In the summer of 2016, Memphis point guard Mike Conley signed a max contract worth $152 million. It was the largest contract of its kind. Conley, a defensive point guard who had never been an All-Star, made more than Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. This year, Conley’s salary of $32 million is more than Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Anthony Davis but it must be pointed out his production is far, far less than Irving, Lillard and Davis. Conley is shooting 33% and 28% from three. He is posting career worst offensive ratings and PER. Nevertheless, his $32 million gets deposited into his bank account, whether he plays one game or plays 82.
That kind of rankles Michael Jeffry Jordan. The greatest player of any generation and the owner of the Charlotte Hornets was in a mood when he said players are paid to play 82 games. It’s old school logic. Perhaps in an allegorical framework yes, players are paid to play. And they are also paid when they don’t play. It’s why load management is even possible, why it works.
But back to the summer of 2016. The same year that Conley broke the bank, Nicolas Batum signed a $120 million contract. Chandler Parsons signed a $94 million contract and Joakim Noah signed a $72 million contract. Batum has only played in one game this year, Parsons is long beyond the shooter he used to be, and Noah is trying to get back in the league. What you get paid isn’t synonymous with what you’re worth. But that’s not even the point.
The reason above average players in 2016 were gifted huge paydays is because the NBA’s new television contract kicked in. Revenue trickled down to the players and it created this tsunami of riches previously coveted by the elite of the elite. Now, an average talent could be overpaid. It was a situation where everyone wins. The star players are always going to eat first. But now their teammates could enjoy the material life. The owners made money because fan interest was at an all time high with the new brand of basketball Steph Curry and the Warriors played. Nothing could harm the system except…you know… the system.
When television revenue is water flowing here and there everyone is happy. When it craters, the players absorb the difference. Those overpaid salaries will come back down to earth. The feast will all of sudden become the famine, millionaire style. And all because of load management.
Load management has two different threads. There is the team perspective. Contenders are willing to make bargains for long term success. Load management keeps star players like Kawhi Leonard healthy for the postseason. Because Leonard’s body has gone through prolonged injury, rest is necessary to maintain the level of energy and health for a long postseason. So Kawhi’s team is going to be cautious with him and his minutes. Toronto made it work to their advantage but only because when Leonard didn’t play Pascal Siakam was suddenly the Raptors star. The Clippers, without Paul George, don’t have that luxury. In a loaded west, the more games that Leonard misses, the farther the Clippers get behind. But the Clippers are willing to take the risk believing that a healthy Kawhi Leonard is more than worth the losses.
In a paradoxical twist, the very thing that has teams cautious as a strategy, has network partners livid. TNT and ESPN are furious that Kawhi isn’t playing key nationally televised games. It costs them ratings, which in turn costs them advertising revenue. It hurts the television business. The networks will only absorb the loss of revenue for a short time before they negotiate from behind the 8 ball, trying to recoup their losses, at the expense of the players.
The next television contract will be shaped around load management which will lower the price. The price then trickles down to the Mike Conleys of the world. What used to be a max salary for many will be a max salary for only a few. The middle class will get larger, the lower class will have more members, and the rich will be who the rich always are: privileged.
Load Management will not just be a negotiating tool for the television networks to get their money back, but it will be a political issue that the players union has to address. What do they stand for? Are they a collective body or a bunch of individual members looking to get theirs?
When Mike Conley struck his deal other players were happy for him. It meant their salaries were going to rise. But the reverse is true if networks continue to lose ratings based on load management. They will monetize their losses and the players will have less money because one guy wants to protect his body for the NBA Finals.
That is the collateral damage of load management. A possible championship for 12 players. Less money for 400 players.