There has been a lot of talk recently about whether professional sports teams can “buy championships.” The argument was sparked by the New York Yankees’ recent spending spree, as Hal Steinbrenner responded to his team’s first playoff-less October by spending upwards of $300 million dollars to fix the issue. However if Yankee-haters want a reason to believe that the Yankees will once again go home without a championship, all they have to do is look at the success (or lack thereof) of the big four NBA free-agent signings this past offseason. Fans always want to believe that if their franchise goes out and nabs that one big star, it will be enough to put them over the hump. However, this season the NBA is proving that the best way to win a championship is to build from within.
The NBA is often applauded for the way they handle rookie contracts upon entering the league. Organizations have control of their players for their first five years, with the fourth and fifth years being team options (the team can choose not to offer a contract and thus release the player). The amount that the contract calls for is not random, but instead must go up by a set percentage each year (decided on by the NBA). What all these details essentially mean is that NBA players often stay with their teams for at least the first five years of their careers.
The NBA is a very difficult league, and its 82-game season takes quite a toll on a player’s body. Even after just five seasons of playing in the league, a player is most certainly not as fresh as he was his rookie year. What all this means is that signing a free agent in the NBA is a risk, and one that teams in the 2008-2009 season are paying for.
Baron Davis was the first big free agent splash last offseason, making the trip back home to play for the Los Angeles Clippers (vilifying himself in the eyes of Warriors fans, like myself, forever). Although his original plan of uniting with former Clipper forward Elton Brand never came to fruition, the Clippers were still expected to contend for a playoff spot with a nucleus of Davis, center Chris Kaman, and young studs Eric Gordon and Al Thornton. However Davis has missed 13 of the Clippers’ 44 games due to injury, and even before then was struggling, shooting a career-low 36% from the field.
Davis’ sad story is echoed by the other three big free-agent signings from the offseason. The aforementioned Brand, now playing for the 76er’s, has missed 18 of his team’s 43 games, while averaging a career low in points (14.8). Corey Maggette, the Warriors’ response to Davis’ departure, has missed 19 of Golden State’s 45 games, and currently is coming off the bench. And finally Ron Artest, the “missing piece” that the Houston Rockets were looking for, has missed 13 of 46 games.
So what do all these numbers mean? They simply point to the fact that an NBA team cannot rely on players from outside the organization to come in and really make a substantial change. The grueling season is simply too much for older players to survive through, and the majority of free agents are entering that “older player” age. The way to win in this league is to “build from within,” to draft the right players who will be able to give you all their solid, healthy years.
Former NBA player Latrell Sprewell once famous turned down a 3-year, $21 million contract because he “had his family to feed.” With all the injuries to players posing a threat to the salaries free agents will be offered in the future, maybe players like Sprewell will have no choice but to subsist on their meager earnings.