NBA championship contenders on both sides of the East/West split got reinforcements from the buyout market this season. Andre Drummond signed with the Los Angeles Lakers upon his release by the Cleveland Cavaliers, while LaMarcus Aldridge joined fellow buyout expat Blake Griffin in Brooklyn with the Nets.
It is unsurprising that any of these three decided to try taking an easy path to title contention rather than attempting to become a larger piece of a fringe championship hopeful. It's already hard enough to adjust to new teammates and schemes with only half a season before the playoffs begin, much less when the players in question have to move to a new city and set up shop in the midst of a pandemic. If Aldridge or Drummond are going to uproot themselves for only a few months before hitting free agency again, they may as well go to a place with the strongest possible chance at a ring, an opportunity that may never come again.
The fact that big-market contenders landed the biggest names on the buyout market did not go unnoticed, and some people are not very happy about it. Howard Beck published a big feature at Sports Illustrated today with quotes from anonymous executives complaining about the inequity of it all:
“You’re just helping the rich get richer,” says a general manager with a small-market team
“It’s a definite concern,” says another team executive working in a small market. “Without a doubt, players that are entering the buyout market will only be looking at contending teams. And most of the time, historically, their preference has been to go to the teams in the bigger markets…. And it gives teams an opportunity to sit back and add players on minimum deals that they normally wouldn’t be able to acquire.”
“The system is flawed,” says a third small-market GM. “You shouldn’t be adding to your team this deep in a season without giving things up.”
On the one hand, these are good points. The Lakers being able to sign Drummond for less than a million dollars when he was worth $28 million three days prior reeks of big-market competitive advantage, especially when all they have to do to get him is be high in the standings and cutting an end-of-the-bench guy that would never see the floor otherwise. Which isn't a great look for a league trying to get rid of that sort of thing.
On the other hand, it feels like people are upset this time around because, for once, there were actually good players available on the buyout market. It is very rare to have a guy like Drummond, only 27-years-old, get bought out of a huge contract and suddenly become available in the middle of the season. Players with that type of contract are usually good enough that the team they play for don't want to buy them out. In the cases where said player is not living up to said contract and the team is willing to pony up a chunk sum just to get him out of town, the player rarely wants to do that because it means they receive less money. It requires a perfect storm for a buyout of a contract like Drummond or Griffin, and it happened this year.
Sure, it stinks that the players with something to contribute were only ever going to go to one of three different teams. It would have been slightly more fun if Drummond ended up in Charlotte trying to make that playoff push or if Aldridge went back to Portland to help out his old pals. Watching LeBron James load up again for the stretch run or the Nets getting big name after big name is tiresome.
But what, exactly, is the solution here? Nobody can force a player like Griffin to sign with a team lower in the standings for parity purposes. If he wants to get paid less than his talents for a shot at a ring, that's his prerogative. It's not exactly Griffin's fault that the Nets gave him a better chance than almost anybody else. The parity argument goes far, far beyond the freaking buyout market. There is no easy solution for the fact that bigger markets have a built-in advantage when recruiting talent that results in championship contenders primarily residing in those big markets.
More relevant to the immediate discussion, there is no solution that would fix the buyout market. There are ideas, like forcing teams to sign players to a certain percentage of their previous contract to avoid situations like Drummond, where he is talented enough to make more than the minimum, the Lakers can't afford to pay him that but sign him anyway. But the players would not be happy with that overt restriction on their freedom to choose when they hit the open market, and such a rule would only matter once every, like, five years. This wouldn't be a discussion if the Lakers got Wayne Ellington instead of Drummond.
Competitors are going to be upset when their rivals get a decent player basically for free. I get that. And it's not exactly fun for the 28 other fanbases when free agents choose to sign with one of two title contenders. But the buyout market almost never matters. No championship team is going to enter any given season thinking the buyout market will give them the extra boost needed to make it over the top. It sure is nice when a player is bought out and wants to come play for cheap. But 99 percent of the time, that player is not going to be the reason a team wins a ring. Even this year, with more buyout talent on the market than any in recent memory, won't make that outcome a reality.
Do any of you really think that LaMarcus Aldridge will be the reason Brooklyn gets past Joel Embiid and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Or that LeBron will be thanking the universe for gifting his team Andre Drummond? They are good players, but they aren't difference-makers. That's why they were bought out in the first place, and you can apply that line of thinking to essentially every buyout that has and will happen.
It is patently absurd to want to change the rules specifically to prevent good teams from getting slightly better because it appears unfair or because some players prioritize winning over making some dough. If other teams are mad about the benefits that come along with being a good team, they should try to become one of those good teams. Even if it wasn't absurd, there is no rule that would solve it immediately. And ultimately, it doesn't matter. Because the buyout market doesn't matter. This is a battle in the larger ware of parity and big vs. small markets. The buyout market itself doesn't need fixing, even if the rest of the parity argument holds merit.