Mark R. Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
There’s around $474 million in available cap space to be flung about the NBA this summer, more than the last two seasons combined, and his conclusion from the resultant analysis is that the most important thing a team can have in these windows of profligacy is luck.
And thank God and their HR department for that. Luck, after all, as cruel and vicious as it often is, is the only thing that keeps this league from snapping into 30 jagged pieces and sailing into the sun.
Not that that’s necessarily always a good thing. Watching a bad deal take shape, deteriorate and rot is easily as much fun as watching a good one ripen and flower. Kyrie Irving was a weird disaster in Boston, so much so that he is now regarded as a hold-your-nose roster-killing superstar so soon after he was regarded as the cornerstone of a Celtics renaissance. Lesser free agent deals like New Orleans’ Solomon Hill helped buzzkill the Pelicans, and the Chandler Parsons catastrophe will live on for years in Memphis. See? These are way more fun because it reminds us that front offices are not only not infallible but often completely gormless in the face of forces bigger and better than they are.
(It is at this point that we steer you to the New York Mets, Ground Zero for anal-cranial inversion, where general manager Brodie Van Wagenen is managing the team into the dirt from his rec room. Van Wagenen is part of the phalanx of new front office types who think they have figured out sports better than those who have spent their lives devoted to it, just because they can speak in a language that makes their daily proximity to the boss worth the boss’s time. The good news is, they usually fail spectacularly, and the embarrassment and filth rained upon them is neither sufficient nor wasted.
But we can’t always rely on a general manager’s essential arrogance, self-absorption or gift for interoffice politics. There aren’t that many team executives who are out-and-out stupid, mean-spirited, or both. There are plenty, don’t get us wrong—just not as many as we think. Often, they’re just people who do something seemingly logical that turns out to be a hilarious mess. Luck goes both ways.)
Which brings us back to NBA free agency. Half a billion dollars may not go as far as it used to, but the chances for what O’Connor graciously describes as a mistake but which we prefer to think of as unwarranted arrogance punished are clearly larger than ever.
And the risks general managers are willing to take on behalf of their in search of such moments grows with each new dollar in play. Kevin Durant is going to get an offer to perform four years of work for five years of money, and people will battle for that deal while guessing with minimal evidence about what percentage of Old Durant will be contained in New Durant.
This, ultimately, is why the money doesn’t matter except as a number to be placed against the salary cap. No team operator would cheerfully agree to pay five years’ money for four years’ work unless there were a nearly endless supply of money. And most operators fancy themselves brilliant gamblers who can always beat the house, even when the house is an unknowable future. The Golden State Warriors, to name one, built a mansion with a foundation that everyone agreed would last decades, only to find out that the landfill upon which they built shifted in a sudden lurch, and now the garage has crashed into the neighbors’ living room.
Durant is a scary proposition nobody is scared about, but others are there to be seen. Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, Khris Middleton—all seem like perfectly excitement-worthy signings if tied to the right team, disasters if sent to the wrong one. But as we know, every general manager thinks his situation is the right one, or the one that one of these guys will make good. And many of them will prove paralytically bad because of judgment, overconfidence, or plain old bad luck… like the Wizards, who are so blown apart from a series of bad signings.
So money will be moved frantically starting on Sunday evening, and we will all be mightily entertained, and teams’ reputations will rise—but not nearly as many as reputations that will eventually fall, or careers that will be shredded because no general manager knows as much as he thinks he does, ever. The future is forbidden to them all, and those most sure that they see it see only their own reflections on the back of a spoon.
In short, the new general manager is the old general manager, only with advanced math and an overinflated sense of his own brain. The grand plan is always a stick in the spokes away from being a head-first date with a rose bush, foiled at any moment by a provocateur, a schemer, a twist of fate or just a doctor with an MRI of a crumpled body part.
Only with a bill for half a billion scoots. Somewhere Chandler Parsons smiles, and we smile with him.