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Dollars and Sense

Do you remember the Master Card campaign from a few years back where they tried to convince the public that, oh so many things were priceless? Well, superstar athletes who have incredible skills, stats and marketing potential could be considered priceless, couldn’t they? You don’t think so? Really…you could resist offering to pay them the GDP of a small nation for the next five to 10 years? You do realize that somewhere down the road they may leave your team and you would need to sign someone else. SOMEONE ELSE!!!

What if I said that the uber athletes were in their “prime years” or were oozing with “potential?" Jokes aside, there are many fans out there that could never forgive a team for allowing a certain player to sign elsewhere. Even with pressure like that, leagues like the NBA are run by shrewd individuals that could put a price on anything. But that is not to say that there have not been a lot of overzealous shoppers.

One of the most common mistakes made by NBA teams over the last decade or so has been signing players to extremely long guaranteed contracts. In a league where contracts are not performance based, overpaying players at times is inevitable. However, signing players for four years or more is not mandatory.

If I were a GM in the NBA, I would only want marquee players signed for more than three years, and I would not lock up my franchise player for more than four or five years. Despite originally wanting John Salmons for five seasons, Bryan Colangelo has created a situation like this in Toronto. With the exception of Chris Bosh, all of the players that Colangelo has signed or dealt for this off-season have three years or less left on their contracts. Bosh has a player option on a fourth year.

As exciting as it can be to lock up stars like Kobe or a valuable role player like Shane Battier for years to come, it is a huge risk. Go ask a Mavs fan how much they like paying Michael Finley a gazillion dollars to watch him play for the Spurs or how much the Nets have enjoyed paying Todd MacCulloch over the last three seasons while he was unable to play.

In life, people sometimes get injured, gain weight, lose motivation, get into drugs, have run-ins with the law, have trouble getting along with their peers and employers, feel the need to relocate and various other things. It is hardly a stretch to say that most, if not all of these things, become more likely when someone has been guaranteed more than enough money to live on for the rest of their life. So in a league like the NBA where player contracts are almost always guaranteed, teams are playing with fire when they give out long deals. Maybe some GMs like Colangelo have started to learn from the past.

On April 19th, the 2005-2006 NBA season came to an end. On this day, Penny Hardaway, one of the greatest players during 1990's, saw his contract come to an end. Penny was being paid for the final two months of the season without occupying a roster spot on an NBA team. This means that poor Mr. Hardaway will never receive another contract like his last one. Don’t worry about him too much though - Penny has just finished earning $86 million over the last six years. Paying the versatile guard over 14 million a year was not that crazy considering the type of numbers that he had put up during the 1999-2000 season: 16.9 points on a field goal percentage close to 50% , 5.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.6 steals. On top of all that he was still starring along side Lil’Penny in the Sprite commercials responsible for inspiring the Little Lebron. However, six years is excessive for any player, especially one who had been hampered by injuries for the past three seasons. Penny only mustered four games the year after he signed his deal. He managed to play in more games than that every year up until last season, but his production was mediocre at best.

When Penny Hardaway cashed-in during the summer of 2000, few players were considered as valuable. Brian Grant and Eddie Jones both got $86 million as well, but over seven years. Oh joy, that means somebody still has to settle up with them this year. I am not going to spend time discussing them, look up their numbers if you are interested, but you’ll find that while Jones has been good, he's been way overpaid and that Brian Grant’s contract was a horrendous mistake.

Two names that all basketball fans should still be familiar with inked bigger deals than Penny though - Jalen Rose and Grant Hill. Both hit the jackpot with seven year $92.9 million deals. Jalen put some nice stats for a couple of years, but as Raptor fans, we know that his all-around game is lacking and that he probably didn't deserve that original contract no matter how you look at it. Guess what, “Captain Crunch” will be earning $16.9 million this year for the Knicks although the joke is that he is only the third highest-paid Knick behind Marbury and the retired Allan Houston who signed for six years in 2001!! (Oh Isiah.) You’ve probably guessed it but Grant Hill will also need to decide what to do with the $16.9 million that he will “earn” this year.

Don’t kid yourself, Dwight Howard is not the star of the Magic. I am certain that this will be the year that Grant Hill returns to the 25 point per game scoring, 6-7 rebound grabbing, 5+ dime dropping monster that he was just before he cashed in...Who cares if he is more beat up than Mick Foley, the man did drink Sprite!

Penny and Grant Hill are a rarity though, right? Even if there are other cases like them out there, (cough, Chris Webber, cough, Kenyon Martin) the Pistons and Suns could not have imagined the potential disaster. There could not have been other recent examples of long-term deals proving to be huge mistakes.

Oh wait a minute, how about Larry “Grandmama” Johnson...

When Hardaway and Hill were signed, the former Running Rebel was coming off two seasons where he managed to average 58 games a year, while averaging about 11 points a game and about 5.5 rebounds a game. At that point, I am sure that the Knicks were thrilled to have another four years left on the 12 year (oh my Lord) contract that he had signed in 1993. They got another year out of LJ, before he retired. Once again, the man got paid. $28.8 million to be precise.

Now if only Shawn Kemp had been kind enough to finish adding a few hundred pounds a year earlier, maybe Penny and Grant would not have gotten such long deals...

