TCS Daily


A Tale of One City

By Dan Lewis - July 22, 2004 12:00 AM

If it weren't for Yankee baseball and Notre Dame football, the Los Angeles Lakers would be the sports team of the ages. Instead, Laker fans root for a team in a close third.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. When you have a dozen or so guys in your team's history who are known far and wide by one name -- Magic, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, and Kobe to mention a few -- you've got nothing to complain about.

Yet the 2003-04 season was a disaster of Hindenburgian proportions. I mean, all you did was make it to the NBA Finals. Yes, yes, we all know you were just a year removed three consecutive titles. And we understand that you had high hopes after signing two future Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and Gary Payton. All we're saying is be happy with what you have, because as we understand it, you've gotten a lot more than your fair share.

No, not really. The truth is that the Lakers had talent that we haven't seen since the Bird/Parish/McHale Celtics or the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman Bulls. That the purple and gold fell three games short of another title is, truly, surprising. Jack Nicholson must be pissed.

But Frankie Muniz must be even angrier. That's right -- Malcolm is a Clippers fan, and he's never seen even one NBA title. Not a single one. Heck, the Clips haven't even seen an NBA Finals. They're the red-headed stepchild of the NBA. They haven't had a winning season since 1992. They'd be a punch line in Los Angeles, but that would require that people acknowledge their existence.

Yet they almost landed Kobe Bryant, arguably the game's best active player.

How's that? Oh, it must be because the NBA has a salary cap, right? I mean, how else does a second-rate team land a top-flight player? It's simply supply (one Kobe) meeting demand (one team that can afford him)... right?

Bzzt.

The fact is that the team that could pay Kobe the most, under league rules, was the Lakers. Absurdly, the Lakers could offer him about $30 million more than any other team could. Heck, the Clippers actually had to give away talented players -- they traded Marvin Ely and Eddie House to the expansion Carolina Bobcats -- apparently to clear salary space so that they could make Kobe a "maximum" (for them, not for the Lakers) offer.

This is how the NBA's migraine-inducing salary cap "works," and that's all there is to it.

But there's more to the Kobe situation than that. Who would want to be a Clipper? Put aside $30 million hometown bonus the Lakers could offer. The Lakers have all the history, mystique, and aura that the Clippers lack. Arguably, the Clippers are currently more talented (that is, if you take Kobe out of the equation), but unlike the intangibles offered by the Lakers, talent is a fleeting asset.

In a very real sense, the salary cap had its desired effect -- it made money less of an issue. It gave incentive for guys like Malone and Payton to do something that, over time, will become more and more common in salary-capped sports leagues: trade away the opportunity for a huge pay-day, and in return, get a big pay-day and a wheelbarrow full of non-pecuniary benefits. Before the 2003-04 season, the two did exactly this. Malone openly wanted a legitimate shot at a championship ring (and we're sure Payton did too). Both had the opportunity to play alongside the game's latest great big man and this generation's mini-Jordan. Plus, they get to play for the real Jordan's old coach and wear the uniform once worn by a seemingly endless list of Hall of Famers. For Malone and Payton, the NBA's best team (with apologies to the Pistons) had a lot to offer. Money? It's overrated, especially when you've already cashed in a few times in your career.

Intangibles matter -- a lot. When Shaq signed a contract after the 1996 season, there's a reason he did with the Lakers -- even though other teams could offer similar contracts. Roger Clemens came out of retirement to pitch with his friend Andy Pettitte, and to do so with his home town (or, at least, home state) Astros. High schoolers go to Duke or Notre Dame because of their basketball and football programs, respectively. Eli Manning, drafted into a league with draconian restrictions on player contracts and team-wide salaries, refused to sign a contract with the San Diego Chargers, citing their history of ineptitude. These are superstars in their respective leagues, and for them, money was not the leading factor.

Back to Kobe. We'll never know if the $30 million was the primary reason for staying a Laker. But what we can reasonably assume is that, even if the Clippers could have matched the Lakers offer, dollar-for-dollar, year-for-year, Bryant would have still had innumerable reasons for not playing for the co-tenants.

With all these advantages, the Clippers need a way to fight back. The best way? Build a good, cheap team, and when the opportunity presents itself, overpay to get yourself a superstar - the capstone to an otherwise good team. And yes, you have to overpay, because you're competing with teams like the Lakers.

Right now, the time is right for the Clips. They have a very talented core of players and -- using the NBA's salary cap as a guide -- a budget surplus. But because of the salary cap, they cannot spend the money it would take to get a bonafide superstar. Funny how that works.

Dan Lewis (dan@dlewis.net) is a Manhattan-based sportswriter.


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