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Is Basketball Becoming Baseball? Because... That Would Suck

Before we get to all the Gilbert Arenas stuff… This has been bugging me.

It happened a few weeks ago, but it’s got to be mentioned: Pau Gasol is making an average of $19 million over the next three seasons. That’s a max deal! It’s only for three years, so nobody discusses it in those terms, but the type of money he’s making is on par with what’s being paid to max guys like Carmelo Anthony ($17 million) and Dwight Howard ($16.6 million). He’s not that good, is he? Like, build-around-him good?

SB Nation’s excellent T-Wolves blog, Canis Hoopus pointed this out back when he signed:

Pau Gasol‘s three-year extension through 2014, at an average of $19 million a year, should worry all NBA fans.  At his press conference, Gasol mentioned several reasons why a player would like coming to Los Angeles, like less cultural differences, its an international city, there’s a lot going on, and the weather is nicer, especially after the cold east coast road trip.  But he left out the biggest reason — you can get paid.

Maybe the first question NBA fans should ask would be “How big is $19 million?”  It’s big, even compared to other giant NBA salaries.  Next season, $19 million would be a Top Five salary in the NBA — and while Gasol is very good, he is not a Top Five player.  Also, while those five deals are often the high end of older NBA contracts, Gasol’s extension averages that much, and its locked in until 2014.

But if $19 million/year is a lot, remember this — it will cost the Lakers $38 million with luxury tax penalties!  This astronomical sum would quickly bankrupt many franchises who are just trying to keep their head above water in tough economic times.  The fact that the Lakers can afford it, and still have money left over, should be of concern to fans that want a competitive NBA, particularly the Chairman of the NBA’s Board of Governors, Glen Taylor.

Indeed, according to Sham Sports—the best resource on the internet for NBA salary info—Los Angeles is also paying Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum more than $25 million annually, for the next four seasons. In 2013, that trio will earn more than $30 million. What do those three have in common, you ask?

When you think about it, they’re all kind of mediocre at this point. Relative to their salaries, at least.

For instance, Artest peaked in Sacramento. Now, he’s just a bullish forward, an inconsistent shooter, and as his mysterious Christmas night story proves, still someone that’s perpetually on the brink of a spectacular implosion. A while back, Bethlehem Shoals mentioned that his effectiveness today is derived as much from myth as it is any real talent. The idea of Ron Artest, the tough-as-nails defender, etc, resonates more than anything he actually does for the Lakers.

By contrast, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were both at their best when their talents were an idea. When Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were mere hypotheticals, the sky was the limit. Even when Odom came to Lakers, his potential was his greatest asset. What will Lamar Odom be like in (gasp) the triangle offense? And while both Odom and (to a lesser extent) Bynum have been huge for the Lakers at various points, it’s hard to argue that either one could be considered a star. And yet, look at those salary numbers.

Throw in Gasol getting paid like he’s Dwight Howard, and it all just reminds me of the New York Yankees. Think about all of the kinda-good stars they’ve shelled out millions for over the past decade? Just because they can. Gary Sheffield made like $80 million just because he was Gary Sheffield! Kind of like Ron Artest.

And for the Yankees and Lakers, it actually makes sense from an economic standpoint. Back to Canis Hoopus real quick:

Things are peachy for the Lakers. The Forbes numbers came out last week, and despite the highest payroll and luxury taxes in the league, the Lakers were #1 in operating income, revenue, and in the value of their franchise, which is now over $600 million. While the Wolves make merely $350,000/home game in revenues (not profits), the Lakers make an astonishing $1.96 million — over five times as much per game! Local TV revenues (within 70 miles) are not shared, so that’s a lucrative revenue stream as well for successful big market teams.

See, for a team like the Lakers, it’s a no-brainer to overpay Gasol a little. Keeping him around, and pairing him with an ageless Kobe Bryant, ensures that L.A. will be in the hunt for a title through at least 2014. It’s just good business; they can recoup their luxury tax losses with ticket sales, merchandise, etc. But what about a team like the Atlanta Hawks?

They’re one of the league’s quietly excellent teams right now; a young group that’s slowly matured together. But their star, Joe Johnson, is a swingman version of Pau Gasol. Not quite good enough to anchor a franchise, but just good enough to maybe command a max salary. Will another of the league’s blue blood franchises pay him an extra $20 million this summer to steal him from Atlanta? Or will Atlanta be the ones to pay him the extra money, going over budget, and taking themselves out of any other spending for the foreseeable future?

It’s a lose-lose; the Hawks are the Minnesota Twins, here.

This might be more benign, or at least boring, if it were an isolated case. The Lakers are the best team in basketball because they’re virtually unbeatable in close games, not some terrible inequity in the league hierarchy. The Knicks have the same advantages, and look at them. But the problem is that the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening, and this stuff is only going to get worse. When a team overpays Rudy Gay by $15 million this summer, don’t blame the Grizzlies. It doesn’t make financial sense for them to try and compete on that level.

Ultimately, we’re going to be left with a lot of years like this season, when only a handful of teams have a realistic shot at the title, and the rest of ‘em are just sort of playing things out, trying to hold water, and if they’re lucky, hoping for some lottery luck and a player like John Wall. Is that a bad thing, or is something that’s possible to prevent? Tough question.

But you gotta admit… It sounds a lot like Major League Baseball.