Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Andre Iguodala and Tim Duncan all share in a trend that is thriving, even as it shrinks the players' bank accounts. All four are among the growing list of stars who could have cashed in for larger salaries as free agents -- but settled for less money on the open market.
This is not about creating sympathy for stars who are still making eight-figure salaries annually. They may give up a few million here and there, but they're still making out very well in the end.
The point is that a dream is coming true for the NBA and its owners, who two years ago locked out the players in hopes of creating equitability and competitiveness throughout the league. One surprising outcome of Howard's long-suffering pursuit of free agency is that it ended with the richest of all teams, the Lakers, not getting richer. While it's not as if Howard jumped to the Charlotte Bobcats -- he moved to another large market, in Houston -- he did snub the Lakers and their longstanding reputation as the ultimate destination for NBA stars. More shocking was that he lost $30 million up front by accepting the Rockets' lesser four-year, $88 million offer instead of the Lakers' five-year max deal.
Recent events show that money isn't necessarily the predominant influence for free agents. Denver wanted to re-sign Iguodala for five years at a reported $60 million ($52 million guaranteed), but he agreed to a four-year deal reportedly worth $48 million from the Warriors, who upset his Nuggets in the opening round of the playoffs just nine weeks ago.
The goals of the new collective bargaining agreement -- from the owners' point of view -- included a redistribution of talent and less expensive salaries. What is extraordinary is that the players, who fought throughout the lockout to not surrender money and years on their contracts, are now yielding in both areas. By their own choice.
Most players are still pursuing as much money as the market will bear, understandably, but those who are willing to give up millions in return for other considerations are no longer considered to be suckers. Chris Paul is in contention to win the championship next season because he threatened to leave the Clippers for less money. The credible threat that he would move to Dallas or some other less lucrative destination (for essentially the same deal that Howard wound up taking in Houston) forced the Clippers to give up a first-round pick, as well as control over their basketball operations and a three-year, $21 million contract, for coach Doc Rivers.
If the Clippers had believed that their offer of max money would be enough to retain Paul, then they might not have gone to such additional expense to acquire Rivers. Likewise, down the hall at the Staples Center, it turns out that the Lakers needed to hire Phil Jackson as their coach if their No. 1 priority was to hold on to Howard, because the fact that they were offering Howard far more money wasn't enough to bring him satisfaction.
"I wanted to make myself happy and get back to being who I am," Howard told the Houston Chronicle. "Being Dwight, having fun and being happy."
The Lakers are now going to be under intensive pressure to turn next summer's cap space into a star to take Howard's place. For decades it has been difficult to imagine them losing someone of Howard's stature, and now they are going to have to demonstrate that they remain the ultimate destination for stars, all while offering less money than incumbent teams. They're going to have to make an impressive case in the here-and-now if they hope to prevail in this newly hyper-competitive world.
What we're seeing is the escalation of a long-building trend. When James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signed with Miami in 2010, all three took less money to play together. All told, the Big Three gave up $15 million to $17 million from each of their six-year contracts to help the Heat re-sign Udonis Haslem and add Mike Miller, without whom they might not have won their last two championships.
The recent NBA Finals matchup of the Heat and Spurs provided a strong example of what it takes to win as the league transitions to the new, more austere CBA. Not only must players make sacrifices with the ball, but they must also do it with their paychecks. James, Wade, Bosh, Haslem, Shane Battier and Ray Allen -- who left the Celtics to sign for less with the Heat -- were among the Miami contributors who could make more money on the open market.
The Spurs have remained in contention for 16 straight years by establishing a similar formula. Duncan, the greatest power forward in history and currently an All-NBA first-teamer, was paid a bargain $9.6 million last season. Tony Parker, an MVP candidate at point guard, made $12.5 million. Manu Ginobili, a future Hall of Famer, recently agreed to return for $14 million over two years. All three stars have left money on the table to maintain the premium working conditions they've established together in San Antonio.
The reason the Thunder were forced to trade James Harden last year was because they were unable to persuade him to follow the Spurs' model. Kevin Durant had re-signed for the max, naturally, as every elite star (including Duncan) has done at the end of his rookie contract. Russell Westbrook then agreed to re-sign for less than the max to keep contending for championships alongside Durant. Wary of the heightened luxury taxes that were created by the new CBA -- a fast-escalating tax that the small-market Thunder couldn't afford to pay -- the team asked Harden to settle for less money than Westbrook.
Now that he has emerged as a top-10 star, one whose presence helped draw Howard to the Rockets, it is easy to see why Harden held out for the larger salary he received after the Thunder traded him to Houston. He never would have been able to showcase his skills as the No. 3 star coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. But at the same time, isn't there a comparison to be made with Ginobili? He might have made more money and put up bigger numbers elsewhere, but you never hear him complaining about his three titles or his quality of life while sharing the ball with Parker and Duncan (as well as emerging star Kawhi Leonard) in San Antonio.
Ginobili would insist that money isn't everything, and Dirk Nowitzki happens to agree with him. As a free agent in 2010, Nowitzki re-signed with the Mavericks for $16 million less than the max, which enabled them to make moves that helped turn Nowitzki into a champion in 2011. Now Nowitzki has hinted at accepting a relatively small salary next summer to create cap space that can attract a star to play with him in 2014-15.
The ultimate case for this trend will play itself out next summer, when Kobe Bryant will be a free agent. He has spoken of playing multiple years in pursuit of a sixth and seventh championship, but will he sacrifice money to provide the Lakers with the cap space needed to surround him with title-worthy talent? It will be understandable if he refuses to sign for less, because why should the owners profit at his expense?
But then, at the same time, there will be the inner voice that wants to win as many or more championships than Michael Jordan, and it will be pleading with Bryant to take less money in order to win additional titles. The debate will rage within him: What is the value of money?