Free Agents, Free Markets, and Who Deserves What: David Roth's Weak In Review

The NBA is rich, and thanks to the rapid rise in the salary cap, so are a bunch of NBA free agents. It doesn't really have to be any more complicated than that.
July 8, 2016, 9:17pm
Illustration by J.O. Applegate

There's what you are paid, and then there's what you are worth, and by and large those numbers will never line up. This is not your fault, although it will generally feel that way. There is a reeking, loathsome constellation of reasons why it feels that way, and there are also reasons why the first two things tend to be so far from each other. That is another column, or series of columns, or honestly more of an unreadable Medium manifesto or a slurring 40-minute monologue from a person debating having a sixth beer on a school night. I'm absolutely good for all that, but it might just be easier to talk about Matthew Dellavedova.


This is never exactly easy, as it's difficult to describe exactly what Dellavedova does, beyond Play Basketball in the NBA Somehow. Dellavedova makes some odd-looking runners, defends vigorously, and hands out as many testicular contusions as he can without officials noticing. He plays hard and grooms himself casually. He has been a useful player for some good Cleveland Cavaliers teams, but his utility is tied not so much to any nameable basketball skill—his defense is good but nowhere near transcendent; he is, as backup point guards go, definitely a backup point guard—as to his singular knack for vexing pain-in-the-assery. On a good team, Dellavedova is a pace-shifting asset who probably won't play that much, and will be praised not wisely but too well when he does. On a bad team, he will play more than he should, and will be exposed as someone whose foremost basketball skill is subtly landing an open-hand slap on the genitals of the player dribbling past him. Over the next four years, thanks to a free agent contract he recently signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dellavedova will be paid nearly $10 million a year to do all that. So.

Read More: On Being Owned By The New York Mets

There is nothing that says you have to feel any kind of way about this, but there are also the fact of it, and the inarguable sticker shock. Dellavedova, who looks like Michael J. Fox one-fifth of the way into his Teen Wolf makeup and is not nearly as effective a playmaker, will be paid $9.6 million next year; Stephen Curry, after having back-to-back MVP seasons, will earn $12.1 million. Even if you know how this happened—that the NBA salary cap spiked dramatically to reflect the equally dramatic spike in revenue resulting from the league's new $4 billion television deal; that Curry signed a below-market extension, and Dellavedova just signed one that fits squarely within a very different market—it will never not be strange that Matthew Dellavedova is getting paid like this.

Take Dellavedova's salary as a percentage of the delirious new cap, consider the value of his Scrappy-Doo virtues to a young Bucks team looking to add Experienced Winners, take it in the broader context of a free agent market that has handed complimentary weirdos like Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe and various creaking big men $70 million guarantees and more. Bear all that in mind, by all means. It won't work. This is just the NBA's semi-free market doing what markets do, but that doesn't make it any less psychotic on first glance.


In the frantic early days of free agency, before Kevin Durant opted to create a reality-rupturing Warriors team and Dwyane Wade helped the Bulls cement their organizational commitment to the LOL Nothing Matters model of team-construction, deals like Dellavedova's seemed significant in a way that they decidedly are not. Various ESPN employees opined as to how the deals were not just surprising but somewhere between inexplicable and actually unjust. The deals are easy enough to explain, of course, and the fact that the confluence of a largely lame free-agent class and the unveiling of a historically high-ceilinged salary cap produced these results is, if nothing else, the sort of bizarre justice that the market tends to deliver. But understanding these signings are not really what those responses were about, just as the flatulent moralizing that greeted Durant's decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors wasn't really analysis. The grumbling and the thundering are both reflective of a broader unease, and symptomatic of an ambient insecurity that no one really wants to name. They're dumb sports-talk hackery, too, of course, but there's nothing that says that the latter can't reflect the former.

"Actually, we're both going to be very rich." Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

What's unsettled in the response to this year's free agency is, it seems to me, not that the market dumps these riches on Matthew Fucking Dellavedova or the dusty husk of Joakim Noah or a swole albatross like Dwight Howard or lumbering anthropomorphic blintz Timofey Mozgov. It's more that, for all we've been told about the efficiency and hardwired logic of the market, these inefficient-unto-illogical expenditures were never anything less than predictable—it was always going to be stupid, and in just this way. If the Nets do not get to pay $50 million to Tyler Johnson, who has played 68 games of slightly below average basketball in his entire NBA career, it will only be because the Miami Heat have decided that they'd rather pay that themselves. In a vacuum, this seems like a baffling and reckless gamble, even if it's one the team can afford. In context, it … still looks pretty weird, honestly, if maybe a little less floridly so. It's not just that so much money is involved, either, although there is all that. It's that the context itself is cracked; the market is appropriately fluid, and finding its level as markets will, but it still feels like the tides are running backwards, or inside out.

