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Art Thiel Weighs In

Art Thiel writes a postmortem on the departure of Rashard Lewis

We know there's a large external factor muting the response. Longtime fans have begun disengaging because of a perception the Sonics are approaching their final season in Seattle. I still think that part of the story has many turns yet, but the self-protective distancing is understandable.

Setting aside the Seattle despair, another NBA team thought enough of Lewis to guarantee him the maximum allowable six years and $118.5 million. The original total was going to be five years and about $95 million. But the Sonics induced the Magic into a sign-and-trade deal that brought them a second-round draft pick and something called a trade exception, an arcane virtue in fine print of the salary cap that keeps the NBA the favored league of tax-code lovers everywhere.

The fact that the Magic had to pay an additional $23.8 million to guarantee Lewis' final year at age 34, and didn't have a player or contract in return that a 31-win team thought worthwhile, sings to the stupidity of NBA economics as if it soared from the coloratura in a Mozart aria.

The only thing more foolish was that the Magic gave the max to Lewis.

He is not a franchise player. Not close. He's been an All-Star once. So was James Donaldson.

He's a good player, a good person and I hope he does well. But the contract makes no sense.

Got ya there. Good work so far. If Steve Kelley could write like this instead of being the sports version of Highlights for Children magazine, I could save a cyberstamp a week on e-hate mail. And that's no slight to Highlights For Children intended.

The Sonics supposedly have lost money for years, have no expectations for 2007-08 and would be thrilled to pay only the NBA's mandatory payroll minimum of $41 million. For purely financial reasons, not basketball reasons, owner Clay Bennett had no intention of keeping Lewis or Ray Allen.

(Bold is mine)

I still don't buy that entirely. If anything, it's a bit of both. If the team was really intent on cutting salary then why work out a S&T in lieu of letting Lewis sign a 5 year deal with the Magic? I suppose it remains to be seen, as Dick Tate would likely point out it depends on what they do with the $9 mil exception they received in the Lewis trade, and he's exactly right. I think you can make the accusation that Bennett's cutting salaries if the team doesn't do anything with that exception, or use it at the deadline to eat another team's contract for a future non-lottery pick.

Pending any last-ditch arena efforts, the new bosses appear to be exploiting a bad NBA system, bad previous Sonics management and bad luck. Under the easy-to-accept spin of skipping no steps to a Spurs-like future, they can foster more apathy with a dreary, training-wheels season that aids the attempt to see that that future doesn't happen here.

No team, including the Sonics, had any business paying Lewis a maximum contract. But the fools who did made it potentially a little easier to do the wrong thing for Seattle basketball.

No question, the NBA salary system isn't ideal. But strangely he tries to tie Lewis' situation to Ichiro's, which is totally different. One HUGE difference between Rashard Lewis and Ichiro is in their marketability. Dave Cameron over at USS Mariner wrote a great post a short while ago on Ichiro's new contract being a bargain considering his relative value to his peers. Perhaps wisely, he didn't try to quantify the off-field economic impact Ichiro also brings to the club as its most highly marketable player, choosing to state his case between the lines.

For all the fandom's love of Rashard as pretty much the only homegrown star player on the Sonics throughout the late 1990s-2000s, his game never captured the city as Kemp's did, or as Ichiro's has for that matter. This is interesting as MLB wow factor is as tied to hitting home runs as the NBA is to thunderous dunks. Lewis, like Ichiro was never a big time wow artist nor did he have the kind of charisma that can sometimes overcome a solid-all around game (think Grant Hill, who was highly marketable while possessing an excellent fundamental game rather than the more acrobatic stylings of Vince Carter, who was arguably Hill's closest contemporary in their respective primes). I think the public never really embraced Rashard as the face of the Sonics, partially because he served as "the other guy" in the transition from Gary Payton to Ray Allen and also because of the complete and total collapse of Vin Baker's career, which I am beginning to believe poisoned the fan well in Seattle so badly that subsequent blunders became unforgivable.

Ichiro is as valuable to the Mariners as an icon as he is to them as a center fielder, perhaps even more so. I would be willing to bet that the cost of his salary alone is likely mitigated by the amount of money spent by Japanese fans alone coming to Seattle specifically to see him play. (Unless of course you believe in the Nick Licata doctrine, where pro sports have no economic impact on the surrounding community). Rashard was never able to connect with the community in the iconic way that Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp and even Ray Allen to an extent managed to. I suspect it's probably because his era coincided with the decline of the highly popular Karl-era teams and the casual/fairweather fans moved on to the next thing ... but it's not as if it's been all skittles and beer in Mariner-land these past 3 or 4 years either.

Anyways, forgive me, I'm rambling here. It's obvious that the last paragraph of Art's column has more than a grain of truth to it. The NBA's bizarre economic system surely is playing a part in the possible exodus of the Supersonics from Seattle. However, rather than focusing on some quixotic quest to make some kind of statement or gesture to the world that Seattle's going to stand up to pro sports financial insanity by losing their team (as I've seen some posters suggest on various forums) realize that by not re-signing Rashard, Sam Presti did exactly that. You can't condemn the NBA's salary structure on one hand and then insinuate that the Sonics are cheap because they chose not to max out Rashard.