LeBron James may not be the most popular NBA player. But among the NBA’s upper class (i.e. players making more than $10 million), LeBron is the most underpaid.
This little piece of wisdom is just part of my latest for Freakonomics. The main point of the article was that the NBA’s small market teams can certainly afford the top talents in the NBA. This is because the NBA controls the price of labor (i.e. imposes a cap on individual salaries). This price control, though, forces teams to find some way to attract talent beyond just throwing money at the players. And this means that the NBA is increasingly like college basketball.
In college basketball the top talents migrate to programs like Kentucky, North Carolina, or Kansas. These programs are not in big markets. But they do give players a chance to compete for titles. This is very much the same reason why Dwight Howard wants to depart Orlando, why LeBron left Cleveland, why Garnett left Minnesota, etc.
This story was written directly in response to a column I saw in the Salt Lake City Tribune. In reading this article, which claimed a small market team like the Jazz couldn’t compete in the NBA, I thought of how else an NBA team could attract talent (beyond the throwing money at the player approach). And that led to think of my own free agency four years ago.
Four years ago my wife and I decided that we needed to leave California. The air pollution in Bakersfield was bothering my wife, and I doubted we could afford to live elsewhere in the state. Plus, I was thinking that my daughters would be better off in a smaller town (and so would their father).
At the time, I was told to apply all over the country and see if I could find a job at a much higher ranked institution (in essence, I was told to go to a big market). Unfortunately, my wife and I didn’t want to live all over the country. In fact, we really wanted to live somewhere in the mountains, in a place with four relatively mild seasons, very little pollution and crime, good schools for my children, not much traffic, scenic views, national parks, a place where you can ski and golf on the same day (not that I ski or golf, but I like to know you can :), and a relatively low cost of living. And it would be great if in the middle of winter you could drive a few miles and leave the snow behind. In other words, we wanted to live in Cedar City, Utah (a place that also happens to have a very good school called Southern Utah University).
Our experience led me to wonder if the Jazz could use the obvious advantages of living in Utah to attract athletes. After all, that worked for my family. Of course, it is possible that a 40-something college professor has a different set of preferences than a 20-something professional athlete. Nevertheless, if there are any athletes who are considering more than just titles, Utah might be a great place to consider.