The Politics of Sacrifice, or LeBron and Space Puppies and NBA Economics

Some NBA fans get upset when free agents refuse to sign for less in more conducive places. They need to think harder.
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Addicted to BENZO

“If only Superstar X took a pay-cut to play for Team Y, they’d totally win a championship!”

We say it every NBA offseason. We say it knowing full well that the whole exercise, from neuron to tongue, amounts to little more than delusional bullshit. But we also say it because we genuinely believe it – believe deep down in the meatiest corners of our Kantian souls that, if we were in the same position, we’d gladly halve our houses or car collections to maximize our chance at a greater triumph.

We say it because we desperately want the people in whom we’ve invested endless mental and emotional mania to put as much thought into their own career dynamics as we do. To approach it with the same dispassionate pragmatism we fans are so good at bringing to bear on the lives of athletes, and so very, very terrible at bringing to our own.

Athletes, it turns out, aren’t much better at it than we are.

There are, of course, exceptions, two of which went down in this fading offseason. The first happened on July 12, when Brooklyn announced the signing of dynamic veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $6.5 million tender. Kirilenko, who turns 33 next February, made just a shade under $10 million last season, and opted out of a deal that would have paid him about that much next year. The expectation was that he’d receive something in that neighborhood again – albeit for one or two years – in his next contract. Instead, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was able to land his fellow expat for a relative song.

We will never know what went said or unsaid during the two’s secret meeting, presumably aboard a decommissioned submarine somewhere in the north Atlantic. Unless one of us spoke Soviet, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have understood it anyway. There is, however, a 50% chance the deal was sealed with some combination of obscure mining interests, arctic oil prospects, and smuggled acid-washed Jordache jeans.

The second was the Knicks’ resigning of J.R. Smith for a supremely reasonable four years, $24 million. The X-factor here: J.R.’s little brother, Chris, who after missing all of last season recovering from knee surgery was invited once again to the Las Vegas Summer League. Despite being quite terrible at playing basketball, Smith the Younger will be attending Knicks training camp, and appears poised for some kind of life-long position within the Knicks organization, a la Walt Frazier, John Starks, and Baron Davis’ alien overlords. Also J.R. Smith seems to enjoy playing in New York, and really enjoy the not-playing part of being in New York. The dots all connect.  

Here we have two perfect examples of money-glory synergy; upper-echelon players and their teams carving out creative ways of balancing team potential and individual financial security in a way that factors in extracurricular avenues for maximizing financial gain and personal enjoyment. In Smith’s case, that basically means staying out until 6am, putting things on Instagram, and having to apologize to Joe Budden.

We need more of this. The signing for less thing, that is.

Which is easy for us to say, obviously. Just as obviously, the money you know is there is almost always better than the money you hope is there, particularly when we’re talking about bankroll-entire-countries-for-months kind of money. In many cities – and especially those with championship designs – the potential for lucrative endorsements and other promotional opportunities might well be enough to recoup whatever salary was magnanimously left atop the bargaining table.

But the calculus isn’t always so simple. National-grade endorsements might be easy to come by in New York, Chicago and L.A., but unless you’re really into used cars, gun clubs, or liquidated mattresses with families of squirrels living in them, the product pickings in many NBA cities are shoelace slim, even if the roster is brim-loaded and title-ready.

In either case, creativity is key. With that said, let’s take a look at a handful of potential landscape-quaking offseason signings that some of the league’s most in-demand talents – and some currently contending teams – might pursue, and the creative caulk that could fill in the cash cracks:

Year: 2014
Player: Paul Pierce
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Chicago

How this could work: Oh, I’m not the guy to write this one. I know he has his admirable aspects, but I’ve learned in my years as a Knicks fan to loathe Paul Pierce with every bile-soaked fiber of my being. That doesn’t mean I don’t want Paul to be happy. (I don’t, but whatever.) There is a 100% chance the Bulls will enter next summer in a complete panic over their lack of wing depth. For his part, Pierce could do far worse than riding out career’s sunset in a city where the streetlights meet the watery sunrise like few other. The problem here is Chicago’s notoriously tight/ham-fisted owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who wouldn’t foot $50 for the Starship Enterprise if it meant staring down an NBA tax bill.

But even if Peirce signs for peanuts, Chicago holds plenty of opportunities for extra dough: endorsing an Uno’s deep dish pizza called The Truth, made with seven meats, ten cheeses, and spare wheelchair parts, and where each slice flops off the spatula the second you touch it with a fork prong. Or co-leading guided tours of Al Capone’s old haunts with Geraldo Rivera, who insists on having a mustache fight – like a thumb war, you see, but with mustaches – for who gets to re-open the safes (Geraldo wins every time). Even something as simple as clipping Reinsdorf’s toenails for nickels-per-inch, which is far more lucrative than it sounds.

Year: 2015
Player: Tony Parker
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Los Angeles Lakers

How this could work: After Jim Buss hands over a fresh five-year, $350 million contract to Kobe Bryant, L.A. could well have two and only two players on the roster: Mamba, and Robert Sacre ($25 team option). That’s a fantastic foundation for Parker, and the perfect opportunity for a trigger-itchy Phil Jackson to re-enter the fray and spearhead the purest triangle offense the game has ever seen. Parker might be taking a haircut of somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million for the first year, but the fringe benefits will be hard to ignore: Being the first French-born player to suit up in the City of Angels; being the first French-born player to ever play on an NBA roster featuring just three players; and charging $1,000 a head for access to his Supermodel Museum in the Hollywood Hills, to which guests will be driven blindfolded and where the party favors are shopping carts with wan, uninterested supermodels in them.

