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Free Agency or, "How not to Win an NBA Title…"

Emeka overpaid?  Did Charlotte have a choice?

Emeka overpaid? Did Charlotte have a choice?

Earlier this week, Emeka Okafor signed a 6-year, $72 Million deal to stay with the Charlotte Bobcats.

The deal caught my attention for various reasons, not the least of which was because at first glance it certainly appears that the Cats are overpaying for Emeka’s services. On top of this, Okafor rejected a similar deal last summer as he believed he was worth more.

When Okafor initially rejected the Bobcats’s offer, many stated that he was foolish to turn down that sort of money, thinking that with a lack of teams holding cap space, Emeka would never get close to an offer like that again. The proof is in the pudding as they say and already this summer we’ve seen other players like Ben Gordon struggle to find a team that would pay him close to the extension money he was offered around the same time as Okafor.

However Okafor came out on top in the end and did what some thought was unthinkable earlier this summer; not only did he receive a similar deal to the one he was offered last year, but he actually may be making a bit more in the long run.

So what changed? Why was a cash-strapped team like the Bobcats, who were already paying out big money to Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace, ready to jump into the deep-end without a life preserver? After all, while Okafor was a former top two draft pick, he’s hardly been a franchise-altering player and has barely been able to stay healthy through his first four NBA seasons.

The answer is simply because in the end, Charlotte had no choice.

Like many small-market teams in the NBA, losing Okafor would mean a lot more to Charlotte than simply losing a player who’s averaged a double-double to date in his career. No, losing Emeka would also signal to future free-agents that Charlotte was not willing to pay to keep top talent, and any hope of breaking the endless cycle of "drafting top talent only to lose them via free-agency" would never cease.

As Toronto Raptors’ fans, we know all too well about this issue.

We saw Tracy McGrady essentially walk because of financial constrictions (not to mention his desire to be "the man" on a team in sun destination) and each year that saw the contracts of players like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh come up was one that brought that extra bit of stress with it. (The exception being CB4’s latest contract, handled masterfully by BC and co)

Free-agency really is a team killer, as the economics of the NBA more times than not force teams into making decisions they really don’t want to make.

Let’s take a quick look at the past 10 NBA Champions:

2007-08: Boston Celtics
2006-07: San Antonio Spurs
2005-06: Miami Heat
2004-05: San Antonio Spurs
2003-04: Detroit Pistons
2002-03: San Antonio Spurs
2001-02: Los Angeles Lakers
2000-01: Los Angeles Lakers
1999-00: Los Angeles Lakers
1998-99: San Antonio Spurs

Of the group, there is not a team on the list that used free agency to put them over the top. Yes, at one point or another some of their star players were retained or acquired via big free-agency deals, but none of these teams lured an All-Star free-agent in as their last missing piece to a title.

-The Celtics built assets via the draft which they in turn swapped for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
-The Spurs were built on internal moves and retaining unheralded prospects like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to surround Tim Duncan. (Oh, and at one point they had some Naval Captain as their go-to guy…another original draft pick of theirs.)
-The Detroit Pistons may have signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent but this was before he had proven himself as a star in the league, and others like Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace were brought on-board via the draft or trades.

You could say that the Lakers, who signed Shaq away from Orlando via free-agency, were the one exception, however Kobe was brought from the Charlotte Hornets via trade after he was drafted, and it took his development along with Shaq’s play to get the team over the hump. NBA titles didn’t arrive as soon as O’Neal showed up in Tinsel Town in 1996.

And of course Miami’s lone title came via the O’Neal trade for Lamar Odom and Caron Butler.

So after looking at a list like this, you really have to wonder when you see teams like Orlando shelling out maximum doe for a Rashard Lewis. Yes Orlando has a solid core, and had a great season last year, but is more of it not due to the rise of Hedo Turkoglu and the development of Dwight Howard? How is this team going to add the missing pieces it needs without the financial flexibility to do so?

And that brings me to the Philadelphia 76ers.

On paper, the Elton Brand trade looks like a huge win for the team, and one that could result in them contending with the Boston’s and Detroit’s at the top of the East. However here is Brand, at 29, coming off what could be a career-destroying injury. Achilles tears are very serious injuries and as Howland put it to me the other night "who knows what type of player the 76ers just shelled out almost $90 Million for?"

If Brand stumbles and looks like a post-injury Shareef Abdur-Rahim, at one point one of the league’s young forwards with the most potential, then Philly is suddenly stuck for the next half a decade or so with another version of Chris Webber, this time one with an even more immovable deal.

