What’s up with the NBA

Kevin Durant, one of the NBA’s five best basketball players, announced today that he is leaving Oklahoma City to play for the Golden State Warriors. This past season, the Warriors won more games than any team in the history of the NBA. They came within a whisker of winning a second straight NBA championship. Similarly, Oklahoma City came within a whisker of defeating Golden State in the playoffs.

Durant’s move simultaneously decimates Golden State’s main competition in the Western Conference and substantially improves one of the best teams in NBA history. It’s as if Lefty Grove joined the New York Yankees after the 1927 season or Al Kaline joined the Yankees in 1962. But even these analogies don’t do the situation justice because adding a superstar to a basketball team, with its five starters, has more impact than adding one to a baseball team, with its nine.

Many were upset when Lebron James “took his talents to South Beach,” hooking up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to make the Miami Heat a super team. But James was leaving a team that lacked what it takes to contend for an NBA title. And he was going to a team that without him was not a contender.

Durant is leaving a team that might well have won the championship this year and heading to the best team in basketball over the last two seasons. I’m probably not the only fan who thinks less of Durant for not accepting the challenge of taking Oklahoma City, a city that reveres him, to the title.

Before Durant made his move the big story of NBA free agency was the enormous contracts being awarded to mediocre players. For example, the Lakers and Timofey Mozgov agreed to a four-year deal worth $65 million. Last year, Mozgov averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for Cleveland. During the playoffs, he rarely got off the bench.

Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards won the services of center Ian Mahinmi for basically the same terms as the Mosgov deal. Last season was a career year for Mahinmi. He averaged 9.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

Mozgov and Mahinmi are both 29 years old. Presumably, neither is being paid for his potential. With both, what you see is what you get. And what you get has never before been thought to justify a yearly salary of anything close $16 million.

Forward Harrison Barnes is better than mediocre. Last year, he averaged 11.7 points and 4.9 rebounds for Golden State. At age 24, Barnes has plenty of upside.

He will have to realize all of it and then some to justify, under traditional ways of doing business, the four-year $94 million contract the Dallas Mavericks will bestow upon him. This contract means that Barnes will make more than twice as much money next year as Stephen Curry, his superstar ex-teammate at Golden State. It is Curry’s misfortune not to be a free agent this year.

To get an idea of how quickly things have changed, consider the reported contracts of two second-tier Wizards players, Jared Dudley (7.9 points; 3.5 rebounds) and Garrett Temple (7.3 points; 2.7 rebounds). The former agreed to a three-year deal with Phoenix for $30 million. The latter agreed to a three-year deal with Portland for $24 million.

Dudley is an excellent three-point shooter; Temple is a good defender. Both, then, bring something to the table.

But two years ago, the Wizards lost Trevor Ariza (14.4 points; 6.2 rebounds that year), then an excellent three-point shooter and defender, to Houston in free agency. Ariza’s deal? $32 million over four years.

How much would Ariza have made in this year’s market coming off the year he had in 2014? Chandler Parsons (13.7 points; 4.7 rebounds), two years younger now than Ariza was then, just agreed to a four-year deal worth $98.5 million. And Parsons is nowhere near as good defensively as Ariza.

Sports fans have been moaning about the contracts of professional athletes since at least the mid-1970s when the Cleveland Indians paid Wayne Garland the unheard of salary of $2.3 million over 10 years. I’ve never been part of that chorus.

I watch enough high school, college, and summer league basketball to know how good a player must be to get any appreciable NBA playing time. If the NBA’s big new television contract can sustain paying $15 million a year to border line starting centers and $8-10 million for second-unit guys with a specialty, it’s fine with me. In fact, I’m happy for Dudley and Temple, both of whom I like.

I worry, though, that teams will have to raise ticket prices to cover the exploding contract sums. It’s already ridiculously expensive to attend an NBA game. I suspect that things are about to get worse.

When I first started following the NBA, it was something of a bush league, to use Wilt Chamberlain’s description. It’s anything but bush now.

However, the Durant move and the likely impact on ticket prices of those exploding contracts suggest to me that unless you happen to support Golden State, the NBA is not fan friendly.


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