After 24 games, the Memphis Grizzlies have apparently agreed to a buyout of Antoine Walker's contract. While terms have yet to be announced, the NBA's version of divorce papers will allow the 32-year-old veteran to become a free agent and negotiate with any of the other 29 NBA teams that might consider him valuable. For those interested in the continued rebuilding of the Griz, this development is every bit as welcome as the team's first four-game winning streak since April 2006.
I enjoyed what may have been the team's finest start-to-finish performance this season on December 8th, a 109-97 victory over the Houston Rockets (the first game of the current winning streak). O.J. Mayo stole the show after the opening tip, with 10 points in the game's first nine minutes, and an admonished Rudy Gay -- he was late for that morning's shootaround -- came off the bench to score a game-high 20. But I left FedExForum with two fairly ugly images in the back of my mind: thousands of empty seats and Antoine Walker in a sport coat at the end of the Memphis bench.
The NBA's business plan doesn't work. Not any longer. Not in 2008. And this has everything to do with the skewed structure of the players' contracts, inflated salaries that drive up the cost of game tickets, leaving entire sections -- almost entire levels -- of NBA arenas empty. CEOs -- those still with their jobs -- can certainly shell out four figures for season tickets, or three figures for a few seats to a big game. But your average Memphis consumer (let's exaggerate and identify that person as someone making less than $100,000 a year) is tightening his budget and, if he's paying attention, wondering about the accounting department at his local NBA outfit.
Walker was never a part of the plan being implemented by Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace and coach Marc Iavaroni. His contract merely balanced the trade last summer that sent Mike Miller to Minnesota and brought O.J. Mayo to Memphis. For his toil at the end of the Grizzlies' roster (and bench), Walker was scheduled to earn $9,320,500 this season. For additional perspective, consider that Gay -- simply the team's best and most important player -- will earn $2,579,400, roughly twenty-five percent of Walker's pre-buyout take-home. There's no other company on the planet with that kind of salary structure for its staff.
The NBA has rules that don't allow a player's contract to be ripped apart (as they can be in the NFL). A franchise cannot tell the Antoine Walkers of the world to go away (at least not without paying him what his contract stipulates or offering a buyout which, in Walker's case, will include six zeroes). And this is precisely the breaking point -- in public perception -- with the NBA's business plan. Because the rest of us are learning the hard way how easy it is for bosses to say "go away". . . and without a seven-figure guaranteed contract (or buyout) to cushion the fall.
The Grizzlies deserve more fans in their arena, particularly to watch a club with the kind of youth, energy, and yes, talent that should lead to good things around the bend. But the scales of what the Grizzlies spend and what they ask of their consumers must find a sense of balance before those seats will begin filling. Among the empty seats at FedExForum, the first one to actually bring a smile this season will be Antoine Walker's.
You gotta love the breakout season DeAngelo Williams has enjoyed for the Carolina Panthers. The former Memphis Tiger has rushed for 1,229 yards in leading his team to a record of 11-3 and first place in the NFC South. Williams is fourth in the NFL in rushing, leads the league in touchdowns (16), and is a lock for his first Pro Bowl appearance next February. In the meantime, his Panthers have their sights on a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, with visions of Super Bowls dancing in their heads.