Here’s why the Astros know better than just “getting what you pay for”

The Astros know how to shop for a bargain. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

I don’t own an NBA franchise. I don’t work in a team’s front office. I’m not cutting player checks. I’m not good with money. I passed on buying Xerox stock at $2 a share because I thought carbon paper was doing a terrific job.

But what the hell is going in the NBA with these outrageous salaries being handed out? Zion Williamson (five years, $193 million), Darius Garland (five years, $193 million), Zach LaVine (five years, $215 million), Ja Morant (five years, $231 million), Karl-Anthony Towns (four years, $231 million), Nikola Jokic (five years, $264 million), Bradley Beal (five years, $251 million).

Exactly how much is the NBA making on its TV deal in China? Either the NBA has bottomless money streams or it’s comforting to know that former Enron accountants found work.

I am not a talent evaluator for the NBA, either, although I’m thinking that real NBA scouts would have stuck with carbon paper, too. Let’s go to the big board: Kwami Brown (career scoring average 6.6 points), Markelle Fultz (10.9), Ben Simmons (15.9), Anthony Bennett (4.4), Greg Oden (8.0), Stromile Swift (8.4), Darko Milicic (6.0), Hasheem Thabeet (2.2) and Evan Turner (9.7) were No. 1 or No. 2 overall picks in recent years.

According to professional basketball scouts, they were the absolute best, can’t miss, top prospects in the NBA Draft the past 20 years. All were, to be kind, flawed players, either poor shooters, injury-prone or, in a couple of cases, problem children.

Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers signed Damian Lilliard to a two-year contract extension worth $122 million. That’s more than $60 million per year for the 2025-26 and 2026-27 seasons when Lillard will be a 6 ft. 2 inch guard in his late 30s. There’s a lot of those around in the NBA these days.

Lillard just signed a four-year, $176 million contract last year. Lillard will make more than $50 million per year over the next five seasons. He is, for now anyway, the highest-paid player in NBA history, possibly the highest-paid athlete in the history of U.S. team sports. We don’t know what’s going on with superstar soccer players in Europe. We’ll leave that to the tax courts over there, which seem to be busy.

Lillard has a shoe contract with Adidas reportedly worth $100 million over 10 years. His signature shoe is the Adidas Dame. Lillard also has endorsement deals with Powerade, Modelo beer, Spalding, Panini, Foot Locker, Biofreeze and Hulu TV. He is part owner of the Damian Lillard Toyota dealership in McMinnville, Oregon.

Damian Lillard is a wealthy, multimedia NBA star. But is he a great player? Great is a subjective word. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo rise to greatness. They’re NBA champions. Is Damian Lillard in their league? Probably not. Let’s put Lillard up there, but a step below, with Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and that crew.

Lillard has played 10 seasons in the NBA, all with Portland. He was named to the All-NBA First Team one time (2018). He has played in six All-Star games, but never as a starter. Since Lillard joined the Trail Blazers in 2012, the team has made the Western Conference finals once, in 2018-19, and were swept by Golden State 4-0. They haven’t survived the first round since.

By the time Lillard hangs up his Adidas Dames, he will have made $450 million, just in NBA contracts.

The NBA pays the highest salaries in American sports. The average salary for an NBA player last year was $8.5 million. The top three earners for the 2022-23 season will be Steph Curry ($48 million), Russell Westbrook ($47 million) and LeBron James ($44 million). No arguing with Steph and LeBron, but who figured that Westbrick would be worth $47 million today? You want him on your team? He’s available for a LeBron rookie card and three pairs of worn Air Jordans.

Tobias Harris will make $38 million next year. Ben Simmons will make $35 million. Former Rocket Chandler Parsons retired this year. He averaged 4.5 points and $23 million his last four years in the league. He’s comfortable.

Gordon Haywood will make $30 million next season. Quick, what team does he play for now?

The three highest-paid Houston Rockets heading into next season are Eric Gordon ($19.5 million), Jalen Green ($9.4 million) and rookie Jabari Smith ($8.8 million). The Rockets’ actual highest-paid player will be John Wall, who will be playing for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets reportedly will pay Wall $41 million to play for another team. This is how the Bizarro Pro Basketball League operates.

Who saw this coming – James Harden as the voice of reason? The Beard is accepting a $15 million pay cut next season to allow the Philadelphia 76ers to sign his former Houston Rockets buddy P.J. Tucker. Of course Harden was scheduled to make $47 million next season, has already pocketed $227 million over his NBA career and will top out over $300 million when he’s done shooting step-back 3s.

By comparison, the average salary for an NFL player is $2.8 million. That includes dizzying $40 and $50 million per year contracts for elite quarterbacks. The median salary is only $860,000.

The three highest-paid NFL players for the 2022 season will be: Aaron Rodgers ($50.3 million), Patrick Mahomes ($45 million) and Josh Allen ($43 million). The highest-paid Houston Texans are: Laremy Tunsill ($17.7 million), Brandin Cooks ($10.3 million) and Derek Stingley ($6.3 million).

The average MLB player salary is $4.1 million. The three highest-paid players are: Max Scherzer ($43.3 million), Mike Trout ($37 million) and Anthony Rendon ($36.5 million. The Beatles sang that money can’t buy me love, but the Los Angeles Angels are learning that money can’t win baseball games, either. Despite having two of MLB’s highest salaried players, plus Shohei Ohtani and Noah Syndergaard, they’re still paying departed Justin Upton $25 million this year, and have a team payroll exceeding $180 million, the Angels’ record stands at 38-49 (and fading fast), 19 games behind the Astros in the American League West.

The three highest-paid Astros are: Jose Altuve ($29 million), Justin Verlander ($25 million) and Michael Brantley ($16 million.) The team payroll is about $130 million, gotta say, worth every penny.

Here's probably the best advice for teams throwing money at championships, courtesy of Ziad K. Abdelnour, multibillionaire investment banker and president of Blackhawk Partners private equity firm:

"Having loads of money doesn't make you better, spending it smart does."

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