On May 27, 2010, with 3.5 seconds left in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, Kobe Bryant took an inbounds pass and quickly launched an off-balance 3-pointer that clanked off the rim. Ron Artest hustled for the rebound and banked in a prayer that pretty much saved the Lakers' season.
For the next 48 hours, Artest's buzzer-beater against the Suns was shown over and over again and each time I saw the clip, I found myself asking the same question: Why was Amare Stoudemire, the Suns' supposed best player, not on the floor? He hadn't fouled out. He wasn't hurt. The Lakers had two big men on the floor, so there wasn't a matchup problem.
But, as it tends to be with Stat, there was a desire-to-do-the-dirty-work problem. The Suns needed a defensive stop and/or rebound, and they couldn't depend on Stoudemire for either. For all of his athleticism and all of the extra possessions generated by the Suns' uptempo style of play, he's never averaged 10 boards a game. In 16 playoff games this year, he finished with five or fewer rebounds seven times.
And you know what? Some GM is going to panic like an idiot and pay him LeBron James money.
I am not one of those people who whines about the salaries of athletes. I believe if owners want to pay someone $20 million a year that's their prerogative. But what drives me crazy as a sports fan in general, and an NBA fan in particular, is this misguided season-ticket sales spin after the deals are done that max contracts equate to max talent.
I don't dislike Stoudemire. And he is supposed to be cocky enough to think of himself as a max player. But GMs are supposed to be savvy, recognize he is a second-tier All-Star and to treat him as such. The same goes for Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer and probably Chris Bosh, who in five years as the Raptors' go-to guy has played in only 11 playoff games. These players are extremely talented but have proved over the years that they are not showcase pieces to be built around. They are complementary players who can help get a franchise closer to the promised land. Otherwise Dwyane Wade and LeBron would be waiting to see where they signed first, not the other way around.
Still, teams like the Knicks and Nets and anybody who misses out on the Big 2 will be bidding against each other and will feel compelled to offer these players the same contract they were hoping to offer better players just to show fans -- and maybe an impatient owner -- they are trying to improve.
And they will improve, but it won't be proportional to the money they will spend. Eventually these teams will hit a ceiling because they won't have any extra money to improve and the second-tier talent they signed won't win enough. Then in about three years the teams will try to move a bad contract and start over as if stuck in a hamster wheel. Remember, not long after Utah overpaid for Boozer in 2004, he was on the trading block.
In any other year, that would be business as usual in the NBA. After all, this is how Rashard Lewis, the top free agent in 2007, became a $118 million spot-up shooter for the Magic after a sign-and-trade deal with the Sonics. But this year, with James and Wade clearly heads above the rest, it would stand to reason that decision-makers within the NBA universe would intuitively pause and ask whether Joe Johnson should be paid elite money. If they start from that cautionary thought, then theoretically they could lower the risk of overpaying players in response to another franchise's moves. They could stick to the proactive plans that were presumably implemented shortly after they became GMs (surely Donnie Walsh et al. have ideas besides "sign LeBron").
If I were an owner, I wouldn't hesitate to pay a top guy top dollars for a chance to win a ring. But I'd be hesitant to freely open my wallet for a player like Stoudemire, who, in 10 of 16 playoff games this year, had more turnovers than assists. Obviously he's not going to make those around him better. I'd also hesitate to give max dollars to someone like the undersized Boozer, who is consistently overmatched by other top players at his position. Considering neither power forward is better than Pau Gasol, how could anyone justify offering those two anything near the annual salary of the three-year, $64.7 million extension Gasol signed with the Lakers in December? I'd be willing to pay between the $16.5 million and $17.8 million Gasol was set to make in the final two years of his last contract, which is still a significant raise but not crazy.
I'm not saying these guys couldn't help build a championship-caliber team. And I'm not saying a winner can be built on the cheap (though Kevin Pritchard managed to build a 50-win team in Portland with one of the league's lowest payrolls before being fired thanks to office politics). But NBA execs have to be able to discern between players who deserve the keys to the franchise and guys who should be passengers.
If a team doesn't land the guy who can carry it, then it has to be smart and patient enough to construct a committee. David Lee may not be flashy but he's averaged solid double-doubles three of the five years he's been in the league and is only 27. Shannon Brown, Brendan Haywood, Matt Barnes and Tony Allen won't put up a lot of points, but their opponents will have a hard time doing so as well because of their athleticism and defensive hustle. There are plenty of guys out there who can help teams with championship goals. It's important that the Nets and Clippers and any other franchise that may get locked out of the LeBron/Wade sweepstakes remain patient and avoid getting anchored with poorly thought-out max deals that could prevent them from chasing 2011 free agents such as All-Stars Kevin Durant, Tony Parker and Al Horford.
Look to improve, but don't be stupid. Throwing big bucks at the lesser talent is like paying $40 for supermarket chicken because the restaurant is out of steak.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.