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NBA's gloomy economic forecast could discourage big deals
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 7/20/2009 12:01 AM

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The Bulls and several other NBA teams have positioned themselves to make some expensive personnel moves in the next 12 months.

At the same time, the league has already provided a gloomy economic forecast and a battle is looming over exorbitant player salaries when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011. With its luxury tax, the NBA may have created a system that could put teams out of business.

The Bulls are chasing Utah power forward Carlos Boozer in a trade and have an eye on creating salary-cap room to spend on a free agent next summer. One potential free agent, Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire, recently suggested he's looking for a maximum contract, which would average around $20 million per season.

Signing Boozer to a long-term deal shouldn't be that expensive, but his agent reportedly suggested a $14 million per season extension was in order. The Bulls, or whatever team acquires Boozer, might try to tone that down to the $12-million range.

And if the Bulls get a chance at Toronto's Chris Bosh next summer, is he even worth the money they would have to spend?

Let's face it, the number of NBA players who truly deserve $15 to $20 million per season is in the single digits: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett for sure. Shaquille O'Neal was worth the price five years ago, but not now.

Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki could make an argument. Paul Pierce has earned his money since Garnett showed up in Boston, but he wasn't before.

Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker are all probably second-tier guys. They haven't proved they can lead a team to title contention.

The question in the coming months is whether NBA owners have the self-discipline to hold the line on spending. They might not, since several teams have long been looking forward to the free-agent class of 2010 hitting the market.

The league warned teams that the salary cap could fall by as much as $5 million next year, but the real threat is the luxury-tax threshold falling. If teams are stuck with a bunch of big contracts, they could end up paying a huge tax bill at a time when revenues are falling. Needless to say, this could be a significant problem for small-market teams.

Then again, it's easy to see how this mess began. The salary mistakes committed by NBA teams have been incredible. Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal are both set to make $23 million this season. Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis were both paid close to $20 million in recent years.

The biggest reason Utah is facing pressure to lower the payroll is it decided Andrei Kirilenko was worth a maximum contract years ago. He wasn't. Now the Jazz is stuck paying $33 million over the next two seasons to a guy that might be the team's fifth-best player.

A different kind of example is Marko Jaric, a guard who hasn't seen meaningful minutes in a couple years, is owed almost $15 million from Memphis during the next two seasons.

And how do you explain this: The Grizzlies didn't want to keep Gasol's high salary on the books and traded him to the Lakers in 2007. That's understandable, but now Memphis traded for Zach Randolph, who will make the same $33 million as Gasol the next two years. Randolph has appeared in eight playoff games in eight NBA seasons, by the way, none since 2003.

The Bulls haven't had much luck with big salaries, either. The $60-million deal for Ben Wallace didn't pan out. Before that, they gave Tyson Chandler a $63-million contract figuring they had to match the $64 million over six years Philadelphia paid to Sam Dalembert. The Sixers and New Orleans have tried to unload both of those contracts, with no luck.

Last summer, the Bulls were feeling the pressure to sign Luol Deng, because he was likely to leave as a free agent if they didn't. One year later, Deng's $71-million contract seems like a bad call, but that view could change if he plays better next season.

Leaguewide, players aren't living up to contracts bestowed by the owners. Finding ways to cut back on contract guarantees will be a significant challenge in the 2011 bargaining session.