The Price to Pay
Issue   |   Tue, 04/09/2013 - 21:37

If you’re an NBA player, sometimes there’s recognition for the sacrifices you make. To be exact, every year, at least one NBA owner rewards his team’s sacrifices in spectacular fashion — custom gold-encrusted rings laced with jewels. Of course that means most players come up empty-handed. Worse, it means that simply to have a real chance at recognition, sacrifice is necessary. But just how much is necessary?

The roster of the Miami Heat provides some answers for this thought experiment. For the past two seasons, the Heat have made their way to the NBA Finals. This year, they again look locked in after securing the top seed in the playoffs amid a 27-game winning streak (the second-longest such streak in NBA history). The Heat have relegated the remaining NBA teams to second-tier status; superteam is more apt a description for professional basketball in Miami. The team is of course built around three premier players (the first two being surefire Hall of Famers): LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. If assembling a superstar cast will ever amount to championship-level team excellence, our generation’s Miami Heat are the team to do it.

But it’s not easy to pull off such a coup in the NBA world. In fact the summer of 2010 was a free agent bonanza in the NBA, with a handful of superstars set to leave their teams; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sat with Bosh at the top of the heap. And the Miami Heat hit on all seven’s, landing all three.

Recruiting Bosh to join the troika was critical. He is not the best player on the roster, but having him is the difference between fielding an excellent team, and fielding a championship contender that can go toe-to-toe with anyone. And for that reason, it would not have been hard to recruit him. He would get to play with arguably the two best players of his generation in their primes. The Heat would be all but guaranteed to perennially compete for the championship. And if he didn’t join the Heat, whatever team he did join would have to beat them anyway.

The catch was that he’d earn less with the Heat than he could have earned elsewhere. Bosh’s former team, the Raptors, had the right to offer him a loaded six-year contract. With the Heat, he’d have to sign that same contract, but earn $15 million less over its lifetime. Chump change that is not.

On the heels of winning his first NBA championship with the Heat last season, Bosh needn’t look past the weighty championship ring on his finger for vindication. And for a man who will make hundreds of millions of dollars during his career — and compete for more championships in the foreseeable future — $15 million might be a drop in the bucket.

But even with the problem of playing for a contender solved, Chris Bosh’s sacrifices playing for the Heat extend beyond dollars and cents. In fact, blood, sweat and tears notwithstanding, his sacrifices may very well extend beyond those either of his two all-star teammates have made.

In each of the three seasons he’s played in Miami, Bosh has seen his scoring and rebounding averages decline — just as the 29-year-old should have been peaking, athletically. Bosh has played 204 games in a Heat uniform, averaging 17.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. But in his last 214 games in a Raptors uniform, he averaged about 23 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. That difference of about five points and 2.2 rebounds per game is massive.

To understand the significance of that drop-off, we have to wonder how much more productive Bosh would have been as a member of the Raptors. He likely would have been the number one option on his team during that time, and maintained the scoring and rebounding averages he showed in his last few years. And even though his scoring and rebounding arcs point to a continued decline in his production with the Heat, let’s suppose he maintains averages in the neighborhood of 18 points and 7.7 rebounds. Based on a relatively healthy past, let’s further suppose Bosh plays 70 games per season in Miami. If he plays the full length of the contract he signed with the Heat, means he’ll have missed out on 2,100 points and about 925 rebounds in six years.

To put that in perspective, I could tell you that while with the Raptors, Bosh reached scoring and rebounding peaks of 24 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, respectively. That year, he totaled fewer than 1,700 points and about 760 rebounds on the season. So that abdicated production amounts to more than a season’s-worth of play for Bosh — at his peak.

The difference between first and second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list? A grand total of 1,459 points. Not that Bosh is ever going to threaten breaking that record. But if he continues along his current scoring arc and ends up in the neighborhood of 19,000 points for his career (well within reach even if he retires early), all his forsaken scoring amounts to the difference between 50th and 32nd on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Similarly, Bosh was never an exceptional rebounder, but even at his current pace, he’ll likely collect enough to crack the NBA’s all-time top 50. Those 925 rebounds he might have amassed on a team where he was the centerpiece separate the top 50 from the top 35.

Bosh is a premier player in the NBA, but unlike Wade and James, his performance has never been so transcendent as to guarantee him admittance to the Hall of Fame. Again, the point here is not that Bosh won’t one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a member of the Heat, nor that he would have necessarily been enshrined had he signed with the Raptors in 2010. But every player cares about his legacy; that Bosh was willing to look past it speaks volumes.

We can climb back into the owner’s box to find out just how much that legacy is worth. Remember that the Raptors were willing to offer Bosh a lucrative contract back in 2010, hoping he would replicate the production of his first seven years in the league. That contract offer would have averaged about $21.6 million per year. Up until that point, Bosh’s final season had seen him total fewer than 1,700 points and 760 rebounds. So giving up 2,100 points and 925 rebounds is foregoing production worth a cool $21.6 million.

Bosh, in giving up a more lucrative contract and his centerpiece status to join the Heat, left something in the neighborhood of $37 million on the table. And that’s to say nothing of his possibly diminished chances at the Hall of Fame.

But that’s the thing about sacrifice — the bigger the stakes, the higher your motivation not to lose. More than a necessity for winning, sacrifice is a bulwark against losing.