Speaking of big contracts, when Kobe signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, many media members (including me) made the overwhelmingly valid point that someone who had just spent the past two years repeatedly saying "I only care about getting a sixth ring" had inadvertently made it much, much, much, MUCH harder to win that sixth ring. (You know, because of the salary cap restrictions, and the inherent flaw in building 40 percent of your team payroll around an aging player coming off a devastating leg injury and playing in his 19th and 20th seasons.) Kobe lashed out at that mind-set by blaming the latest collective bargaining agreement for placing an unfair responsibility on elite players. Nowadays, any star who doesn't sacrifice his own cap figure for more help, like Tim Duncan did in San Antonio, seems selfish.
And as Kobe said, why should HE be the one sacrificing money? Why wouldn't his exceptionally wealthy owners do that? Even in Kobe's waning years, the Lakers still struck an incredible deal for him. Add up his promotional value and merchandising value, his star appeal for season-ticket sales and television ratings, and the reality that the Los Angeles market responds to stars only (and he's one of the biggest). Could you argue he's worth $60 million a year to the Lakers? You realize that the NBA's media-rights deals are about to go through the roof, right? It's a hugely successful league that hinges on the night-to-night appeal of, say, 18 to 20 stars from year to year. And yet the owners shrewdly created a salary structure in which someone like the Mariners' Robinson Cano can get more than twice as much in guaranteed money than NBA superstars.
It's a Jedi Mind Trick, Gladwell. How did they pull this off?
This is part of why I don't consider the ascendancy of stat-based analysis (in particular among fans) to be an unalloyed good.
The old debate was where Kobe Bryant ranked among the league players in how they played basketball. From shortly after the start of his career until this year, he has been one of the top 5 players in the NBA, and then the debate would move on to where he ranks historically.
But now we're so much smarter than that. Now, when we rank players, salaries matter. We don't consider the question from the perspective of a pick-up player who would want a teammate; we consider it as a GM building a team.
Now, Kobe Bryant doesn't look so good. He's going to take up 40% of the Lakers' salary cap allowance! Plus he's getting older and more injury-prone! He's a total liability! How could he do this to the team?! Doesn't he care about winning championships?!
So, now we don't just knock Kobe down a few pegs as he ages; we actively criticize him for accepting money the Lakers are willing to pay him.
And who created these rules whereby the Lakers paying Kobe Bryant what he's worth to them cripples their ability to compete for a championship? That's right, the owners! In fact, they shut the sport down for several months to ensure this was the case!
Also interesting is that we criticize Kobe Bryant for having the gall to accept the money being offered him, but can't muster up anything for the several teams, notably my boyhood rooting interest Philadelphia 76ers, who are not even trying to win. We're supposed to be smart enough to realize that losing this year positions them for higher draft picks and cap space in the future. Trying to win now would only get them year after year of mediocrity. Never mind that the product in the meantime stinks. Also never mind that no actual champion was built by deliberately losing.
I think the owners light another victory cigar with a $100 bill every time a sportswriter cobbles together a column of "worst contracts" or "best bargains."
I suggest that instead of criticizing GMs for signing "dumb contracts" or players for accepting them, we should instead be criticizing owners for engineering, and forcing on the players, a system where generous contracts to players cripple their ability to compete. Where it makes sense for teams to not even try to win for seasons at a time. Where instead of trying to prove how much smarter we are than the GMs who operate under this system's arbitrary constraints, we instead challenge the system that values shrewd salary cap management over accumulating basketball talent.
Effectively, "smart" sports analysis helps maintain the current unjust system. Do they mean to do this? Almost certainly not. Most analysts side with the players in labor disputes and would advocate the election of Marvin Miller to the Hall of Fame. Gratuitous potshots at Bud Selig are de riguer in sabremetric columns.
But it has helped create this culture -- that truly smart, sophisticated fans don't just consider how good a player is, but the impact his contract has on the team's ability to compete. I think the tide is beginning to turn in some places, particularly the NCAA, where sportswriters are less and less inclined to take the existing system as a given.
Here's hoping we can continue to progress to that point. Because I'm not sure that where we are is that much better than where we were.