Food for Thought: Burke speaks to impacts of “The Decision”


At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, MA (fellow bloggers, I highly recommend you check it out next year), I had an opportunity to attend a panel discussion regarding “The Decision” — whereby the NBA’s LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to team up to join Dwayne Wade in Miami — and its impacts on other areas of the sporting world.

Moderated by Michael Wilbon of ESPN, the panelists included former NBA player and current Celtics’ colour commentator Donny Marshall, San Antonio Spurs’ GM R.C. Buford, NBA and NFL agent Mark Bartelstein, and Toronto Maple Leafs‘ GM Brian Burke.

I won’t delve into the minute details of the hour-long discussion, although a few interesting points were raised in terms what impacts free agency, and an event such as “The Decision”, may have on leagues outside the NBA, including the NHL.

As the hockey professional on the panel, Burke naturally did most of the speaking on the NHL-related aspects of the topic. He noted that the hard cap in the NHL makes it difficult for superstar players to plot a “package deal” approach … Pittsburgh simply wouldn’t be able to ice a team if it were to go out and add Alex Ovechkin to a lineup already featuring Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. To do so would tie up close half the team’s cap space in four players; filling out the rest of the roster with any degree of quality would be a near-impossible task … never mind the issues surrounding long-term guaranteed contracts. The economics just wouldn’t make sense.

Although occurrences do happen where players force trades (Pronger), or decide ahead of time they will either sign in one place or not at all (Nabokov), it is rare. Burke recalled the time, a few years back, when Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne signed as a package deal with the Colorado Avalanche … and the mixed results which followed (both players had below-par seasons; team did not contend for a championship). A large part of it, Burke suggested, was that the speed, fluidity, and dynamicism of hockey make it much more a “team-reliant” game than the other sports. In other words, a team’s success is dependent largely upon all six players on the ice performing as a singular unit … the “fit” (in terms of style of play) and on-ice chemistry are the keys to a team’s success.

Bartelstein, an agent, suggested such player maneuvering is also less likely to impact the NFL, as its own hard cap, its lack of guaranteed contracts, and the injury factor (players know they are replaceable), drive players to seek opportunity moreso than opportunism.

Marshall (a former NBA player) agreed, noting that no team can win with all its money tied up in 2 – 3 players, and the depth of the bench — in any sport — is crucial. Buford, an NBA GM, noted the need for any league to build a sustainable working environment around a competitive balance, for the small market teams are the ones who will suffer the consequences of not being able to attract star players, should “The Decision” lead other stars to consider joining forces on their own “super teams” in the soft-cap NBA. Indeed, how attractive a destination is Cleveland right now, in the wake of LeBron leaving for the glamour of South Beach? Conversely, how attractive is Green Bay in the NFL, in the wake of a Superbowl victory?

Burke noted that the NHL mentality still remains one where the team comes before the individual, largely because with only so much money to go around players do not have the same freedom of choice they may have in other leagues. Referencing Toronto, he noted he has yet to have a player come to him and say he’s willing to take less money to play on his team, and although he’d welcome such an approach with open arms he doubts it will happen anytime soon. Because careers are so short, and can be cut even shorter due to the injury risks posed by the nature of contact sport, players tend to look first and foremost for places where they can have the opportunity to earn a significant role. Thus competitive balance is achieved via the conduit of the hard salary cap.

The panel agreed there are many factors at play which allowed the NBA to get to a point where theatrics such as “The Decision” are not only celebrated, but are to a certain degree almost predictable. One of the keys is the combination of youth and money; players coming out of high school are given large contracts without having earned the money, the result of which becomes a culture of entitlement, and a greater tendency for the individual to place himself above the game. In the NFL, a similar problem exists with rookie contracts, but is tempered by the fact the money is not guaranteed and the player can be released at any time; in the NHL, limits on entry-level contracts avoid the problem altogether.

Bartelstein noted that the financial aspects of the game, and the desire for a particular lifestyle, tend to push players toward taking the easy way out, rather than working through the difficult times (as exemplified by not only LeBron’s theatrics this past summer, but also half the Detroit Pistons’ roster not showing up to a game recently due to disagreements with the coaching systems). He noted the irony of his statements, qualifying them with the reminder that as an agent he can offer the player his best advice in terms of building a successful career, but at the end of the day his job is ultimately to provide the player with what he wants … even if what that player wants is to the detriment of the league as a whole.

The discussion was timely, and prevalent, in the wake of the NFL’s current need for a new CBA, and the NHL’s upcoming CBA expiration. Each member of the panel agreed they had less issue with James’ and Bosh’s decision to team up with Wade (indeed, as free agents it was their right) than they did with the presentation of the decision … for they felt the theatrics were reflective of the culture of entitlement for which the league, and media, have long been criticized of fostering and that leagues should be wary of their role in generating a ‘me-first’ mentality among their players … and wary of the impacts of that mentality on the next generation of players coming forward.

As such, one can expect to see both the NHL and NFL fight to retain hard-cap measures in their upcoming negotiations, for the dual purpose of (a) fostering league-wide competitive balance and (b) limiting the development of a culture of entitlement among their players.

Notable Quotables: Brian Burke

Brian Burke is always good for a quote. Here’s a couple I jotted down during the course of the discussion …

“As for being proficient, we won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim and my guys fought in all four rounds.”

“I want a coach who is difficult to play for. You can’t pat a guy on the back after every shift and tell him ‘good job’ when he didn’t do his job.”

“The game is not supposed to be fun. The word ‘fun’ doesn’t appear in a Standard Player’s Contract.”

“You win enough, then it becomes fun.”