Buss wasn't alone in being upset. "I think it was something that Mr. Katz wouldn't have done in another business which is his livelihood," says Drossos, "because his investing public would think he isn't playing with a full deck. How can we as a league tell the world, the players, and the fans that we're in financial trouble when one of our partners, who was apparently sane at the time, offers a player $13 million and gives up a draft choice [Sampson?] and another quality player [Caldwell Jones] worth maybe $20 million? How can you explain doing that unless somebody is holding a gun at your head? I don't blame the players and the Players Association for laughing when we say we're losing money."
The Dallas Mavericks, who are entering their third season in the NBA as one of the league's most improved teams, have carefully avoided the free-agent market and what general manager Norm Sonju sees as the "quick fix" mentality of some teams. "The Moses deal just doesn't add up mathematically," says Sonju, who delivers his sermons on fiscal responsibility with evangelical zeal. "It won't work. What they did was subtract Darryl Dawkins, then they subtracted Caldwell Jones, and they say, hmmm, it's not going to cost us that much. The problem is that what it does is fracture the salary structure of that team. Surely the Doctor [Julius Erving] sees what Moses is making, and he has to wonder why he's not worth more." That, folks, is the ripple effect in full force.
Buss has been one of the league's most frequently criticized owners because of the Lakers' enormous payroll, but even he is talking about retrenchment now. "My guess is that this thing is going to settle down and salaries will decrease in the next three to five years," Buss says. "If you notice, the people who had gone into the free-agency market in the beginning haven't gone in for a second dip. I suspect everybody is going to take at least one plunge for a superstar-type player, but after you've done that once you've really limited your ability to go back in."
Stepien, one of the biggest busts in the free-agent market, evidently found some truth in Buss's postulate. After spending $700,000 a year for Center James Edwards and $800,000 for Forward Scott Wedman last year and getting nothing in return but abuse and the worst record in the league, Stepien stayed out of this year's market. The fact that the Cavaliers took in $2.8 million last season and paid their players $3.7 million, finishing the year with a total operating loss of $5.1 million, may have had something to do with that.
"The situation we have now is a result of pure greed and shortsightedness by new owners who want to wear a championship ring right away," says K.C.'s Axelson, a 13-year veteran of the league and the NBA's vice-president in charge of operations the past three years. "They've been successful in their own business ventures, and they want to be equally successful in this one." Buss, who made his fortune in Southern California real estate before buying the Lakers, and then won the league championship in his first year, probably wouldn't dispute that. But Buss believes there is another factor at work in the rapid escalation of player salaries.
The world-champion Lakers spent most of the off-season trying to sign Bob McAdoo, a veteran free agent who helped them win the title last June. Buss concedes that both fan pressure and the possibility that without McAdoo the Lakers might not be as good as they were last season weighed heavily on his mind during the negotiations. As a result, when the team reached agreement with McAdoo last week, the 31-year-old forward got more than he's worth (but less than the Sixers had offered him). Really, Buss paid more for No. 1 draft pick James Worthy—an estimated $500,000 a year—than he probably would have had to if he had been able to sign McAdoo earlier.
"I can determine what is reasonable to pay McAdoo based on the finances of the company," Buss says. "If I decide to pay him more than that, I have to raise ticket prices even further, or I have to take a loss and subsidize him out of my own pocket. The pressures on me if I don't sign him are that I'm subject to being second-guessed if I lower the competitiveness of my team. And I also upset the fans who adore Bob McAdoo. From a public-relations standpoint, I don't want to do either of those things because it begins to affect my gate. And when that happens I can afford even less than before. The only thing to do if I don't want to gouge my fans is to limit the salary I'm going to pay him. But when he compares the numbers I offer him to those being paid comparable players, he sees he's not getting enough and wants more. It becomes a domino effect. It sounds insane, I know. If I offer $600,000 and he wants $800,000, I have to consider that $200,000 difference and wonder if it's worth fan alienation and competitive drop. The tendency is to give in."
The Golden State Warriors made the same kind of decision last year when they agreed to renegotiate Forward Larry Smith's contract, which had two years to run. "It's not easy to sit in the stands and hear people booing your team because you won't give a player the kind of money he wants," says Warrior Executive Vice-President Ken Macker. "Eventually you succumb to fan pressure. What's ironic is that so far it hasn't been CBS or cable TV that's been paying for the player's new contract. It's been that man in the stands who's doing the booing."
Almost every NBA owner would like to find himself in the situation of the NFL owners—the players on strike because the two sides couldn't agree on how to split $1.6 billion. Some NBA owners feel that the road to NFL-like parity of earnings is a revenue-sharing arrangement similar to football's. The trouble is, most of the teams that are making money, or expect to in the near future, see no reason why they should bankroll the spendthrifts. Dallas owner Donald Carter is still angry at the owners who repeatedly changed the terms of his franchise's entry into the league, and sees no reason why he should ever share his revenue with teams that might be on the verge of folding. "They made us dance naked, dance naked and dance naked," Carter has said. "They won't get any sympathy from me to bail them out."
In their negotiations with the union, the owners had at first hoped to get some financial relief by imposing a salary cap on each team—the sum of $2.8 million has been bruited about—but Special Master Kingman Brewster ruled that limiting salaries would also unjustly limit the mobility of free agents. Since that time the league has asked the players to be "reasonable," and for the time being the owners have a unified bargaining position. No one knows how long that will last. "People don't do the normal thing in the NBA," says Kansas City Kings Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. The players start with a built-in advantage in any negotiations because of the owners' fractiousness. "Believe me," says Axelson, "there isn't going to be any concerted effort in this league."