Commentary

Athletes with money to burn

A surprising number of players are opting for something other than max deals

Updated: July 18, 2013, 6:22 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

It was startling enough last week when NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from the $77 million left on his New Jersey Devils contract to go play in the KHL in his native Russia -- this on the heels of NBA star Dwight Howard leaving $30 million on the table to leave the Lakers for Houston, the land of James Harden and zero state income tax.

But you know a radical shift is afoot when even Matt Barnes, an NBA support player by any measure, took less money to sign with the hard-charging Clippers. Andrei Kirilenko -- a $10 million player last season -- controversially signed for just $3.1 million per year with the Nets, about $5 million less per season than he had been asking from other teams, sparking some angry but unsubstantiated charges from anonymous NBA executives, according to Yahoo! Sports, that Kirilenko must have some secret side deal with Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, which Prokhorov denied Thursday.

[+] EnlargeIlya Kovalchuk
Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesIlya Kovalchuk decided he'd rather play in Russia.

Baseball uber-agent Scott Boras, the longtime king of the every-last-nickel approach, may be sitting on a bench near a cliff in Newport Beach even as we speak, staring at the swirling ocean waters far, far below and wondering if this is how his career ends (rather than, you know, with fledgling sports agent Jay Z taunting him on his latest album: "Scott Boras, you over, baby/Robinson Cano, you coming with me").

Granted, none of these decisions happen if most pro athletes weren't making absurd salaries to begin with. But still, it is a trend.

In the new zeitgeist, athletes have money to burn. And the wish list for players seeking new contracts has changed, especially in the salary-capped leagues.

Nobody forced everyone from Howard to LeBron James to Dwyane Wade to Chris Bosh to Dirk Nowitzki to Barnes to volunteer to take less money or to say (cover your ears, Boras, this is gonna hurt) that they were choosing to put winning ahead of extracting the most money from owners. In the NFL, New England quarterback Tom Brady did the same thing. His contract extension with the Patriots pays him far less annually than the NFL's other top five quarterbacks earn, ostensibly so the Pats can afford more good players around him.

If you remember, even Boras had an independent thinking client, Angels pitcher Jered Weaver, reject his advice, bypass free agency 15 months early and take tens of millions less to sign an extension with the Angels in 2012 because -- get this -- Weaver and his family felt they would be happier if they avoided the haggling. That's right. "Happier."

"If $85 [million over five years] is not enough to take care of my family and other generations of families, then I'm pretty stupid, but how much money do you really need in life?" Weaver said. "I've never played this game for the money. I played it for the love and the competitive part of it."

[+] EnlargeMatt Barnes
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesMatt Barnes looked for the best opportunity, not the most money.

Barnes made his decision for similar reasons.

"The last five or six years, what I've kind of been labeled as is I would take less for a winning team, which has been pretty much true, for the most part," Barnes said in an SI.com interview. "I took less, some [other] guys took less, and it's to win a championship. I'll give up money to win a championship."

You could argue pro sports is a bit more virtuous because this trend is catching on, could you not?

Or that rather than see Howard mocked for going to Houston by ex-Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Phil Jackson or Kovalchuk ripped as a selfish quitter by former NHL star Jeremy Roenick, athletes like them or Weaver or Barnes should be applauded for making choices that suggest they have their personal priorities straight (or finally straight, in Howard's case).

Before you dismiss the 27-year-old Howard's decision to bypass $30 million in guaranteed money, noting he has time to make it up four years from now, remember these two words: "Greg Oden." They have become a synonym for "things happen." In the same way "Sam Bowie" used to be.

Sports is a better place when even the biggest alpha dogs and Type A's are actually admitting that, to get anything really important done, they need help.

Even Kobe Bryant -- the biggest alpha dog the NBA has -- went hat in hand to woo Howard to stay in L.A. Why? Because Bryant is a pragmatist.

The idea of being "The Man" -- one of the hoariest, most celebrated constructs in sports -- is starting to feel like a relic.

In the NBA, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier understood that when they teamed up to lead the Knicks to the championship in the mid-'70s amid predictions it would never work. But what makes the current round of superstar re-alignment different is not just the attitude adjustment they're making -- but the way stars are leveraging their power and orchestrating such moves themselves.

Kevin Garnett started it. After watching Stephon Marbury blow up their promising partnership in Minnesota, Garnett was ready to move and then-Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale traded Garnett in a sweetheart deal to the Celtics. Everything Garnett and Ray Allen did upon teaming up that season with Paul Pierce -- right down to refusing to do news conferences or even interviews for a while unless they were all included -- was meant to underscore that they were putting the team and their title quest ahead of everything else.

Togetherness was a buzzword. Personal sacrifice for the greater good. They were basketball superstars preaching the wisdom of submerging their egos rather than indulging their individuality. It paid off when they won the 2007-08 NBA title. And they have had many would-be imitators since. (At their introductory Nets news conference in Brooklyn on Thursday, Garnett and Pierce said they'd be preaching the same themes to their new team that they did with the Celts. "It's like a mirror image," Garnett said.)

James has said he watched all that happen in Boston and used Garnett as his guide when he was plotting his move from Cleveland. James realized that, no matter how great you are, you can't win alone. He, Bosh and Wade put their wallets where their mouths were and made it tangible: They gave up money, not just field goal attempts, for one another. And the Heat became a dominant team for it.

So Rajon Rondo, beware of what you wish for. There's a lesson here for you, too.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard could have made more money in Los Angeles.

Rondo seems excited to be the last star left in Boston now that Allen and coach Doc Rivers (both of whom he sometimes clashed with) chose to leave and Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry were traded as a group to the division-rival Nets.

The Celts are Rondo's team now, all right. He even poked Allen the other day and said he would never play for the archrival Heat like Allen chose to do.

But Rondo might have been better off noticing how Howard played the rumors that the Rockets might move Omer Asik and guard Jeremy Lin now that he's arrived. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said Lin and Asik weren't going anywhere in trades because Howard and Harden wanted them there.

"I've been kicked down to assistant GM," Morey joked.

The two stars' flexing of their organizational power was nice to see if you're Lin or Asik, but it could be worrisome if you're an agent, owner or GM.

The idea of what anyone "likes" or makes them "happy" is a terribly slippery and unpredictable thing. Contract talks and free-agent chases used to be so much easier when whichever team could pay the most dollars knew it would probably prevail.

But we better get used to it.

Next year, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony can make their free-agent wish lists all over again.

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