Money not so well spent

When it's all said and done, NBA owners will have shelled out close to $1 billion this summer.

Let me repeat that, just so I'm sure I'm not experimenting in the desert with some peyote: When it's all said and done, NBA owners will have shelled out close to $1 billion this summer.

No, no, no, we're not talking about spending money on glamorous new arenas. We're talking about cash on players' salaries.

In a league that is adding a 30th team, further diluting a talent pool, and in a league in which Olden Polynice still, somehow, miraculously is playing if not contributing, the wisened owners of NBA teams, themselves mostly billionaires, will have staggeringly doled out close to $1 billion in salaries.

I have to admit, I never saw it coming.

Though I don't really feel badly. My guess is that if Nostradamus, Madame Marie in Asbury Park and the three cats laying face up in the pool in "Minority Report" all had gotten together and joined telepathic forces, they never would have forseen Brian Cardinal, Adonal Foyle and 30-year-old Derek "I Owe Half This Money to Shaq" Fisher combining to make $100 million, gar-un-teed.

I'm stunned, I tell you, stunned. Maybe not as stunned as Shaq is going to be when he gets quadruple-teamed and throws the ball out to some scholarly gentleman named Albert Miralles, who promptly throws up an airball for the Heat's 35th loss. And maybe not as stunned as Charlotte Bobcats season-ticket holders who are wondering why they paid thousands of dollars to listen to "It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes" 437 times a game. But nonetheless I am stunned.

Here's why: The league recently announced that next season's salary cap is going up a mere $60,000, and since television revenue increases each season, that basically means that ticket revenue was down, which means that not as many people are going to the games, which seemed obvious to me this past season by, well, dare I say it, all the empty seats.

Now, is it really a prudent business model to spend $1 billion on marginal players at a time that fan apathy is on the increase, particularly since there will not be nearly as much interest by simple virtue of the disintegration of the always comical Shaq-Kobe marriage?

Call me kooky, but I think not. Isn't pouring more money into a questionable product basically what ValuJet did, and look where that got them. I mean, listen, since when did it become anti-American to actually pay somebody what they are worth, nay, what they have earned? Since when did paying somebody millions of dollars for potential become rational, even accepted?

The way I see it, we have sent a satellite or a camera or some such high-tech device all the way to Saturn to get pictures so detailed that the planet's rings look as clear as Mary Kate's cry for help. So why can't somebody somewhere devise a formula that pays players what they are worth?

Really, how difficult can it be? An economist friend of mine has developed a system to track not only how good a player is, but how good he is based on who is out on the floor with him. And even though 3,000 people lost their lives on Sept. 11 in the midst of numerous governmental snafus, nobody involved in the mishaps lost their jobs. To me, it's all arithmetic. So c'mon David Stern, hire the best minds to figure this thing out.

Take into account how far a team gets in the playoffs, for starters. So even though Vince Carter proclaims himself to be one of the best players in the league, the fact that he never leads his team to the postseason should count against him. And since Clifford Robinson almost always is in the playoffs, he should get more consideration.

You could of course throw in all the usual stats, points, rebounds, assists and steals, but deduct money for turnovers, missed free throws, missed shots and mental gaffes as assigned by an objective group, somebody like sportswriters. I think things like technical fouls, spitting on fans, flipping the bird or getting arrested should count against a player's salary -- which means, of course, that the Trail Blazers are among the lowest-paid in the league -- while signing autographs, doing community service and being a good quote should add money to the till.

I feel that legitimate injuries like broken necks should be rewarded, but any suspect injuries -- plantar fasciitis, which I never even heard of until 1997, any surgeries right before the start of training camp or anything that Vince Carter contracts -- should be financially penalized.

Hell, you know what, I'd even be up for allowing the fans at arenas to vote for a certain percentage of a player's salary. After all, fans know what is going on, they actually see the games rather than just SportsCenter highlights, and if the fans get to feel like they can contribute to or detract from a player's salary, it might actually increase attendance. Maybe put some computers in the armrests of seats at the arena, and when a player does well, something that a fan likes like a hustle play, the fan can click a
button to increase a player's salary for that game. If a fan doesn't like the lackadaisical play of, say, a Jerome James or a Carmelo Anthony, bye bye new pair of shoes.

Sound dramatic? Probably. But anything has to be better than a system that allows Troy Hudson to make $37 million immediately following a season in which he played a grand total of 29 games.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.