Enjoy The NBA's Buyout Season While It Lasts

The NBA trade deadline was busy. With veteran players accepting buyouts across the league, the waiver season could be even more so. It can't go on like this.

by David Roth
Feb 28 2017, 7:10pm

"Deron, Deron, have you been to any of the Michael Symon restaurants yet?" Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It is possible. The broader world can lean ever more aggressively into a progressively more lurid and self-consuming madness while, at the same time, flattening all strangeness out of the cultural landscape. The business of things is business, and if that has something to do with the manias that set our politics and culture ablaze—all that displaced anxiety and shame just gets moved from one place to another, a box of oily and flammable rags repeatedly and tragically mistaken for a prized heirloom—it has more to do with the way things converge towards the predictable down here at eye level. Markets abhor a vacuum, and absolutely adore air-conditioning; places and things come to look alike, in time, because the imperatives that shape them are the same, and insist upon it. This is what makes vibrant neighborhoods into grim and samey yup-scapes, and it's an unlovely and unlovable thing. But it's also what makes the little rays of surprise that shoot through feel so much like gifts; all those broader convergences make the divergences stand out all the more, because they are unusual and because they are, in some inevitable and author-less way, at risk.

I will not tell you that the NBA's buyout season is one of those strange and endangered things. It's not quite that, or at least it's less that than an organic quirk that's emerged in the NBA's half-rational hothouse economy. But it is strange. The NBA's player movement season has split over the last two years, with the trade deadline continuing to serve as a real-time assessment on how NBA teams value players, their contracts, and draft picks. It's interesting, if that's the sort of thing that you're interested in, and it periodically gives us some strange new teams to watch. But deadline season is fundamentally a market function, and so fundamentally works like a market. The buyout season isn't exactly that.

Or it isn't only that. In recent years, teams with veteran players wrapping up long and expensive contracts have opted to buy those players out after the trade deadline; because this is a common thing that teams do, now, and because it is hard to fit even the last pro-rated chunks of those contracts in under a salary cap, those players tend not to get traded. Usually the teams cutting these players loose are out of the running and eager to give run to younger players or try their luck with a few scratch-and-win D-League types; sometimes, as with David Lee and the Boston Celtics last year, it was simply two parties realizing that things weren't working out. Players get paid to go away, and then get paid again—usually something like the minimum salary, which all NBA teams can offer regardless of how capped out they are or are not—by another team that gives them a chance to play in the playoffs, or for a championship, or in a city where it's easier to have fun.

This parting-of-ways would seem a lot more ruthless if the players being cut loose weren't getting those immense and lustily adorned golden parachutes; because in most cases these players have already made so much money over their decades of stardom and semi-stardom, there's something abstracted about all of it. If you can comprehend that David Lee had earned more than $90 million by the time he was given a lump sum and released—or that Andrew Bogut had more than $100 million when it happened to him, or Deron Williams more than $125 million when it happened to him—you already know that we are talking about a version of the free market that is very different than the one most of us inhabit. Everything is as remorselessly rational as it always is, or anyway flows from a front-office calculation that some executive believes to be rational. The buyout season is just all sufficiently abstract that it looks, in some strange way, almost sweet, or compassionate.

It's not, of course. Compassion requires intent, and while it will be nice for Deron Williams if he gets to play in his first NBA Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's a stretch to say that the Dallas Mavericks cut him loose because that was something they actively wanted for him. Not to say that they didn't, but it seems unduly charitable to rank that above other concerns having to do with this year's budget and next year's team. If the Chicago Bulls buy out Rajon Rondo, it will not be because they wanted to do something kind for Rajon Rondo. One does not simply do Rajon Rondo a kindness. These are assets, and this is one way asset-managers handle depreciation.

And yet, whether it's accidental or not, buyout season does back into a sort of coincidental kindness. Un-yoked from the stresses of their previous context and past expectations, old players suddenly play younger, or discover the capacity to excel in humbler and less-stressful last acts to their careers. Last year, Lee played the most efficient and effective basketball of his career as a frontcourt rotation player with the Mavericks; that's per-minute, not absolutely, but the rest of Lee's career will be judged per minute, as the absolutes are already by the board. Joe Johnson was bailed out by Brooklyn and was so shockingly efficient an ensemble member on the Miami Heat that he scored a two-year, $22 million contract with the Jazz at the age of 35. Johnson's work in his first year of his contract suggests that Miami showing was more dead-cat bounce than a late-career renaissance, but you would have to care about the Utah Jazz a lot more than I do to be upset about that. To watch the NBA for a sufficiently long time is to come to accept its players as characters in a sprawling long-running television show; as with any show worth watching, those characters can come to feel real enough to care about.

But that's the NBA as we in the Giving A Shit About The NBA Community experience it. The NBA as it exists is something with sharper edges and cleaner, colder considerations. The buyout season as it presently exists is an affront to competitive balance, and can already be seen to exert a weird warping effect on the way that the trade deadline works. The Cleveland Cavaliers came through that deadline with the same holes in their roster that they brought into it; with the signing of Williams as a supplementary playmaker and their still-active pursuit of Bogut as an auxiliary big man, they could solve those problems with a pair of veteran-minimum contracts. The Warriors, in adding veteran point guard Jose Calderon after the Lakers bought him out, patched up their rotation at a similar price, give or take having to cut promising D-League signee Briante Weber.

Provided these players sign by March 1, they'll be eligible to play for their new teams in the postseason. They might revive their careers there; they might go out with a gaudy championship ring and an oversized t-shirt that smells like champagne even after a dozen washings, and that will be nice for them, and for those of us that care about them as old friends or recurring characters, or just have soft spots for bearded Iberian playmakers. It's also a problem for the NBA to solve, and we can expect the NBA to solve it; this is how a business looks at things like this, and how it responds to them. The rest of us might as well enjoy it while it's still weird.