By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Karl Malone wanted the ring that had eluded him his entire career, so he signed with the Lakers in 2003 at the age of 40. So did Gary Payton, who was also title-hunting desperately after 13 seasons.
Neither got it then, as the Pistons beat them in five games in the 2004 NBA Finals, and Malone retired shortly thereafter. Payton picked another spot for his last, best chance two years later, signing with the Miami Heat. He helped them win it all in 2005-06.
Those two were able to chase a championship because they were old and super-rich and finally at a point in their respective professional lives when that achievement mattered more than maximizing every last dollar of available NBA salary.
Now imagine somebody young and rich and smart, not to mention creative and motivated. He could really want to win a handful of titles, he’d have the means to do so as soon as his initial rookie contract expires, and the league could do nothing to stop him.
Outside income is creating generational wealth for young NBA stars. Derrick Rose was paid $260 million for his 14-year deal with Adidas, LeBron James is reportedly raking in $20 million annually just from Nike, and Kobe Bryant’s total endorsement haul was estimated by Forbes at nearly $30 million per year. Their actual on-the-books salaries – while also staggeringly large – can be still viewed as an impediment to championship possibilities under strict rules that govern the cap in an attempt to retain competitive balance. There’s only so much to spread around for any given franchise.
Soon, a great player on the rise may decide that hundreds of millions from other corporations are plenty to set him up with everything he’d ever want for the rest of his life and that his prime years would be best served making multiple appearances in the NBA Finals, rather than toiling in vain for extra dollars that would only benefit the great-great-grandkids he’d never know.
He could take a minimum deal to play wherever he wanted, with whomever he wanted.
Agents would balk initially at a client doing this, of course, but the player could decide that the exposure from his annual run deep into the playoffs could offset any money left on the table. In fact, deals with shoe companies, apparel manufacturers, car dealers, fast-food restaurants and sports drinks could be negotiated to include escalators for winning, completely beyond the auspices of the NBA league office.
When the outside dollars reach a critical mass, the contract with the team becomes an afterthought.
This is no big deal in golf or tennis, where individuals are only out for themselves competitively. Those at the highest levels in those sports aren’t really vying so much for the tournament’s prize money anymore, because the names on their equipment and clothes are worth far more than the purses at stake. They still want to win, and it doesn’t hurt that the titles and prestige drive what they can charge Rolex, Nikon or KPMG.
It’s when that model meets the team salary-cap environment that somebody clever and ambitious can change the game.
It may be a marketing executive who figures out how to pull the strings, and the NBA becomes a battleground for the shoe companies. The best players would be quickly incentivized to forego concern over how big a chunk of team money they may get, with that consideration pre-compensated as hand-picked super-teams take shape. Rather than investing their advertising budgets with the league itself or with a franchise, Nike and Adidas could essentially take ownership of the entire operation by having their most talented employees not caring a whit about their NBA salaries at the peak of their careers.
Rose and others got their money, and there’s nothing wrong with taking what’s offered. Anybody maxing out their oversized percentage of their franchise’s pie is completely entitled to do so, no matter the effect it may have on building a sustained title contender.
But as long as outside income keeps increasing to levels that make the NBA accounting seem more and more trivial, the system is ripe for somebody to prove that the “He really just wants to win” mantra is more than mere lip service.
He’s coming at some point, and he will blow up the current structure. We’ll see the great, young player already hungry for winning more than anything, with the resources to take real control of his destiny.