Before this historic NBA free-agent summer officially began, I spoke with agent David Falk about what to expect once the torrent of pent-up anticipation was released at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Falk knows about important free-agent classes, having represented Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and others in 1996, when Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller and other stars and future Hall of Famers hit the market simultaneously.
His words rang eerily prescient Friday as we passed the 36-hour mark since the spending began.
|Atlanta ownership didn't want to face the ire and consequences of not making a big offer to Joe Johnson. (Getty Images)|
Sure enough, here is the tally thus far: If all the anticipated agreements become official, owners who will be crying poverty at this time next year will have burned through $449 million in less than 36 hours. One more "modest" contract agreement, and we'll be at the half-billion-dollar mark before a single Roman candle has ushered in the Fourth of July weekend.
"The market proves that insanity is alive and well," one flummoxed team executive said.
And it's only going to get crazier from here. The top free agents -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- haven't even finished being wowed in an elaborate series of presentations from Los Angeles to Houston to Cleveland to Chicago to New York. Dirk Nowitzki was just getting around to meeting with the Mavericks on Friday. Linas Kleiza and Josh Childress, who fled the NBA's uncertain financial future in recent summers for tax-free European living, are licking their chops. Kleiza, sources say, will get at least $30 million to return to the States; Childress will command close to $40 million. Multiple teams desperate for a point guard will lavish $20 million-$30 million on the likes of Steve Blake, Luke Ridnour and Jordan Farmar.
Nothing is official until July 8, but the following potential deals -- Joe Johnson (six years, $120 million with the Hawks), Rudy Gay (five years, $82 million with the Grizzlies), Drew Gooden and John Salmons (five years each and a combined $71 million with the Bucks), plus Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic (four years each and $33 million combined with the Timberwolves) -- mean that four of the financially weakest teams in the league spent $306 million on the first day of free agency.
That's almost as much as commissioner David Stern claims these drunken sailors lost last season alone -- a claim that has been disputed by the National Basketball Players Association, which is dutifully taking notes on the bacchanalia.
Friends, you are watching the final spasms of unrestrained revelry, the last glass-clanking toasts and tie-loosening dance-floor gyrations before the music stops with a lockout on July 30, 2011.
"It's the system," one general manager said Friday. "Irresponsible spending is because of the pressure that's being put on us to win by the owners and the fan base. Our job is to put together a team that wins. We're not getting accolades for being smart businessmen and for being fiscally responsible."
Facts & Rumors blog: Day 1 winners and losers
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Believe it or not, there are sound reasons for some of this spending. A serious debate can be had as to whether Johnson is worth the league maximum for six years. But with a flood of demand on the market in the form of teams flush with cap space, Atlanta felt it had to put as much distance as possible between itself and other suitors that could only offer five years.
The Grizzles knew that Gay, a restricted free agent, would've received at least one front-loaded offer sheet dooming their chances of keeping him. Owner Michael Heisley simply wouldn't have had the cash -- or wouldn't have been able to borrow it -- to satisfy a massive up-front payment that, say, the Knicks would have built into their offer. So GM Chris Wallace overpaid, which was better than losing Gay and getting shut out of the market for possible replacements.
Salmons, a big reason the Bucks made the playoffs last season, probably has the most reasonable deal that has been struck so far. In Paul Pierce's case, sometimes a team has to reward an aging star for past performance -- and Pierce did the Celtics a favor by opting out of the final year of his previous contract, which would've paid him $21.5 million next season.
"What happens to Chris Wallace and Michael Heisley if he just lets Rudy Gay go?" the rival GM said. "Nobody comes to the games. Everybody writes that he's cheap, that he's the new Donald Sterling, that he doesn't want to win, and that Chris Wallace is a moron. What would happen in Atlanta? Well, they built a good team and Rick Sund came in there and couldn't keep Joe Johnson, and the owners don't care and they're going to sell the team. ... When you're in that seat, you understand the pressure you're under and the battle you're constantly playing between winning and fiscal responsibility. It's an incredible struggle."
But whatever spin you put on the spending, the numbers will be right there in black and white on spreadsheets that union lawyers will be armed with at the negotiating table. As sources told CBSSports.com on Friday, the players' collective bargaining proposal was in the hands of the league and the owners' negotiating committee in time for this holiday weekend. Let's just say the document will make for some sobering reading around some billionaire barbecues as owners celebrate the American way this weekend -- excess, living above their means, and running their businesses into the ground.
"There's no way you're going to replace Rudy Gay," another rival executive said. "But at the same time, no way, no how in a million years is he worth a max contract."
This is the rock and hard place between which NBA owners find themselves in the final days and months of the Roaring 2000s in basketball. On one hand, Stern publicly frets about $400 million in losses at a time when owners are crisscrossing the country in Gulfstream jets and arriving at elaborate free-agent pitch sessions in fleets of luxury SUVs. (By the way, the players are driven around in them too.) Will all of this be thrown in the owners' faces at the bargaining table when it comes time to fix the way money is spent in the NBA?
"Of course it will," Falk said.
Just keep your calculators handy. By the time we get to the big prizes of this last gasp of NBA excess -- the LeBrons, Wades and Boshes of the world -- the tally is likely to be at $1 billion and counting. It's the wild and crazy free-agent summer of 2010, and the bubble is about to burst.