their own happiness.* These players take a little less because they're happier with $12MM+contender than they are with $15MM+loser. (I think the same is true for most people who would rather make $30K in an easy job than $40K in something they hate.

Snarf said...

How is that any different than the "hometown discount" most players are praised for taking? It's not as though Parker, Duncan, and Ginobli all got together and decided to join forces at below-market rates. They were all drafted/developed by the Spurs, so I really have no idea where there is any reason to take issue with it.

Note that I don't necessarily have a problem with what James, Bosh and Wade did with the Heat, but I can see where there is an opening to argue the merits of what they did as it relates to competitive balance, etc.

Bengoodfella said...

Snarf, that's a good point. I wouldn't blame Seahawks fans want Wilson to make less money when he is able to renegotiate a contract.

It's also not that different than giving a hometown discount at all. I think Levin just wants to be a contrarian and didn't think of that point of view.

HH, it's not a quibble at all. You are exactly correct. It just so happens that what's good for the overall success of the team also makes the players happy. I would be happy making less money for a better team. That's just me.