However I think the most egregious free-agent signing is the Joe Johnson type. You know, the team with virtually no talent who jumps the couch (ala Tom Cruise) in effort to grab a star player, but not one who’s going to be able to turn the franchise around. Yes Michael Redd and Zach Randolph (when he was a Blazer), we’re looking at you. However as previously mentioned, NBA economics are such that if you don’t overpay these type of players, you’re left with little in terms of talent, and risk alienating what little fan base you have left. And while I didn’t run the numbers, it would be interesting to see what percentage of these type of deals result in the team having to trade the player to dump the salary within 3 years. I can think of numerous examples off the top of my head including Richard Jefferson and even good ol’ Vince here in Toronto.

And do these trades ever provide equal benefit back?

Not so much.

No, the only hope is that while you overpay one such player, the rest of your team develops around them, you build through the draft, or just get lucky.

And unfortunately as NBA history has shown, that rarely happens.

The last 10 championship clubs built themselves up via a few key trades, the draft, retaining their own main players and a few additional free agent signings to round things out. (Your James Poseys, your Robert Horrys (with San Antonio) etc.) It’s a stealthy combination of understanding players’ values, managing team finances, and having the foresight to make the tough decisions regarding your own personnel.

In fact, let’s look at one team that in the past four years, has taken a shot at both approaches.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the Portland Trailblazers!

The following was the Blazers’ roster in 2004-05:

PG: Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel, Sebastian Telfair
SG: Derek Anderson, Ruben Patterson, Richie Frahm,
SF: Darius Miles, Travis Outlaw, Sergei Monia
PF: Zach Randolph, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Viktor Khryapa
C: Joel Przybilla, Ha Seung-Jin, Theo Ratlif

As you can see, the Jailblazers decided to go with an overpaid core of Miles, Abdur-Rahim and Randolph, with the gigantic salary of Theo Ratlif along for the ride. (Three of four who basically played the same position.) The hope was that the youngsters like Khryapa, Telfair and Jin would develop and fill things out around the others.

Jin...the one time future of the Blazers

Jin...the one time future of the Blazers

Well…obviously that didn’t work out and in about three years, almost the entire roster had been banished, the lone holdovers being Przybilla and Outlaw. Now the Blazers’ roster looks quite different:

PG: Jerryd Bayless, Steve Blake and Sergio Rodriguez
SG: Brando Roy, and Martell Webster
SF: Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarucs Aldridge, Channing Frye, Ike Diogu
C: Greg Oden, Przybilla, Raef LaFrentz

Add on the fact that LaFrentz coming off the books in a year and this team has some serious future potential.

Much like Boston recently did, if Portland decides they need to add one more big piece down the road to compete for a title, they can exchange some of their wealth of young talent to acquire it.

It’s pretty remarkable when you look at the two clubs side-by-side and as Raptors’ fans, we’ve seen Bryan Colangelo perform a similar, albeit not quite as drastic, housecleaning here.

So what about the current Toronto Raptors’ team? Are they following a successful template?

I think it’s no doubt a great start, but I think we’ll have a much better idea in two years time, after BC does some trimming and pruning around Jose, Bosh and Jermaine. If the team starts to make some noise at that point, and can retain the big pivots for the long-haul (assuming JO stays healthy and plays up to his potential), then Toronto definitely has more upside than the majority of NBA franchise out there.

The hope of course is that Toronto’s roster peaks in terms of performance about the time the Celtics and Pistons begin their descent. No doubt there are a lot of "ifs" and "maybes" along the way but I think the most important thing here is that it’s incredibly encouraging just to be able to discuss this topic!

This morning was another stark reminder of how fast fortunes can change in the NBA as upon reading about the Sacramento Kings’ reacquisition of Bobby Jackson and Jason Williams’ possible defection to Europe, it brought me back to a time when the Kings were the talk of the league.

Now, the Kings could quite possibly be one of the five worst teams in the league and are suddenly looking to completely rebuild.

Incidentally, you can almost trace their demise back to their overpayment of Chris Webber. That started a string of questionable free-agent signings and one can even ponder about their recent contractual obligations to the likes of Mikki Moore and Beno Udrih and gasp, Kevin Martin.

Yes Martin is a great talent but doesn’t he fit my previous Joe Johnson syndrome? Isn’t he a good player on a bad team? Is he really worth almost $13 Million a season by the time 2012 hits?

Flip the coin though and I’m sure if you asked any Kings fan about the Kings decision to re-up Martin for that amount and I’m sure you’d more often than not get pretty much the same response…

…"well…what else were they supposed to do?"