Hop in my time time machine, won’t you, and come with me back to 2004 where the Boston Red Sox have just lifted the Curse of the Bambino due in no small part to the efforts of one literally bearded Baseball Jesus: Johnny Damon. Boston had embraced Damon and the other ‘Idiots’ on that Sox team and they cheered them as they mounted an ultimately unsuccessful effort to defend their World Series championship in 2005.
Then free agency came calling and Damon famously decided to pursue a more lucrative offer to sign with the New York Yankees. So much subtext! The Yankees were Boston’s polar rival: corporate, mechanical, and cold. Why would Damon spurn Bean Town, where they loved his crazy long hair and beard AND OH MY GOD DAMON CUT HIS HAIR AND SHAVED OFF HIS BEARD FOR THE YANKEES. But at the end of the day, the Yankees had offered Damon $12 million more over the life of the contract than the Sox were willing to. In the world of free agency, that’s how it goes, man.
Until this past week in the NBA. There has been a ton of movement in the free agent market the past few days, and none more ominous than that surrounding the defending champion Miami Heat. Their big addition has been the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen, who they just signed to a three-year contract worth a little more than $3 million a season. That’s just a mid-level exemption deal, so it makes the Celtics look pretty callous for not trying to resign the aging but still serviceable Allen at all, especially when he was a full third of the much heralded ‘Big Three’ who came to—Wait, what?—They offered him $12 million over two years?
Allen, 36, turned down a two-year, $12 million offer to return to the Celtics and accepted a three-year deal with the Heat, who were limited to only their mini mid-level amount of just more than $3 million per season. (ESPN.com)
What is going on here? Additionally, Miami signed Rashard Lewis to a two-year, $2.8 million deal (which for him is a little misleading because New Orleans just bought out the remaining $13 million on his old contract so him net gross income over the next year is still going to be more than $14 million). We are in a strange period in the NBA right now, where traditional free agency rules seem to no longer apply. But rather than players choosing to take slightly less money to continue to play for their original team or their home town team, they’re taking less month to graft themselves onto the Miami Heat. I agree that the Celtics are in decline—in all likelihood, the 2012 Celtics, as constructed, were never going to be able to win another championship. But every great team goes into decline at some point. It happened to the Detroit Pistons in the early 90s. But did Joe Dumars try to sign a tiny contract to play for Jordan’s Bulls? Of course not. That even sounds crazy to say out loud. But that’s exactly what Ray Allen did.
This is a strange place, given that in the past fans have always implored free agent players to take other factors into consideration beyond just the total dollar amount of the contract, foremost among those: the ability to win. See every fearful conversation about keeping the Thunder together, for example. Yet when this type of thinking is actually put into practice, as with Allen and the Heat, it seems very sketchy, like there’s some kind of scam going on and we’re not seeing what’s going on under the table. But maybe it’s just cold in Boston during the NBA season. Who knows? But it makes me wonder, what would the reaction have been if Damon hadn’t signed with the Yankees, but rather took a smaller contract to play for the Cardinals—yeah that’s just as mystifyingly unsatisfying. I have no idea what’s going on right now.