Hard to Tell Whose Contract Is Worse
By HARVEY ARATON
It has often been said, never more so than in the past few weeks, that Alex Rodriguez’s contract could be the most onerous individual deal ever struck by a professional sports team. But as we turn from the Yankees’ great power failure of October to the start of a new Knicks season in November, here comes Amar’e Stoudemire to give A-Rod a run for his supposedly unearned money.
Stoudemire will begin the season pretty much where Rodriguez finished his: on the bench, trying to ignore increasingly strident denunciations of him as a brittle and payroll-busting albatross. Stoudemire’s left knee, in which he recently sustained a ruptured cyst and which will now need to be surgically cleaned out, will sideline him for up to two months. And the long-term prognosis — it’s always something — does match Rodriguez’s continuing affliction.
In terms of sheer magnitude and organizational magnanimity, it seems like a reach to compare Stoudemire’s five-year, $100 million contract to Rodriguez’s 10-year, $275 million haul, which could reach around $300 million depending on since-discredited home run benchmarks. But factoring in a few apples-and-oranges variables does raise an intriguing question: How can A-Rod’s deal be the absolute worst when, within the same city, Stoudemire appears to be having a more deleterious effect on the Knicks’ ability to so much as sniff championship contention.
Let me say that I am not in the habit of blaming any athlete for what he or she negotiates and shall not begin here. But frustrated fans generally do not absolve the highest-paid players for their perceived failure to live up to their contracts, because it’s the performers who are the ones on stage, within earshot. Furthermore, it’s not as if Hank Steinbrenner or James L. Dolan are about to work the phone bank for season-ticket renewals.
But let’s be abundantly clear: nobody forced either franchise to commit to these now-regrettable deals. Unlike the Yankees in the case of Rodriguez, the Knicks can at least defend the Stoudemire signing by insisting they had no other workable option: in the summer of 2010, they were spurned by free agents more prized than Stoudemire, and this after a two-year roster purge and grand promises made to the long-suffering New York fan base that better times were directly ahead.
Stoudemire would have probably remained in Phoenix had it come close to the Knicks’ maximum offer to a player the Suns drafted out of high school and developed into an All-Star. He did, however, “embrace the city and the Knicks” — as Donnie Walsh, their former president, reminded me recently — when others wanted no part of the daunting challenges of New York.
“You don’t realize how hard he works, how much he does, just to keep his knees going,” Walsh said. “I had no idea he was that good a guy and, in a way, that’s what the most refreshing thing was.”
That impression, unfortunately, was based on the first one Stoudemire made on New York, when he was healthy and the hub of a revived and appealing young team. It is also the one Walsh apparently took with him upon leaving town after Stoudemire’s first season with the Knicks, only months after the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony dramatically altered the core conditions under which Stoudemire arrived. (That’s another debate, not the one we are having here.)
We have since seen a different Stoudemire, ailing and ornery after the shotgun marriage to Anthony. Few people believe Anthony and Stoudemire, given their disparate styles as front-line scorers, can successfully coexist, and fewer expect that Stoudemire’s knees will allow him the privilege of again being an elite player.
With three years remaining on his deal, Stoudemire is probably as untradeable as Rodriguez, at least until he approaches the final year and becomes a potential asset as an expiring contract in another team’s attempt to clear salary-cap space. And unless he soon reverses a pattern of decline, the nearly $20 million that he will earn this season will certainly limit the Knicks’ competitive prospects within an N.B.A. financial system that is more restrictive than baseball’s.
After a decade of fielding teams that were not only terrible but distinctly unlikable, the Knicks believed they were opening a multiyear window to contend with Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler in the prime of their careers. But with reinforcements long past their best days now added to a team that has won one playoff game in the last two seasons, the argument could be made that within two to three years the Knicks will be back to where they started in the summer of 2010.
Though the Yankees have expressed a strong desire to avoid paying steep revenue-sharing taxes in the future, they might just put that objective aside if the continued and costly presence of Rodriguez forces them to keep their payroll above $200 million. Even if they do bring the payroll down to the $189 million limit they covet, they will still outspend most competitors, even if you exclude the huge sum being paid to A-Rod.
And no matter how bitter Rodriguez’s contract tastes, and assuming he stays to the end, he will always have 2009, when he finally seized the postseason spotlight and the Yankees broke an eight-year World Series title drought.
The Knicks, in sharp, damning contrast, will note the 40th anniversary of their last N.B.A. title next spring. That, ultimately, makes their expensive mistakes more injurious to the greater cause than those of the Yankees. The malady known as “it’s always something” is exceedingly worse when there is never a full postseason of relief from the pain.