Championships on the Cheap
However, one that I find to be very important, seems to get lost in the discussions. This trait is a star player's willingness to take a pay-cut.
We all feel bad for Kevin Garnett. Poor KG - he has no supporting cast. Poor KG - it isn't his fault. Well, it might not be his fault on the court, certainly. He is remarkably efficient and anchors a (surprisingly) good defense despite being the only strong defensive player on the team. Despite his mediocre clutch-time capacity, he is one of the top 5 forwards in the league. But off the court? I argue that some of his team's woes are his own doing. Garnett takes one of the highest salary's in the league and makes it very difficult to build either a deep team or hire many talented teammates. In fact, he holds the 3rd highest single-season salary record, and also has led the NBA in salary for 4 straight season. During that expensive run, his T-Wolves got out of the post-season once, and he also had a 13-18 playoff record (a terrible 41.9% win-loss record!).
Hogging up the salary cap seems to be a quick way to kill the development of your team. Of the top 40 highest paying seasons in NBA history, only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Rasheed Wallace have won rings in any of those seasons. Certainly this is not inflation adjusted, but my point will eventually about Duncan (a player in the modern era) so things like inflation adjustments serve only to further demonstrate what little pay he takes.
Enter Duncan. He has 3 rings, 2 MVPs (should have 3), 3 Finals MVPs, and has been a perennial All-NBA and All-Defense Team member (only player in history to be on both each of his first 9 seasons in the NBA, and will likely make it 10 this season). His highest paying season ever comes ranked as #47 on the list at $15 million. More perspective. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway, J-Kidd, AI (yes I like his play, but his terrible contracts cost him talented teammates), Starbury, Kobe Bryant (yeah he sells jersey's, but call me back when he is on the same plateau as Duncan), and even Michael Finley have made more money and have enjoyed loftier contracts.
I think the irony is that of all the players on the list (except for Jordan, possibly...) Duncan is the one who least needed to purchase his own teammates. He can play up-tempo (remember when he wiped the floor with Nash, 4-1, playing fast two years ago) or the slow game - he defends extremely well in both situations, and is phenomenally offensively efficient. There is not another player on that list (other than Jordan) who can do this. Even today, if you were to pick 1 player to build a team around (the rest of your team is arbitrary/random) - Duncan would clearly be the consensus choice.
What is even more interesting is that - over the last 20 years - only 4 of the championship teams had the highest paid player. 2 were Jordan seasons (97, 98) and 2 were Shaq seasons (2000, 2006). That's it. End of story. It gets even more interesting if you start looking at percentage of maximal salary that the key player on a winning team held. The lesson learned is that unselfish players who are willing to give up 20-40% of there salary (like Duncan giving up $13 million relative to Garnett) are able to attract qualitity players. Just think, with $9 million he bought Horry and Brent Barry. Consensus is that Duncan is a better player at the end of the day than KG (who is also great). Now certainly Duncan + Horry + Barry + $4 million > KG, no?
Thus, in addition to being a great leader, clutch-performer, defensive stalwart, multiple-time MVP, and the most consistent player in the post-Jordan era - perhaps Tim's greatest virtue is his unselfishness - his willingness to concede $15 million year in and year out and instead opt for talented teammates while emphasizing that character matters a damn lot in a sport where most stars lack it.