- Bill Walton, NBA analyst
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Oh! The burden of failed expectations. How easy it is to pile on the highly paid stars when things don't go right. To be the best and most well-paid player on a bad team always leads to speculation that you're not very good to begin with and that the team would probably be better off without you.
There are a myriad of factors in play on this issue, ranging from overall ability in the first place, to market value, to team chemistry, to marketing strategies and ticket sales, to the myth of players being replaceable/interchangeable parts, to salary cap and trade limitations and finally to the impact of long-term guaranteed contracts. But one must also consider that you can never really have too many good ballplayers on your roster -- particularly if you still consider this a game before a business.
Iverson is averaging fewer points than at any time in the past six years (26.4 points per game). He has missed more games due to injury this season than any other in his career (he's played in 48 of 74 games, and the news Tuesday was that Iverson would miss the rest of the regular season because of his hurting right knee). AI is turning the ball over with greater rapidity than ever before (4.4 per game) and shooting a career low percentage from the field (38.7 percent).
With both Iverson and Webber, their teams have better winning percentages without them in the lineup. Webber is getting booed unmercifully by the loyalists in Sacramento for his unproductive play, and polls in Philadelphia currently reflect a deep dissatisfaction with Iverson. I'm old enough to remember when a similar poll in Orlando eight years ago indicated that the Magic should cut their ties to Shaquille O'Neal and be done with the big guy. That strategy hasn't really played out well in the Magic Kingdom, and I would think that the Orlando Magic might want to revisit their choice.
The top of the NBA is not easy stuff. It takes a lot to win and even more to lose. When stars have to sit out because of injury, the overall quality of play in any one particular game suffers for both teams. Opponents subconsciously lower their preparation and intensity level. To win big in this league, you absolutely have to have at least one of the game's best talents. Championship NBA basketball is not about having an amalgamation of good players but rather a team of quality role players surrounding a dominant performer and personality.
The pressure here is on management to properly identify who that special talent is and then keep a realistic, roster-wide salary structure that allows flexibility when things don't work out. The Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs are the best in the business at that these days, and it is no coincidence that these teams have won the past five NBA titles. The New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers have been at the other end of the spectrum most recently (neither team having won a title since the 1970s). The jury is still out on the Kings, Sixers and Dallas Mavericks -- but things there certainly seem to be teetering and the early returns don't appear promising.
If, by chance or good fortune, the Kings were able to trade Webber, they would still have no trouble selling all their tickets. The same would not be true for Philadelphia and Iverson. In years gone by, when the Sixers traded Wilt Chamberlain to L.A., they quickly became the worst team in the history of the NBA. Almost 2½ decades later, when they shipped Charles Barkley to Phoenix, they couldn't give tickets away. Love him or despise him, Iverson has proven he can put people in the seats and move merchandise.
But will that all-important power persist in the face of questionable behavior that has turned a lot of people off? I'm also old enough to remember when it was the coach who decided what the starting lineup was, who actually played and when. Fans desperately want to relate to their idols. But they also want to see the human values and personal attributes in play that they are forced to deal with in their own daily lives. And you can never fool the fans.
Transactions require not only a seller but a willing buyer. Who is going to take these guys? And for what? Webber and AI have huge, guaranteed, long-term contracts. It is easily argued that they have already played their best ball, that their bodies are breaking down and that the long downhill slide has already begun. NBA basketball is a young man's game, and both Webber and AI already have a ton of hard miles on those legs. I'm not holding my breath waiting for the Phoenix Suns to part with Amare Stoudemire for Webber or for the Cleveland Cavaliers to give up on LeBron for the privilege of acquiring Iverson.
These guys are not alone. The list only begins to include the likes of Allan Houston and Penny Hardaway in New York, Jason Kidd in New Jersey, Grant Hill in Orlando, Vince Carter in Toronto, and Brian Grant and Eddie Jones in Miami. And it's not so much their playing ability -- present or future -- as it is their contracts.
Never forget that the man who made the financial machine what it is -- Michael Jordan -- was always egregiously underpaid. That was true even at the end when he was making a reported $30 and $33 million per in his last two seasons (both on one-year contracts).
Also in the mix of this quandary is the dynamic of some players taking far less money so they can allow their franchises the necessary maneuverability to help their teams win championships. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone and Gary Payton head this admirable list.
Every current NBA player owes a tremendous debt and gratitude to the likes of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. These were the primary forces who have created through their sacrifices the model for the modern game and business.
With success, though, comes responsibility -- the responsibility to carry on for who's coming down the road next. And it behooves the Webbers and Iversons of the NBA world to make sure that the golden goose stays alive.
While they probably are not now and won't ever be the players they once were, what's to stop them from re-creating themselves as an even more valuable commodity? Why can't they come back from their devastating injuries as players who are now more committed to displaying the ultimate skill of the greatest players? That is, making their teammates the real stars, all the while pulling the squad together. Their greatest contribution now would seemingly be to provide true leadership by example, self-sacrifice and a spirit of giving to the game, to the sport and to its fans what they all deserve.
It's only the future that is at stake here. And the fans are voting every day.
The Chris Webber and Allen Iverson situations go much deeper than Chris Webber and Allen Iverson.