Thursday, May 5, 2011

The NBA Needs to Follow Tinseltown's Lead

The NBA is a lot like the royal wedding. We can watch the ceremony on TV in all of its glitz and glamour, but the reception behind closed doors is where Prince Charles probably strips down to his thermal long-john's attempting to do the worm, while William and Kate celebrate their nuptials with the electric slide.

The NBA playoffs have been exciting, drama-filled, and star-studded, but its collective bargaining agreement behind the scenes is getting increasingly uncomfortable. An NBA season next year is as certain as the timetable for when our troops will be getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. One thing is for sure: The NBA hasn't been this popular since Air Jordan was winning championships with the Chicago Bulls. The Knicks became relevant again, the Heat self-proclaimed by Lebron James as the"Heatles" invaded the eastern conference. Derrick Rose, who was named the league's MVP is as exciting as he is humble. Kevin Durant is as unselfish a scoring champion as they come, and Memphis and Oklahoma City are relevant playoff teams. The league appears to be flourishing more than ever.

The hardwood of a basketball floor appears flawless to the fan in the stands, but the maintenance worker knows there are small cracks within. This small crack is a $300 million dollar one. This is the number the NBA is in the red for this season. Not exactly the banner year commissioner David Stern was hoping for. This week NBA players balked at rollbacks in existing contracts, a hard salary cap and a larger share of basketball related income -- 57 percent of which is guaranteed to the players under terms of the existing labor agreement, which expires June 30. The legal jargon can get tediously complex. The best way for me to explain the NBA's biggest issue is by comparing it to my favorite TV Show, Entourage.

A casual fan of the series would assume that Vincent Chase, played by Adrian Grenier is the star of the show and therefore makes the most money. Or maybe Eric played by Kevin Connolly, Vince's best friend and manager whose name has first billing in the opening credits. But, the actor who makes the most is Super Agent Ari Gold played by Jeremy Piven. Adrian and Kevin make $200,000 an episode respectfully, but Jeremy is in a class all his own earning $350,000 a pop.


Because he's the catalyst, the cause for all of the effects that transpire in the show and the driver of the funny bus, while everyone else are really just passengers. If the show is a band, he's the front man. More eyes tune into Entourage because of Ari and most fans would leave it if he was gone. There in lies his value and appropriate pay grade in comparison to his cast mates. I think it's time the National Basketball Association took a page out of Hollywood's book. If not, we could be seeing two of our countries most popular sports locked out next season.

The bad news for the NBA is there's no guarantee fans will flock back in droves like people will to the NFL. The NFL could disappear into the depths of Mordor for a decade and it would come back without skipping a beat. We have too much invested in football from betting games, tailgating, and fantasy leagues for it to go away. The NBA is enjoying bountiful success at the moment, but if they want to sustain it, they will have to fix how they pay their players.

The solution to avoid the NFL's current predicament is simple: Pay players per performance.

Why should a bench player make more annually than a team's star player? 

A Doctor doesn't make less than a Physicians Assistant. A sheriff doesn't get paid less than his deputy. The NBA is a face league and the continuation of overpaying for underachievers will alienate fans and bankrupt the league. A prime example of the gross miscalculation of how player's are currently being paid is Brandon Haywood, backup center for the Dallas Mavericks.  He is making eleven million dollars this season, $8,487 for every minute he's on the floor. He averaged a whooping four points and five rebounds a game in 18 minutes.

What other industry pays top dollar for crowning mediocrity?

Newly minted MVP Derrick Rose is making six million this year, not too shabby. But, his teammate Ronnie Brewer who averages three points a game and two rebounds is making almost 5 million. Kobe Bryant made almost 25 million this year, absurd in the real world but understandable market value in the basketball realm.  He's still one of the faces of the league and the best player on the NBA's most popular franchise. His jersey is a top-seller as are his shoes. Bryant is an international marketing machine.  NBA fans go to see stars and he's the closest thing to MJ we've ever had. Conversely, bench player Luke Walton made over five million this year, averaging one point and one rebound a game.

Anderson Varejao, center for the economically downtrodden Cleveland Cavaliers averaged nine points and nine rebounds and raked in a cool seven million. By far the most telling salary problem comes from Oklahoma City Thunder's payroll. Kevin Durant led the league in scoring this season, while Russell Westbrook has emerged as one of the league's premier point guards. They are arguably two of the ten best players in the NBA. Their teammate Nick Collison averaged four points and four rebounds this season. He made over 13 million, 3 million more than Durant and Westbrook combined.

Player's salaries should be congruent with contributions to their teams. In the case of an All-Star caliber player who is injury prone like Grant Hill was in Orlando or Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were in Houston, they should have to pay back part of their salaries after missing a certain amount of games. This money would then be pumped back into the league. Player efficiency and plus/minus should also go into contract negotiations to help prove someones true value.

Finally, the NBA needs to educate current players on how to save and invest their money in safe and productive ways. Too many player's spend frivolously the day they sign their rookie contract and like any bad habit, it's not broken easily. A lot of players enter the NBA at 19-years-old, unable to balance a checkbook. They hire friends who turn out to be scam artists and it gets them into financial trouble. The story came out a few weeks ago that Lakers star, sixth-man of the year Lamar Odom pays the rent for 20-30 of his family members and friends. 20-30! Players aren't going to want to give up any portion of their salaries if they are supporting countless others.

The NFL and the NBA may be in short supply next season. Hey, at least Entourage is always on Demand.

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