If LeBron James played third base or centerfield and was as dominant in baseball as he is in basketball, he would take home a bigger paycheck twice a month from the team fortunate enough to have him in the lineup.
He also would be expected to play 162 games, take the field in frigid Minneapolis or sweltering St. Louis and give up some of those marvelous endorsement deals around the globe, which doesn’t fully embrace the national pastime. Oh, and he might not have a ring yet.
Some things presumably are worth more even than dollars, which James at least seemed to get when he spoke with reporters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Friday after the Miami Heat’s shootaround. The subject turned to his value, to the (ahem) sacrifices some star players make and, inevitably, to money.
“It doesn’t matter to me to be the highest-paid player in the league,” James continued. “What I do on the floor shows my value. At the end of the day, I don’t think my value of what I do on the floor can be compensated anyways because of the [collective bargaining agreement].
“If we had the truth, if this was baseball, I’d be up there – real up there. But it’s not. You play by the rules.”
In the big leagues, James’ $17.5 million contract for 2012-13 would rank no higher than 24th, well behind the likes of the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez ($30 million in 2012), the Dodgers’ Vernon Wells ($24.2 million) and Johan Santana of the New York Mets, who gets paid $23.1 million for participating in about 34 games in a healthy year. As it is, James is tied with teammate Chris Bosh for 13th on the NBA pay scale, which is topped by Kobe Bryant‘s $27.8 million from the Lakers (Bryant was “grandfathered” in before current maximum-salary restrictions) .
No one is going to, or at least ever should, hold a telethon for any of these guys. But every so often, the constraints of the NBA’s salary-cap and max salary structures bubble up as fodder for discussion. Sometimes it is unmoored from reality.
Yes, in a purely free-market industry, superstars like James, his Miami cohorts Bosh and Dwyane Wade and maybe two dozen others would break through the artificial ceiling of a maximum salary. Michael Jordan wasn’t bound by max rules in his final season with the Chicago Bulls and pocketed $33.1 million – way back in 1997-98. James himself wondered a couple years ago if his value might soar to $50 million a season. Some have suggested that it would push well beyond that.
And it’s true that MLB has no salary cap, which permits player contracts to settle where the market dictates. But baseball has the aforementioned 162 revenue opportunities and ballparks for 40,000 customers or more.
Also, it is a different sport – one superstar player can’t shift the balance of power in baseball the way he can in basketball, and competitive balance is part of the rationale at least for salary caps. Maybe in theory a team could pay James or Bryant $50 million per season and divvy up the other $8 million and change to 11 other guys. But that probably wouldn’t be the smartest distribution of compensation, in terms of generating the greatest efficiency, morale and results.
It’s true that James, Bosh and Wade all accepted less than top dollar to hook up with the Heat in the summer of 2010 and so far their plan has more than made up the difference in dollars forfeited – an NBA title last June, two trips to The Finals and marketing opportunities that surely trump the amounts they left on the table in Miami’s front office.
It also is true and kind of interesting that James, the heavy favorite to win his fourth MVP award this spring, never has been the NBA’s highest-paid player.
“I have not had a full max deal yet in my career — that’s a story untold,” James said.
“I don’t get (the credit) for it. That doesn’t matter to me; playing the game is what matters to me. Financially, I’ll sacrifice for the team. It shows for some of the top guys, it isn’t all about money. That’s the genuine side of this, it’s about winning. I understand that.”
Reports had Wade, within earshot of the conversation, reminding them all that James does just fine on at the pay window. Which is a good thing, because that sort of talk can get unseemly fast. It bears no resemblance to the sort of “sacrifice” many NBA fans feel – and make, if they happen to buy tickets to actually attend a game or three – on a daily basis.
NBA money seems to flow in a pretty familiar pattern now: Star players, coming off their rookie deals, most often stay put for their second contracts because their current teams can pay them the most. Then with the freedom of free agency after that, they either re-up for top dollar or go elsewhere, either for the best financial deal available or for something squishier like lifestyle, personal preferences or the best chance to chase a ring.
One last bit of business here: It’s bad form for the person who’s unpaid to talk much about it. Same as it is for active athletes who pronounce their own Hall of Fame-worthiness.