Who Cares About Value?

One of the easiest ways to con someone is to appeal to their vanity. A good confidence man seems like they’re more intelligent, that they understand more about the system than anyone else, and makes the mark believe in what they’re selling. They can separate the mark from everyone else on account of their specialized insight, then separate them from their money.

The three-way trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto at first seemed relatively bad for Memphis, in that it seemed to be going the opposite direction of their trade just the previous week with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In that deal, they traded future first round pick for salary cap space to keep their franchise players, but in the next they traded a large component of their current team for more salary cap space and a second round pick. It isn’t hard to see through the press coverage of the trade to see just what kind of con the new Memphis ownership is pulling on their fans. It isn’t a new trick – Phoenix’s ownership and management pulled it for years, sinking their once-exciting team. Sacramento has done it too. They’re using our own vanity to sell us the future as a real thing.

"We are excited to add three players who bring with them a tremendous amount of value to our team and have achieved incredible success on the pro, college and Olympic levels," general manager Chris Wallace remarked in a Grizzlies press conference, under the glowing lights of earnest speech, codifying his communication to hide the team’s real long-term goals.

Translating that, the figurehead told the press, “Since modern technology has forced us to acknowledge that you know as much as we do in terms of salary justifications and statistical analytics, anybody can see how valuable flexibility is, and how transparent this trade is. We all know Gay is really paid a lot of money, has limited future potential, whereas a cheaper Ed Davis has some potential, and now we have all this elasticity with the salary cap. You know, and are silent.”

Thanks to the new sports media, fans are now also buying this narrative, and accepting the meta-game of “inside basketball” as part of the story. 

Consider how long the Phoenix Suns did it, trading down picks and good players to stay “flexible,” to put the pieces around Steve Nash to win, sending star players all over the league. Eventually, they dumped Nash himself for the “flexibility” to rebuild. No one in the Phoenix management actually thought Michael Beasley is going to turn it around, but they just know how much his salary is worth, and can smile.

In this case, people ignorant of the increasingly stingy purses of NBA owners may be right in rejecting what’s presented in front of them. The con of “quality/value” can only work for so long. Has anybody ever seen a highlight reel demonstrating salary cap space? A retired jersey hanging in the rafters for a season having avoided luxury tax? Does anybody other than Daryl Morey and his acolytes want to see underpaid players more than people worthy of being stars?

Morey’s game, and this con, is part of the problem in that his ilk has convinced many, many intelligent people that financial value actually matters much in something where it’s less than primary: watchable competition. Smart people don’t look at All Star votes or commercial endorsements, they find it value in offensive win shares, points per 100 possessions, and true rebounding possession. Management and ownership then uses that information to exploit whoever fits best financially. 

While the best teams can find contributions from well-paid role players like Jason Terry or Mario Chalmers, or even good minutes off late draft round picks like Norris Cole, it is the expected well-paid stars, LeBron or Dirk Nowitzki or Derrick Rose, that matter the most.

Value is great in all kinds of things, but in pure competition, it does not matter much at all. We award the presidency to whoever gets the most Electoral College votes, not who got the most voters per dollar. Analytics work for forecasting an election, but aren’t quite there for monetizing the voters themselves. If you’re going to drive it every day, a Corvette is a better value sports car than a Bugatti Veyron, but that same Bugatti is still faster on the track. In basketball, an overpaid Josh Smith is going to put more basketballs through a hoop than an underpaid Jeff Green [editor’s note: Jeff Green will never be underpaid].

Basketball isn’t about saving their ownership money, it remains a sport about winning. This trade does not help the Grizzlies win, short-term or long-term. They simply dumped salary and said they gained “value” or “flexibility.” Over the course of two trades, they went from having a first round pick to a second round pick and from having a legitimate starter and a bench to an aging Piston and a “value” backup for the only positions they have filled with franchise players.

What other business could tell their customers that they’re making their current product worse for the purpose of keeping flexibility to maybe make a better product in the future? Which other sports’ owners could get away with telling the fans that even if the team is worse, to root for them because the ownership is making more money? This is a disappointing way of doing business, for the casual fans, and a con to anybody paying attention.

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Anonymous said...

Sean, I don't quite understand the point of this article. And I also think that you don't quite understand what you are trying to convey here.

jn said...

I do agree to a certain point (although I have read quite negative comments from the media describing those trades as money-saving measures and nothing more), but we cannot be so naive as to ignore the financial side of business. I'd rather have the Grizzlies with their pre-trades roster, but the guy who is paying for that roster does not agree. And he has a point.

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