The response to free agency's bigger splashes exist in a different register, for reasonable enough reasons. There is something literally and figuratively larger than life about players like Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade, and the impact they have is outsized; the conversation about them tends to take on a superheroic cast. Zeroing in on a particular attribute and making that part stand for a more synergistic and interesting whole is a lazy sportswriter's trick, although it's not only sportswriters who do it. It's limiting, let alone boring, to simultaneously reduce and inflate Wade and Durant into one-dimensional superheroes; it is, among other things, a colossal waste to take Wade's distinctive cannonballing offense or Durant's unprecedented everything and caricature them into superpowers. But if the conversation you want to have is "Who would win in a fight, Persistence Man or the Oklahoma City Avenger?" this is how you'd frame it.


ESPN's woof-squad are not the only ones who talk about basketball this way, although it's a lot easier to figure out why they do it than it is to suss out the motivations of the otherwise reasonable adults who dedicate their leisure time to defending Kobe Bryant's legacy or prosecuting LeBron's scandalous fraudulence on social media. These sorts of binaries are useful if you are trying to win a play-fight with Stephen A. Smith, but they have less utility if you're not sitting in the Coors Light Hot Seat. More than that, though, and wherever you sit, they're boring. The abstraction of all this doesn't clarify anything, because abstraction generally doesn't, but it doesn't even obfuscate or amplify in an interesting way.

Hmm. Needs more Durant imo. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The truth of these deals, as far as we know it, is prosaic. Wade felt taken for granted by a Miami front office that had indeed asked for a great deal of sacrifice from him over the years, and so he opted for a sort of direct-to-DVD version of LeBron's homecoming narrative. Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors because he wanted to play in their system, with their players, and for their coaches; he has said as much very clearly. We can assume that he wanted to win championships, too, which is something that he has in common with every single one of his peers. There is nothing remotely difficult to comprehend here, unless you insist on not comprehending it, as a great many commentators very righteously did. At this time of year, when basketball is split between scrambling summer league dunk-offs and endless Wojbomb sorties, this is about all there is to do. There's nothing new about it, although the edge on it—both the vinegary peevishness of the response to the shuffling of the rank-and-file and the scalding talk of cowardice or betrayal or some other mock-heroic judgment in the response to Durant's move—is uncomfortably of this moment.

It's absolutely reasonable to feel some apprehensive, pre-emptive boredom at the prospect of the Warriors pan-searing and butter-basting the rest of the league for the duration of Durant's stay. But this doesn't seem to be about that, and it seems foolish to deny that a broader unease—the seething and fearful tribalisms loose in the culture, the intersecting insecurities that come from being subject to the crushing abstractions of our moment—isn't steepening this response. Durant didn't do anything wrong, or anything that any other person wouldn't have done when presented with the opportunity to move someplace beautiful and get rich doing something that you enjoy with your friends. Matthew Dellavedova didn't do anything wrong, either; he took the best job offer he could get, as anyone else would.

But for those of us who feel like we're living and working on a knife-edge, there's something about the extravagance of it all—the Warriors wooing Durant with a pair of VR goggles and the grandiose but not unrealistic promise of becoming legendary, but also all these ordinary players becoming extraordinarily rich—that, while fitting, feels almost rude. The NBA is played over our heads, which is the fun of it—the players are great enough, the emotional stakes sprawling enough, and the revenues stupendous enough that it all invariably becomes abstract, unreal, of the world without quite seeming in it. When the games are happening, all that greatness, both in terms of size and emotional throw-weight, gives the games their grace, and happily subsumes the familiar transactional business happening below. When the business is the only game to watch, though, things feel different. And in a world where so many people do not seem to be getting enough of what they deserve—enough empathy or enough rest, enough kindness or comfort or dignity—it can be hard to be gracious about anyone else getting theirs.

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