- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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The BlackBerry buzzed atop the cherrywood desk. Both belong to Pistons GM Joe Dumars, and as it was the day before the NBA trade deadline, the humming came roughly every 10 minutes, as proposed deals landed in his electronic mailbox.
Dumars read most of the messages silently before returning his attention to the TV on the wall or the board to his left that listed every NBA player's free agent status. But this time Dumars clicked the trackwheel to open the note. "Oh, wow," he said in quiet awe. It was a response undoubtedly echoed by every other GM and team president who opened the same e-mail.
The league office had sent the message, a warning to teams that the economic crunch currently squeezing the rest of the world had found its way to the Land Where Amazing Happens. Specifically, the note said that the league's projected revenue, which had been rising forever, had turned decidedly southward. Teams were already seeing defections in season ticket renewals and sponsorship deals, and as a result, the league was projecting its luxury-tax threshold next20season to dip to $69M. Dumars had expected the mark to hold at this season's $71.15M. But a decrease?
Normally the league passes along threshold info in April, to help teams plot spending as the draft and off-season near. That it came before the trade deadline sent a second, more urgent message: You may want to reconsider that big deal for a high-priced star. The bottom line on the bottom line is that all those teams saving money to chase LeBron and the rest of the glorious free agent class of 2010 will have a couple of million bucks less to spend. Worse, those clubs that had carefully planned a course to keep them competitive and just below the luxury-tax cutoff now suddenly find themselves solidly above it. Teams that might've been interested in getting better are now like everyone else, merely looking to get thriftier. "My No. 1 objective is to not be a luxury-tax team," Dumars says.
It's damn near un-American. A late trade or an acquisition that suddenly shifts the balance of power—like Dumars' own move to bring Rasheed Wallace to Detroit in 2004—is a cherished part of the buildup to the postseason drama. This year the Cavs, Spurs, Lakers and Celtics should have been looking to bolster their positions in the fierce battle for home-court advantage, leaving us to debate who got the right piece, who would mesh faster. Instead, the Hornets, headed toward a title run just last spring, abruptly pulled the plug by trying to deal Tyson Chandler in a cost-saving move they're sure to revisit this summer.
Mediocrity is now more cost-effective than going a round deeper in the playoffs. And that's unhealthy. The league shouldn't wait until the collective-bargaining agreement expires to cure the situation either. Whatever problems the NBA faces, they are sure to multiply if the pursuit of a ring becomes synonymous with fiscal suicide.
But don't tell that to the Lakers and Celtics. Instead of loading up, the two teams spent deadline week pawning off accessories. LA, already short a big man with Andrew Bynum out until April, dealt center Chris Mihm to Memphis to save $2.5 million in luxury taxes. That might be reasonable conduct in Charlotte or Milwaukee. But Jerry Buss' rolling the dice that Pau Gasol won't roll an ankle? What's next, Buss' tooling around SoCal in a junker and making his bevy of female companions pay their own way?
Meanwhile, Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck saved $1.5M in taxes by dealing end-of-the-benchers Patrick O'Bryant and Sam Cassell. It's harder to blame him, though, because he was one of the 15 owners who took loans of up to $11.7M from the league to meet their budgets. But how chilling is it that the defending champs are borrowing cash and selling hubcaps?
Only Cavs owner Dan Gilbert appeared ready to throw dollars to the wind. Sources say he practically goaded GM Danny Ferry to move Wally Szczerbiak and his expiring contract for a star who could cement the team's title chances. Some cynics later suggested it was just an elaborate pantomime meant to keep LeBron happy. In any case, after days of aggressively pursuing everyone from Shaq to Amar'e to Richard Jefferson to Vince Carter, the Cavs stood pat. "For the first time," Dumars says, "the numbers are leading the conversation."
Granted, we'd seen hints that a chase for the best talent had given way to a chase for the most affordable talent. It was alarming when the Nuggets dumped Marcus Camby on the Clippers last summer for nothing more than the right to swap second-rounders. Turns out, they were ahead of the curve. By early February, the Suns were offering Stoudemire to anyone with an expiring contract and a young power forward they could pitch to their fans as Amar'e's successor. The Spurs, needing one more piece to contend for a fifth title, could have added Carter, a seven-time All-Star, but passed because of the future financial burden he brought with him.
Nestled in the crankshaft of automotive country, Dumars is well aware corporations won't be buying luxury suites as they lay off employees, and fans won't be buying tickets or merchandise while they're looking for work. That's why the smallest of deals—moving little-used Alex Acker and his $711,000 contract to the Clips four days before the deadline—fulfilled his biggest objective: getting the Pistons $450,000 under this year's tax line.
Pistons fans, of course, aren't enthralled with a team that's considered nothing more than a minor threat to pull off a first-round upset. Not after a steady diet of Eastern Conference finals appearances. Not with Chauncey Billups, dealt the first week of the season for Allen Iverson, leading the Nuggets toward a division title much the way he did five times for the Pistons. And especially not with the Pistons hovering just above .500 yet all quiet on the trade front.
But as the deadline approached, Dumars held fast. A few clubs called, hoping to finagle some of Detroit's cap space by offering more talent than they were taking back. In each case Dumars said, "Let me call you back; I don't have my books in front of me." As in, financial books. As in, I need to check the economic ramifications before I waste another breath. As in, what I really need to do is check your roster and see if there's any way I can improve my team without giving up cap room.
Putting the bottom line first isn't easy for someone as competitive as Dumars, a man who won back-to-back rings as a player and has dedicated his nine-season tenure as team president to repeating that feat. Holding fast, then, with a team that's treading water couldn't have been easy. Then again, because of Dumars' financial prudence—only Oklahoma City will have more cap room this summer—his "wow" may actually have contained some joy. Losing a little financial wiggle room is easier to bear when your head is one of the farthest from the ceiling, easier still when it forces rivals to jettison talent in lopsided deals or prevents them from competing with your offers.
Dumars read the league's message one more time. "Wow," he repeated. Then he smiled, maybe picturing the reaction of fellow GMs. "This could be great timing."
The economic downturn has turned the NBA into a league of dollars, not sense.