Oh yes Shawn, we didn't forget about you. Kemp was signed by Cleveland in 1997 to a seven year $107 million deal. Despite the amount of money he was making, for a few years there were some Sonics fans who remained upset over not re-signing Kemp. How could they not match that contract? Kemp was productive but not spectacular for the Cavs for the next three seasons. He did average over 17 points and almost 9 rebounds for the 1999-2000 season. However, by the end of the year Shawn Kemp was looking heavy and slow. This was because, a) the Cavs wanted him in the post, b) he was spending more time getting high than he was working out, c) eating more than would be needed to feed him and all of his illegitimate children, or d) all of the above. Whatever the case may have been, Shawn Kemp was never anywhere close to being an elite player after that season. Over the next three years, he averaged around 6 points and just over 4 rebounds a game. Kemp was waived before he finished his contract, but like our man Larry Johnson and Eric B. and Rakim, he got paid in full!

After a little stroll down "Bent the Team Over Backwards Lane," you must be at least a little relieved that Bryan Colangelo has been employing short-term signings. If you are a long-time Raptor fan like myself, it is comforting to see our GM finally take this approach. Lord knows that Glen Grunwald didn’t. It may have only taken the man just a few weeks to put his stamp on the team but some of the mess that he left behind is still being cleaned up.

During Grunwald’s “Summer of Sin”, between July 18th and August 2nd 2001, Grunwald made the following signings: Hakeem Olajuwon got three years at $17.4 million, Vince Carter got six years at $70.9 million, Antonio Davis got five years at $64 million, Jerome Williams got seven years $41 million, and Alvin Williams got seven years at $42 million. If you were one of the many happy fans then, I am sure that you eventually changed your tune...

Even though Olajuwon was the last of GG’s moves, the icing on the cake so to speak, let's start with him. Olajuwon’s deal was the shortest and the Raps have been done paying it for a couple years, but who signs a 38-year-old to a lucrative three year deal? The answer, the Raptors! They got one very mediocre season out of Hakeem, but were lucky enough to pay him for another two after that, taking up more than 10 per cent of their cap space in 2002-2003 and 2003-2004.

We all know Vince can play and is capable of earning his pay-cheques. However the bottom line is that he was dogging it during the end of his tenure and on top of that, got dirtier than O.D.B when he publicly demanded a trade. I for one am still sure that Babcock could have done better than simply acquiring the pick that turned into Joey Graham, Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and Alonzo Mourning (who was bought out for almost his whole salary) in the Carter deal. Ugghh!! In his defense though, nobody could have gotten full value for Vince after he publicly demanded to be traded. Wayne Embry and now Colangelo have managed to move the Williams brothers, but Raptors’ fans will have to wait another year for Mourning’s contract to expire.

Antonio Davis was 33 when he began playing for his $64 million. He did muster one very good season in Toronto. In 2001-2002, Antonio put up around 14 points and nearly 10 boards a game. His per game stats only dipped a bit the following season, but he missed 30 games. As the season went on, it became more and more clear that he was beginning a rapid decline. His attitude took a turn for the worse as well. He continually cried about playing in Canada and his kids learning the metric system, until he was finally traded with JYD in the fall of 2003. The final two years of Antonio’s career were indeed a treat for his employers. “Captain Canada” missed 48 games during that time and struggled to average 5 points and rebounds per game.

Jerome Williams was a fan favourite, but have you looked at the regular season numbers that he put up right before the Raptors signed him? After being sent over by the Pistons, in 26 games he averaged 15 minutes, 5 points and 4 rebounds. The scary thing is that most Raptor fans, despite watching him play, never realized that he had been signed for too much or for too long. Until he left the team, he was essentially the highest paid member of the Raptors Dance Pack. However, he contributed even less later in his career. Before the 2005-2006 season, the Knicks would use their amnesty clause on JYD, cutting him to save luxury tax money.

And how will Alvin Williams be remembered? Will it be as a solid basketball player and warrior on the court, or as a man who got paid over $20 million to play just over 50 games over the last four years of his contract? Most likely he will be remembered for both. Personally, I am going to have a hard time forgetting that he is going to be paid to be elsewhere for the next two years. Now, wouldn’t it have been nice if Alvin had been inked to a three year deal, even if it was a deal that averaged $8 million instead of $6 million? Overpaying with short contracts like the one the Lakers gave Kwame last year, never hurts as much as bad long term deals do.

Incidentally, it has not been disclosed as to how much money Alvin Williams will actually be paid over the next two seasons. Whatever the total is, it will count against the Raptors' cap space however. Before the team and Alvin agreed upon the terms of his release, reports surfaced that the Raptors would only have to pay Williams $5.4 of the $6.8 million that was owed to him this year and only $2 million of the sum owed to him next season. However, if Williams were to be successful in proving that he was healthy enough to remain in the league by signing on for even a 10 day contract somewhere, the Raptors would be on the hook for the entire $14 million remaining on his contract. Some experts have speculated that in order to avoid risk, both parties agreed upon a figure between $7.4 million and $14 million. Whatever this mystery number is, for salary cap purposes, it has been split in two and added to the Raptors payroll over the next two years.

After looking at these five players from who were signed back in the summer of 2001, it's downright scary that now five full years later, the team is still suffering from their aftershocks. Even if the Raptors got extremely luck and convinced Alvin to settle for $8 million, for the next two years he would eat up $4 million of their cap space! (That should sound familiar, as this is what Alonzo Mourning got last season and will receive again this season.) Therefore, the Raptors have at least $8 million committed to waived players or 15 per cent of the cap space allowed by the league!!! For people who have been unimpressed with Colangelo’s free agent signings, please consider what he was left to work with.

My plea to Colangelo and the Raptors is to remain focused on being financially responsible. Keep handing out those three year deals! If Colangelo is even half the GM that many Raptors fans including myself think he is, he can incur the risk of not having guys locked up for eons. If he has a good team in place, talent will continue to sign in the land of the metric system.