Friday, December 25, 2009
Well, maybe Jon Koncak was worth more than Michael Jordan
I've read about 100 pages of a new book I got for Christmas, When the Game was Ours, by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, though sportswriter Jackie MacMullan handled the actual writing of the book. I read several chapters today while avoiding my dad's taunting phone calls during the Lakers debacle against Cleveland.
Remarkably, the book's managed to reveal new details about the players, details I didn't even know, though I thought I'd read pretty much every story and anecdote about each Hall of Famer. My favorite quote so far comes from Bird. Apparently, Bird's Indiana State teammates and Magic's Michigan State teammates expressed some jealousy about the attention each player received while in college, even though each player was nearly single-handedly responsible for turning the programs into national powers. When asked about the jealousy of his teammates, Bird said, "Somebody asked me once how I felt about all that. I told them, 'Hell, I'm jealous of them too. I'm jealous because I never got to play with a Larry Bird."
It's an amazingly arrogant quote, something that would be the subject of a special 2-hour episode of Outside the Lines on ESPN if Kobe Bryant said something similar about his teammates today. And it's also a perfect quote, the type of reply only one of the 10 best players in NBA history could get away with.
Later, in his early years with the Lakers, some of Magic's teammates also became jealous of the attention heaped on the young star. Much of it stemmed from the 25-year, $25 million contract he signed early in his career, a pact that was remarkable not for the money, but for the length. Although at the time, the money too - a million a year - was also fairly staggering.
Today of course someone making a million dollars a year in the NBA is probably a guy who plays about 5 minutes a game and is kept on the roster simply because he's a good chemistry guy and practices hard.
Who makes the most money in today's NBA? Kobe? Duncan? Shaq? LeBron? No, no, no, and no.
Tracy McGrady. $23,329,561.
This is the last year of his deal, meaning McGrady's days of seeing that type of money will be long gone when he signs his next deal in the Summer of LeBron.
It's obviously preposterous that McGrady is the highest-paid player in the league, but then again, Jermaine O'Neal is the third-highest paid player, so it's not the only deal that doesn't make much sense. But then, it's always been like that in the NBA.
Browsing through Basketball Reference is an eye-opening experience when searching out salary history.
Take the 1988 Chicago Bulls. The Bulls finished 50-32 that season as Michael Jordan averaged 35 points and five assists a game. That year he solidified his spot as a basketball legend, and a sporting icon off the court. Those results were good enough to land him the second-highest-paid contract on the team, as he made $845,000. The highest-paid Bull? Artis Gilmore, whose professional career had peaked a decade earlier in the ABA. Big Artis pulled in $863,00 that season.
Sticking with the late 1980s, the 1987 Lakers were one of the best teams in NBA history, winning 67 regular season games and the title thanks to a devastating fastbreak and Magic's first MVP season. Magic won the MVP, Kareem was still effective, and another Hall of Famer, James Worthy, averaged 19 points per game. So, of course, the highest-paid player was Michael Cooper. Granted, Coop was the Defensive Player of the Year. And he was a vital role player. But he should not have been pulling in $3,565,500 when Magic took in $2,500,000. I'm sure no one was jealous of Magic's contract that season.
Sometimes bad contracts literally destroy franchises, which is basically what happened with Seattle in the 1990s. The Sonics took the legendary Bulls team to six games in the NBA Finals in 1996. In several of those games, Shawn Kemp was the best player on the floor, despite the fact Jordan, Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen were sharing it with him. Seattle appeared set to contend for the next decade.
Then they signed a 7-foot stiff disguised as a center, who went by the name of Jim McIlvaine. Looking for a center in the Jon Koncak/Uwe Blab/Bill Wennington/Will Perdue/Joe Klein mold - tall, personable, pale-skinned, and bad at basketball - the Sonics inked McIlvaine to a seven-year deal worth $33.6 million. The previous season, Big Mac averaged 2.3 points and yanked down 2.9 boards per game. The move infuriated many of the Sonics, most notably Kemp. The star forward did make more than McIlvaine that year - $3.3 million compared to $3 million for McIlvaine - but he'd also been asking for an increase, which the organization refused to give him. At the end of the year Seattle dealt Kemp to Cleveland, assuring his career would become most notable for his epic weight gain and the number of children he sired. Seattle, meanwhile, faded from power. McIlvaine? Oh, McIlvaine was fine, finishing his career in 2001 with the Nets, a season that saw him make $5.4 million. That year he averaged 1.6 more points per game than I did for the Nets, appearing in 18 games.
Speaking of Jon Koncak, long before McIlvaine gave below-average centers a bad name with his outrageous contract, Koncak signed a famous six-year deal worth $13 million with the Atlanta Hawks. At the time, it meant Koncak made more money than Jordan, Bird and Magic, the only time his name was ever mentioned with those three. Koncak averaged 4.5 points per game in his career. The 1992 Hawks were a fascinating team. Not on the court, where they finished 38-44, but off it. Dominique Wilkins rightfully made the most money on the team, pulling in $3.1 million. Koncak was next with two million. Third? Blair Rasmussen, with $1.5 million. Blair Rasmussen, the seventh-leading scorer on the team, a guy who scored 9 points a game.
But then again, Blair was white. And seven-feet tall. In the NBA, those two qualifications often seem to be more important than a decent jump shot or rebounding skills.
So maybe McGrady's 2010 contract isn't so outrageous. We should just be thankful Joel Przybilla isn't the highest-paid player in the league.