You’ve gotta have a Summer of 2009 before the Summer of 2010

When you really think about, an opportunity as an NBA ballplayer is almost unfathomably impossible.  With a maximum of 15 roster spots covering 30 teams, the simple math points to 450 players that could possibly be employed when the 2009-10 season tips off this fall.  Call them the Fortunate 450.

Why, then, have NBA owners been so quick to throw hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain on players who are not superstars and have not won championships?  The answer, without question, is free agency and we are at the dawn of yet another chapter in the NBA’s cash grab, beginning tomorrow at 12:01am.

Last year’s free agent class was pretty bland, though there were a few notably rich (and ultimately bad) contracts signed (including Corey Maggette, Baron Davis, and Elton Brand in a wild scenario that could only have involved the hapless Los Angeles Clippers). 

This year shapes up to be very comparable as the looming Class of 2010 theoretically gives every team pause, so as not to use up cap room in anticipation of taking a run at next summer’s class, potentially including LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer, and Kobe Bryant.

I do have a couple thoughts that are maybe not quite as obvious as to why the flow of ridiculous money is slowing down, however, that have nothing to do with the Class of 2010.

First of all, take a look at the list of contracts compiled by Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com that account for the current Top 15 Dead Money Players and Cap-Killing Contracts.  The amount of money being paid to this group of losers who would be considered non-productive, at best, if not downright destructive, is just obscene. 

Just the idea that these contracts are still being paid out should give any owner hesitation before green-lighting another overpriced free-agent signing.  And these are just the highlights. 

In addition to last summer’s deals, there are so many more contracts that speak to the insanity that the owners shouldn’t even need the economy as an excuse for ending the practice of dishing out huge multi-year, guaranteed contracts to average ballplayers.  Just point to the recent return on investment to make the easy decision to find some lesser-priced alternatives and stay away from repeating past mistakes.

But the issues run deeper than that.  Ken Berger of CBSSports.com points out that only three teams even have the financial flexibility to offer a max contract at this time.  On top of that, when you read Berger’s rundown of available free agents, it is evident that the talent out there does not warrant the money anyway.  With rare exception, a big money contract to a free agent in this year’s class would just be a step to locking up a spot on a future Cap-Killing Contract list.

For further evidence, check out Steve Aschburner’s list on SI.com of the Top 20 unrestricted free agents and Top 12 restricted free agents as proof that the talent level does not warrant the execution of big-money deals to all but the first couple names on the list.

Hedo Turkoglu, the consensus head of the NBA's Free Agent Class of 2009

Hedo Turkoglu, the consensus head of the NBA's Free Agent Class of 2009

Of course, because of those first few names (Hedo Turkoglu, Ben Gordon, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza among them) there will be some initial excitement over the next week as stories start to circulate about the potential future homes of these much-hyped players.

And what teams offer the most appeal for top free agents?  Aschburner, again, has put together a fantastic list of all 30 franchises from first to worst.  Take a look at his top 10 (LA Lakers, Miami, Phoenix, Houston, Orlando, Dallas, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio) and you can pretty much assume that the best of this year’s class, next year’s class, and virtually every class after that will work to make one of these locations a destination under the current system.

Despite the inherent limitations on the potential for excitment during this free agent signing period, I am still fascinated to see how teams react with all of these factors (including the slowly-recovering economy) weighing against the pull of civic pride and the pocketbooks of country-clubbing rich guys with their franchises as playthings.

Track all of the free agent activity this summer with NBA.com’s Free Agent Tracker.

And that Class of 2010?  It will ultimately fizzle out with about as much excitement as we had with Y2K.  It’s a great way for sportswriters to keep filing columns by imagining thousands of different scenarios, but it looks to me as if it’s shaping up to be just more of the same next summer, with the exception being the likelihood of LeBron and D-Wade putting together their Fab 5 lists before making the most important decisions of their basketball careers. 

But even with the potential of a move by either of those two, there are maybe three franchises that could even be realistically discussed as potential destinations.  And the rest of the class is a slightly better version of what we’ve seen the last couple summers – a class that will ultimately end up with the same realization that the (cap-killing contract) money train has disappeared for good. 

In a superstar league, the superstars should be paid.  Big time.  The rest should be happy to realize that they are simply recognized as one of the Fortunate 450.

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~ by acm213 on June 30, 2009.

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