The Problem With NBA Players Taking Less Money Than They’re Worth

Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr/Creative Commons

Even with the most massive salary cap boost in NBA history expected to take place just one year from now, fans and franchises alike continue to heap pressure on top-ranking stars to accept pay cuts for the greater good of their teams. Noble, right? Not exactly.

Basketball is not just a sport. It’s a business.

The 2011 lockout reminded us that basketball players are more than pop culture icons lucky enough to be on the world stage, they’re actual employees who have every right to keep one eye on the prize and the other on the cash. A well-oiled capitalist system requires that its employees are paid wages commensurate to the scarcity and level of their skills, which is one way that basketball players maintain their agency within the league. A secure cash flow is their best bargaining chip, one they lose when they show signs of lowered expectations.

In 2015, the habitually underpaid Tim Duncan took on a preposterously low, $5.25-million contract with the San Antonio Spurs. Before that, his previous deal only paid the 15-time NBA All-Star and five-time NBA Champion—should we repeat that?—a paltry $10 million. However, his sacrifice allowed for LaMarcus Aldridge, a rising star, to be placed on the roster. With Aldridge’s help, Duncan led the Spurs to the 2014 championship title.

And that’s a huge problem.

When veterans like Duncan take a pay cut, they set a precedent for nearly all other players. For one, top-ranked players taking up the largest chunks of a team’s salary cap space are presupposed to bite the bullet—not doing so labels them “greedy.” We saw this clearly in the public scorn Kobe Bryant faced when he took the Los Angeles Lakers’ insanely high (and well-deserved) pay raise offer in 2013. He knew his worth and didn’t back down—but that’s not how fans saw it.

Secondly, younger players who are just coming into the game will grow up with slanted assumptions of what they’re worth, holding their negotiating powers down as they rise through the ranks. This is particularly worrisome in an exciting era of basketball when every new class of rookies turns out better than the last. Is it fair that they won’t be able to expect superstar wages when their skills reach maturity?

Unfortunately, that may be a reality. Players who forfeit their rightful payouts are praised.

As Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding points out, this praise has a deeper meaning—it’s essentially a compliment to a rich white man’s business acumen for negotiating labour at a discount. Unfortunately, a proven method of forcing a player’s hand is to guilt them with a team mentality. This, of course, is a misleading tactic that has been used by businesses to push their own agendas since the Industrial Revolution. In Tim Duncan’s case, the sacrifice led to a championship ring—but for Dirk Nowitzki, another player who accepted a similarly discounted deal in 2014, there was little reward for his loyalty. DeAndre Jordan, whose way Nowitzki was essentially paying, backed out of his verbal deal with the Dallas Mavericks to explore free agency. Nowitzki, of course, was left with an $8-million contract a far cry from his previous $23-million deal.

Players already face uncertain circumstances. They stand to be injured or lose stock due to wear and tear at a moment’s notice. Household names like Amar’e Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin and Andrea Bargnani have taken pay cuts totaling more than $42 million this past year alone for that reason.

With few guarantees in place, taking a pay cut only helps to diminish the fair wages that basketball players have been working toward since, well, 1950. The NBA will be making $24 billion dollars in the 2016-17 season. Perhaps it’s time that teams stop penalizing their top players for their inability to spend within their means.
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FanPharaoh at 11 Oct 2015

I think what you are actually mad about is the meager amount players receive of the profits? Then we should just continue to raise the salary cap; however I agree that total payouts to players (around 2.5 billion out of the 25 billion) doesn't seems fair

J.R at 17 Jul 2017

That's another reason why Kobe is my favorite player. He said forget that give my money! These players need to realize all they are doing is saving the owner money. Kobe knew the franchise was not serious anymore about winning so he took the extension knowing he was gone in two years.

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