The Step Back

Nerlens Noel’s restricted free agency is a lesson in business and respect

It’s not totally unique, but the current state of negotiations around Restricted Free Agent Nerlens Noel is pretty unusual. That is, it’s been about a hundred years since NBA free agency began (approximately), Paul George has already played a full season for the Thunder, then 10 for the Lakers and retired, and there still hasn’t been one whisper of an offer of any sort to a guy a lot of people thought would get a max offer. We don’t know what the Mavericks have offered him, and we know nobody else has sent him an offer sheet. We may all die before there is a resolution.

There is at least one logical explanation for this, but it’s just not good enough: the Mavericks have let it be known they’ll match every offer. So why would you try? That never really completely stops teams trying, though. The Mavericks themselves heard that about Houston’s Chandler Parsons a couple of years ago, but still made a toxic enough deal that Daryl Morey turned out not to be able to stomach it. There was very little doubt the Wizards would match on a max offer to Otto Porter Jr., but it didn’t stop the Nets from giving it a shot. Now, the Nets could give it a shot again, or the Hawks, or whoever.

And yet, Noel goes on, without receiving any offers, apparently until the heat death of the universe. We can assume the Mavericks have made an offer of some kind that is lower than he wants, and that they’re both hanging out until he either gets a bigger offer or sees the writing on the wall and takes theirs. And yet, that probable reality just makes things more complicated. The max for Noel is roughly $25 million a year. Let’s say the Mavericks have offered him $20 million. If they really are willing to match any offer, shouldn’t they be willing to go an extra million or so at this point just to get it done? Before someone else talks themselves into an offer sheet? And if they’re actually not, shouldn’t someone else be willing to get in there?

Read More: How does anyone root for the New York Knicks?

All this is what I like to call an epiphenomenon of a phenomenon — in other words, it has happened before and it will happen again. The problem, where it comes to free agents of any stripe, lies at the intersection of the two mutually exclusive forces in the basketball universe: respect and business. Some things are about respect. Some things are about business. Usually, both are important. The problem, such as it is, comes when one concerned group expects the other to understand business when the other expects to be respected.

Of course, this comes up all the time. The most popular outcome for fans and front offices is for players they like to come back at decent prices. They want the player AND cap space. Fans often, unreasonably, expect players to recognize the honor of playing for a team and take less. Nobody sneezes at a max contract for some guys but almost everybody else gets lowballed on Twitter. If, then, the player wants more, the player is making a business decision. If the team think it’s smart to offer less, that, too, is business.

You have to make business decisions. The salary cap sheet has to look as good as possible. But you also have to recognize that lack of respect can make players unhappy, and that player happiness is actually important. In other words, you can do a business, as Vincent Adultman put it, but you can’t actually expect a player — or, often, even an owner — to understand it is just business. That’s the calculus.

The Mavericks have had a particularly bad history on this side of the equation — making Tyson Chandler wait, twice, while they struck out on guys they wanted more and expecting him to understand. The Heat, memorably, lost Dwyane Wade by not prioritizing him. Of course, there’s danger in the other direction, too. The Knicks, I’d say, “respected” Joakim Noah a bit much. The Trail Blazers “respected” a young core that now seems way too expensive for its production — I’m looking at you, Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner. Meanwhile, every team in the league has to play the long game a little. When Chris Paul closes a door, sometimes, Milos Teodosic opens a window. But, as salaries explode and the NBA’s middle class shrinks, respect is what keeps players on your team, happy and producing. You just can’t have it all.

If you know you want a guy on your team, maybe even beyond the current contract, you should think about how much showing respect right now will make business easier tomorrow. If you’re comfortable with those chips falling wherever they may, cross whatever Rubicon you feel like. There is always tomorrow, but tomorrow may never come.

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