Nothing personal, strictly business

Updated: February 26, 2004, 1:09 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

It can't be easy. It really can't. It simply can't be easy being an NBA fan today, and not only if you're a Boston fan trying to understand why Danny Ainge just had to have Chucky Atkins.

After the eighth major trade of the season -- the eighth! -- the initial reaction here at Stein Line HQ was to write how spoiled we all are. How we are more pampered than my five-month-old son Alexander The Greatest, who, within days of his birth, was already the proud owner of an autographed and personalized Steve McManaman shirt from Manchester City, courtesy of Uncle I-Dub back in the real Great Northwest. I was going to write how lucky we are that the Great Trading Frenzy O' 2003-04 churned out one last blockbuster before the trade buzzer sounded, when we had no right to expect one more blockbuster.

Then I tried to imagine a slightly older Alex, asking his little buddies if anyone wants to swap a Rasheed Wallace card for whatever the card that represents Cap Space looks like.

To quote one good friend of the Stein Line: "Maybe the card companies should start putting the details about expiring contracts on the back instead of stats."

I don't want to sound too nave or nostalgic here. I think we all understand and accept that sport started becoming big business in the 1980s and will only continue to get more complex. That's reality.

This just seems like the right time to acknowledge that fandom is an increasingly tough business, too, and not just because ticket prices are on an escalator that never shuts down.

At the root of the difficulty here, not surprisingly, is the luxury tax, which requires a constantly evolving sense of how NBA teams operate in the modern era. Largely because of the luxury tax, there is almost always one team in every deal that can't wait to acquire those mythical trading cards with Cap Space stamped on the front.

And then you have a bunch of analysts telling you how smart it is when the Hawks move a 20-point scorer (Glenn Robinson) for a guy who will never play again (Terrell Brandon).

"You guys look at it from an owner's eyes, and see the long-term logic of the deal," says our pal Gary Adornato. "Fans don't care. Fans want to know whether their team will win more games. Fans want to know if their team will be fun to watch.

"The fans that I talk to keep getting more and more detached from what's going on. In the old days, we'd look at a trade and argue which side got the better talent. Now fans look at a trade and there's nothing to argue about, because talent had nothing to do with it.

"Even though I understand the logic and the business side, the fan part of me is just dying."

GA makes a strong case. Maybe this doesn't apply to lots of ESPN.com readers -- this being a sophisticated audience that also typically understands the business side -- but you have to pity the casual fan. For it takes time to get a grasp of the NBA math factored into today's trades, and there isn't a lot of spare time in real life for studying up.

Don't forget the kids, either. At what age, I wonder, do the future sports geeks of America say "luxury tax" for the first time?

Fans who do have the time or inclination to stay closely tuned have surely noticed that player movement isn't nearly as restrictive as the union would suggest, given the stream of trades witnessed since Ainge started it all by sending Antoine Walker to Dallas a week before the season started. It's more accurate to say that the luxury tax restricts free-agent movement and has curbed free spending.

It's true that only the best players in the game are getting the lucrative long-term contracts now, and that the league's owners are pushing hard for a reduction in the length of guaranteed contracts ... but the tax has actually led to more trading, not less.

"The tax can stimulate player movement because teams are trying to get under the tax threshold," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. "Every major deal the Mavs have done has had a tax logic to it."

Spike Lee
That's because it works two ways. You have teams like Atlanta, dumping salaries as fast as it can to create cap room but also to reduce the amount of luxury tax it will have to pay at season's end. And you have teams like Dallas, which was ahead of the curve in terms of recognizing the likelihood that there will not be a luxury tax after the 2004-05 season. Which is why Cuban was not afraid to take on Antawn Jamison's long-term contract, even knowing that he'll have to give Steve Nash a big raise this summer if he wants to keep Nash alongside his three locked-up max players (Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Jamison).

"The law of unintended consequences from the tax has so polluted the economics of the league that it's sad," Cuban said. "Teams plan around (getting rebates in) tax money as a more important revenue source than the value of the next ticket or sponsor they will sell.

"... As a tax-payer, it costs me and all tax-payers more money (when teams take the Atlanta approach), because fans of (those) teams are less likely to buy tickets and sponsorships. That reduces revenues, which lowers the tax threshold, which costs me money."

Said another Western Conference executive: "We're all trying to win, but there is a basis for operating your business in such a manner that you turn a profit. That's ultimately the goal of every business. Teams will roll the dice financially if they feel they're getting closer to the ultimate prize. But when you're facing a dollar-for-dollar tax for going over a certain threshold, you're obviously going to make decisions (about dumping salaries)."

Another factor in all the trade activity? Besides the fact that NBA teams have always liked deals that created future flexibility?

"The intricacies of the trade rules, such as salary matching, base-year compensation, non-simultaneous trades, etc.," said Larry Coon, a noted salary-cap expert who did NBA fans everywhere a wonderful service by authoring a document (http://members.cox.net/lmcoon/salarycap.htm) that explains the NBA salary cap in the clearest terms in circulation.

"This means that simple trades now, more often than not, become massive events involving several teams and players who are thrown in because of their contracts, not their playing ability. So while the luxury tax may have led to more trading, the trade-rule complexities have led to even more player movement via trade."

OK, OK. We hear you, weary readers. Too much math. The trade buzzer has sounded, so it's a good time to take a break from NBA economics and enjoy the regular-season stretch run. We'll need our rest, too, with the offseason sure to bring more trades founded upon math that makes Calculus seem easy.

Expect to hear much, for example, about the business impact of Philadelphia trading Allen Iverson. Several times already in this cyberspace we've discussed the Sixers' big problem: Iverson generates so much revenue, Philly will be hesitant to move him even if a deal that makes good basketball sense materializes. The Sixers have to be sure, if they do move Iverson someday, that they'll definitely be a better team without him, because they're going to have to win a lot more often than they do now to draw the same kind of crowds AI can draw.

Before we go, though, let me make it clear that I'm convinced the NBA salary cap is one of the greatest inventions in the history of sport. I don't really care about John Henry or George Steinbrenner, but I do know that baseball would be better if it had a cap. Because it can't be fun for the fans of those 25 or so teams who have already been eliminated from World Series contention, before we even get to March 1.

All I'm saying about our league is that, for NBA fans, life ain't easy even with a salary cap that gives everyone a chance. Trades certainly spice up our lives, but there's a good word to describe what it must be like for those brave souls who do care enough about the Hawks to try to understand why Rasheed Wallace just became the first player in league history to play only one game for a team and score 20 points in that game.

Taxing.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics