On Friday, Kobe Bryant spoke out against the not-so-free nature of free agency. His point, essentially, was that the structure of contracts gives an unfair advantage to the players’ current teams.
He was right; they can offer more money and more years, and offer that max deal no matter how far it puts them over the salary cap (provided they’re willing to pay the luxury tax, if it kicks in).
But when Kobe contrasted this system with the pre-1999 situation — presumably what he had in mind when he referenced Shaquille O’Neal — he left out an important detail. In those good old days, there was no limit set on individuals salaries, but there was a cap, and Bird Rights. Meaning, not only could the player’s team exceed the cap number, it could do so while, in theory, ponying up an infinite amount of money. Now, player salaries are strictly delineated, so there’s no such thing as a break-the-bank, pie-in-the-key contract like Shaq or Kevin Garnett once had.
Today, the CBA encourages players to stick around, with measures that often end up as nothing more than technicalities. In the period Kobe has so conveniently misremembered, the financial incentives were very real. You had to really want to leave.
The 1999 CBA may have helped tamp down player salaries, but it also—by imposing a uniform pay scale—allowed stars to switch teams without foregoing huge sums of money. Kobe is right; the current system, however fecklessly, tries to send a message about the value of stability. As I pointed out, these measures clearly are not strong enough to actually discourage anyone, and the message is other ignored or scoffed at. For this reason alone, the next CBA might as well end the charade.
Yet players are much freer than they were pre-1999, albeit not nearly as rich. This might be what’s colouring Kobe’s false nostalgia. After all, as a friend point out, no one got screwed worse by the 1999 lock-out than Kobe Bean Bryant. He was one of only five players to vote against the CBA that year, in large part because he was set to hit the free agent market that summer. When it passed, he was stuck with a starting salary, instead of whatever Jerry West — who know full well what he had — was willing to throw his way.
You have to wonder how the Kobe/Shaq dynamic would have played out if their salaries had been in the same galaxy. To take this thinking a step further, could this systemic slight have left a chip on Bryant’s shoulder? Understanding Kobe’s psyche is a cottage industry, but I’ve never heard anyone raise this possibility before. One thing’s for sure: his interest in the current CBA isn’t posturing. Bryant is the one superstar who understands, first-hand, why these things really matter.
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