Year: 2014
Player: Ben Gordon
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Charlotte

How this could work: There’s really no number crunching to be done here; as of today, the Bobcats only have around $15 million committed for the 2015 season. I, like a lot of other people, merely demand satisfaction for the horrible Detroit contract Gordon got all those years ago (#neverforget). I want him to sign for $100.00 out of nothing more than the sheer goodness of his soul, and spend every second he’s not on the court fingering a rosary and stringing together Our Fathers and Hail Marys for the health and well-being of Michael Jordan. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Year: 2015
Player: Marc Gasol
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Los Angeles Clippers

How this could work: If he truly wants to shed the shadow cast by Pau, Marc could do a lot worse than landing in the city that made the elder Gasol a champion – and doing it for the other team. After Donald Sterling inevitably signs a cryogenically frozen Dwyane Wade – who opts out of his player option in Miami – to his own max deal, there may not be much left in the coffers for the beefy Spaniard. Still, like Parker, Gasol shouldn’t find it too difficult to reel in some supplemental income. To wit: working weekends as a beach volleyball ringer; leading Sterling’s VIP guests on guided tours of the Staples Center showers; casting himself as “Evil Russian’s third bodyguard” in the next eight The Expendables franchises; or standing in as one of the Os in the Hollywood sign.

Year: 2015
Player: Rajon Rondo
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Oklahoma City

How this could work: Whether Boston decides to hitch franchise fortune to Rondo for one season, two seasons, or deal him at the first opportunity, there’s a good chance the mercurial point guard will be free to choose his next home. That home should be Oklahoma City, Nebraska. The Thunder currently have around $50 million committed, and so it seems like there should be plenty of room to offer Rondo the max. But this is the Thunder we’re talking about – you know three of these dudes on rookie contracts will be All-Stars within the next two years. It’s how they do. I’m not worried about point guard dynamics; a Rondo-Westbrook backcourt is already giving me nosebleeds, and we’re a good 700 calendar days from it being even a possibility.

Still, this will mean Rondo never got the max deal he arguably deserved, and so he’ll need to cobble together a slew of side gigs to sweeten the ledger: Working as a part-time PR intern for Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake Energy (basically: fetching coffee and promising to cash his $50,000 weekly checks with “BURIED TREASURE” written on the memo line as quickly as possible); doing cover artwork for the Flaming Lips’ next album, The Universe is Going to Explode // No Use Hiding In That Closet; and – by far the easiest hustle – taking Kendrick Perkins’ money in Connect Four.

Year: 2016
Player: Michael Beasley
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Team he should sign with: Portland

How this could work: Assuming the Blazers work to keep intact their young, talented core (LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Joel Freeland), they could be bumping right up against the cap come the summer of 2015. In light of his most recent brush with the law – we don’t know what it will be yet, but you won’t need to use your imagination too hard – Beasley will by then likely be looking for a new home himself. And while a lot can happen between now and then – improvement-wise, attitude-wise, not blazing in the car-wise – it seems likely Supercool Beas will have to take what he can get. Portland represents the ideal place for him: quiet, low-key, generally bereft of young people, strip clubs or narcotics, and otherwise in no way rife with temptations.

Even in one of the league’s smaller markets, Beasley should be able to use the city’s squeaky-clean, conservative image to his own, career-resuscitating advantage: lending his name to a well-known horticultural supply store (Portland has a lot of roses); commissioning a colorful, custom-made glass vase designed to hold said roses; or teaming up with Meyers Leonard to lead Lewis and Clark-themed canoe tours to the mouth of the Columbia River. Co-starring Arvydas Sabonis as Sacagawea.

Year: 2014
Player: LeBron James
Status: $20.5 million/early termination option
Team he should sign with: New York

How this could work: The Knicks are desert-class thirsty for a championship, yet remain perpetually one [rather big] player away from making it happen. LeBron was supposed to be that guy in the summer of 2010, and he can be that guy again come next summer – if he chooses to opt out of his final year with the Heat. The Knicks may once again have only small exceptions and veteran’s minimums to dish out, and LeBron should take one.

Why? Because bringing a banner to the Garden rafters would cause Manhattan to detach from the earth completely and form a new and very smug continent. The mayor would immediately relinquish control of the city, swearing fealty to his new overlord by handing him the last known 24-ounce bottle of Sprite within the city limits, now dusted over with a mixture of pure 24-karat gold and the incinerated skull of Peter Stuyvesant. LeBron could name himself Rap Game Emperor Bossmaster General of New Amsterdam For Life Fools, and he would be elected with 130% of the vote for the next forty elections. The fact that garnering 130% of the vote is mathematically impossible would mean nothing, because LeBron’s first ballot initiative – demanding that he receive 130% of the vote in every election – would pass with 140% of the vote.

Of course, his mayoral salary is only a small part of what LeBron would acquire as Supreme Overmaster of Manhattan. Add to that the following: $6 billion for endorsing a cronut shop; $8 billion to lend his name and likeness to a taxi cab – not a taxi service, a single taxi (one of the new hybrid ones) – and $10 billion for endorsing the city’s sewer system, despite it being the city’s only sewer system. Antimatter would disappear, menacing asteroids would turn to clusters of space puppies, and God – once a Knick, always a Knick – might finally find peace in his heaven. Which is not a bad deal for the mini-mid-level.

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