Dwight Howard got what he wanted, and the NBA has another stain on its reputation. Superstars set the agenda in professional basketball, and once again a star determined that millions of dollars in salary and endorsements were not enough for him to suffer through another year in sunny Florida.
Only that is not the only moral of the four-team blockbuster trade that sent Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers from the Orlando Magic last week. Also involved in that deal were 10 veteran players who never uttered much displeasure over their home teams, and one star in particular who was constantly shopped by his own front office, despite no publicly stated desire on his part to play elsewhere.
Andre Iguodala represents the other side of this deal. Whereas Howard was the spoiled, waffling brat who felt entitled to force the Magic to do his bidding, Iguodala was the relatively boring, hard-working professional who passed the ball, played defense, set screens and did a lot of the other things that players with similar contracts decline to do. Based on his points per game production and inability to create his own shot, Iguodala is overpaid at roughly $14 million per year, but that assumes that scoring is the only skill worth paying for in the NBA. It's not.
The only controversies surrounding Iguodala during his eight years in Philadelphia were manufactured ones. He made some playful comments in a Sports Illustrated article that some fans perceived as ripping his teammates, who to a man explained that they understood Iguodala was joking. Some Philadelphians also got a bit riled up over Iguodala's characterization that, "in Philly … you could be the worst person in the world, but if you score a lot of points or win a championship, you can murder somebody." Michael Vick. Gavel.
So now Howard's chirping has landed him in Los Angeles, which was not his first choice but is not a bad consolation prize, either, and Iguodala's grit has him headed to Denver.
There is a puzzling attitude among some fans that professional athletes should always adhere to the team's wishes, particularly on the subject of transactions. "If my company decides to transfer me to the Lexington, Ky., office, I don't have the luxury of whining about it like these overpaid slobs," the thinking goes. "I just have to pack up my things and move my family to the Bluegrass State." Well, no, not necessarily.
Let's say Bill is the Dwight Howard of investment banking. Bill works in Boston. He makes a mint, but if at any time a competing firm or client offers him more money, Bill can quit and take a new job whether or not he has a contract. Seriously, contracts get broken all the time, and often people simply work out some agreement and move on. At the same time, if his firm did try to transfer him to Kentucky, Bill could just shrug and tell them to take a hike. He could then get another multimillion dollar job with another Boston firm — because he is a star of the banking world, remember.
Howard, Iguodala and other professional athletes do not have this luxury. If the Knicks suddenly wanted to offer Howard $50 million a year like that competing company in Boston offered Bill, they could not. A contract subject to the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, a salary cap, a luxury tax and all manner of factors prevent Howard from leaving whenever a better offer comes along. Similarly, if Iguodala does not want to move to Colorado, he cannot simply quit and sign with another team to stay close to home. Thanks to the NBA, the Sixers have a de facto monopoly on basketball in the Philadelphia market.
None of this is to say that Howard, Iguodala or any other 20-something who gets paid eight figures to play a game for a living has a raw deal. But well-paid employees in other industries enjoy freedoms that athletes do not. The only time athletes really have leverage in negotiations is when their contracts are up for renewal — a fact the representatives for Howard, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and numerous other star players recognize.
Iguodala is not a superstar of the caliber of those players, but he is an All-Star and an All-NBA defender who has regularly posted better or similar win shares per season than Bob Cousy, Hal Greer, Tony Parker and Earl Monroe to this point in his career. He never took the Sixers hostage in order to dictate a new destination, yet he left for London to represent his country in the Olympic Games as a Philadelphian, and he returns a Denverite.
A few players like Howard may be able to game the system, but most players, like Iguodala, are merely pawns in that system — well-paid pawns, but pawns regardless. And unlike Howard, most of them do not spend the majority of their time complaining about it.