Back when a million dollars was a lot of money, it was easy to work up a healthy outrage over athletes' mind-boggling salaries. But by now our minds have been so frequently and thoroughly boggled that we've come to accept that no sum is too enormous for a superstar. As the numbers roll past our glazed eyes, we don't even blink anymore. Barry Bonds signs a $44 million contract? Sure, fine. Troy Aikman gets $50 million? Whatever. Derrick Coleman rejects $69 million from the New Jersey Nets but is willing to accept $90 million? Deal. Pay the man.
Wait a minute. Derrick Coleman?
The same Derrick Coleman who two years ago refused to reenter a game, angrily telling then coach Bill Fitch, "Get out of my face!"? That Derrick Coleman? The one who didn't make an NBA All-Star team until this season? The Derrick Coleman who put the Nets on his back the last two seasons and carried them all the way to...the first round of the playoffs? No question, Coleman, the first player picked in the 1990 draft, is one of the best power forwards in the league, but what has he accomplished that makes him worth the biggest contract in NBA history? Not nearly enough, that's what.
The league is entering dangerous territory. By tendering contracts of unprecedented length and value, NBA teams have created a new salary neighborhood and, worse, begun populating it with players who don't yet deserve to reside there. In October the Charlotte Hornets signed forward Larry Johnson, who had two seasons and a back operation under his belt, to an eight-year contract extension that made the deal worth $84 million over 12 years. Like Coleman, Johnson is an excellent young talent, and, like Coleman, he has too brief a rèsumè to justify such an expensive long-term commitment. But Charlotte wanted to make sure Johnson wouldn't walk away as a free agent after his original six-year contract ran out in 1998.
This strategy is already threatening to backfire on the Hornets. A chronic back ailment has sidelined Johnson indefinitely—he missed 19 of Charlotte's first 45 games this season—and it could have a long-term effect on his play. It's worth noting that Coleman's back has occasionally flared up on him as well. So how smart would it be for the Nets to take a similar risk by breaking the bank to sign Coleman to a huge, guaranteed contract that is based more on his potential than on his performance?
In October, New Jersey offered Coleman an eight-year, $69 million contract, with $56 million guaranteed, but he and his lawyer, Harold MacDonald, told the Nets to try again. Last week MacDonald and New Jersey general manager Willis Reed reportedly reached a verbal agreement on a nine-year, $90 million deal, with $75 million guaranteed. But when Reed took the offer to the Nets' ownership, the owners backed away from the deal, and at week's end the club was said to be exploring the possibility of trading Coleman. Nevertheless, the Nets clearly are willing to pay Coleman more than the $50 million that the team is estimated to be worth, giving new meaning to the term "franchise player."
If these ultrabuck, career-long deals are going to be thrown around regularly—rookies Chris Webber of the Golden State Warriors and Anfernee Hardaway of the Orlando Magic also signed contracts worth more than $60 million last fall—teams would be wise to follow two rules of thumb to identify the rare player who is truly worthy of such a contract. First, basketball skill alone isn't enough. A player has to elevate his team to championship-caliber play, or he has to at least put fans in the seats. Coleman hasn't shown he can do either. Second, the player has to exhibit a high degree of professionalism and an exemplary work ethic—other areas in which Coleman, who has a reputation for coasting at times, doesn't earn high marks. "If I'm going to pay that kind of money, I want to know that the guy is going to bust his tail night in and night out," says one Eastern Conference general manager. "As much as I'd want a guy with Coleman's talent on my team, I can't be sure I'm going to get that from him."
The negotiations between Coleman and the Nets boil down to leverage and credibility. Coleman has the leverage: Left unsigned, he will become a restricted free agent at the end of this season, meaning that he can accept any other team's outrageous offer, and New Jersey would have to match it to keep him. And the Nets' credibility is on the line: If they let Coleman walk, they'll look like the same old incompetent operators who have been unable to bring together enough quality players to lift New Jersey out of the NBA depths.
So the Nets have a choice: They can pay Coleman and hope that his body stays healthy and his attitude gets better, or they can decide that only players who have shown great commitment are worthy of a great commitment in return. The smart thing to do would be for New Jersey to trade Coleman for a dependable big man and two draft picks, taking one step back in order to take two steps forward.
The Nets have to have the courage to tell Coleman what he told Fitch: "Get out of my face!"