Counting Your Lucky Stars – Thoughts on Maurice Jones-Drew, Dwight Howard, and Player-Team Dynamics in Sports


A couple weeks ago, fellow Black and Teal writer Daniel Lago discussed the parallels between the situations of Dwight Howard and Maurice Jones-Drew.   Mr. Lago argued that these situations are almost completely different – a sentiment I agree with being a diehard fan of both teams.  Yet, the situations of these two players – these two faces of the franchise – got me thinking about how teams value their stars, how stars value their teams, and how my two favorite teams might not have their best players when they start next season.

One of the reasons Dwight Howard wants to leave the Magic is to go to a bigger market – a city like New York or L.A. New York, where he can become not only the face of a basketball team, but of social and popular culture (The irony of the situation, of course, is that he’s finally gotten the publicity that he craved; yet it’s caused him to tumble from grace in the eyes of his teammates, fans, and the greater public).  With a recent set of twitter quotes, Dwight Howard shot back at the Magic organization for denigrating his public perception.

On the other side of the spectrum is Maurice Jones-Drew.  MJD was not a heralded number one pick like Dwight Howard was.  He wasn’t expected to become the star of a franchise, much less its centerpiece.  The contract he’s playing on is worth about as much as Howard’s rookie deal.  Yet, both Howard and MJD have been the faces of their respective franchises the past four or five years, and yet both will be replaced, albeit for separate reasons (Howard due to a poor relationship with the organization that can be blamed on both parties, and MJD due to a developing young first-round quarterback).

At the crux of these two situations is one more similarity – both Howard and Jones-Drew are set to play for teams that will struggle in the 2012-2013 season.  While Howard’s Magic have quickly fallen from the zenith that was the 2009 NBA finals, Jones-Drew’s Jaguars have been recovering from such a demise (post-2007) at a frustratingly slow pace.  Yet, despite this similarity, Howard and Jones-Drew  have had different reactions to their team’s struggles – Howard is looking to bail from his struggling team, while MJD is looking for a payday.

People often say that loyalty is dead in sports… and there’s no sport where that’s truer than in basketball.  As soon as Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen got traded to the Celtics, there’s been an incredible amount of free agent activity, and even collusion, amongst stars in the NBA.  You see, in the NBA, stars are looking for more than money – they’re looking for other stars to play with because they’re looking to win.  Shoot, money is almost guaranteed, as even B and C-list stars are getting max-level contracts (I’m looking at you Brook Lopez).  For guys like Lebron James, Dwight Howard, or even Deron Williams, there is no question that they’ll get paid – so other things like championship win-ability, celebrity status, and marketing opportunities become primary concerns.   In the NFL, however, money is always the primary concern… and is always haggled over.  A top three player at the most important position in football had to haggle for months to get a new deal that paid him like one.   Yet somehow, stars in the NFL almost always remain with their teams.  Who expected the Saints and Drew Brees – or the Lions and Calvin Johnson – to actually not come to an agreement?  The last NFL star to sign with another team was Peyton Manning, and that situation took the NFL by storm.  But in the NFL, the planets must align perfectly for a team to actually let its star be signed by another team, while in the NBA, sagas like those of Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, and Lebron James are sadly but expected.

So why are NFL players more loyal than NBA players?  The same reason why the American colonies fought with the British during the French and Indian War – they don’t really have a choice.  The NFL is like the 1700s – an era of limited rights and limited freedom – and the NFL’s franchise tag is the major determinant of both the relationship between the player and his team and the players’ freedom to switch NFL teams.  Because the franchise tag essentially allows teams to restrain players from signing with another team for a certain number of years in a row, NFL teams have far more leverage and control over contract negotiations and “player loyalty” than NBA teams do.  The NBA’s restricted free agency and Bird Rights simply don’t compare.  If the Jaguars didn’t have a couple more years of franchise tags in their back pocket, they might be more willing to start contract negotiations with MJD in this offseason.  If they didn’t, MJD is perhaps more likely to feel disrespected by his team, that they’d let him get into the final year or so of his deal without even discussing an extension.  Similarly, if the Magic could slap a franchise tag on Dwight Howard, it wouldn’t matter how much he pouted – he’d be with the Magic for at least 2.5 more years unless the Magic got an offer that came within 85-90% of his value.

Because player freedom is more restricted, it’s harder to trade for players in the NFL because NFL teams expect to trade at close to 100% value.  Whereas, in the NBA, the combination of inflated contracts given out liberally and a lack of control after the contracts end makes trades far more likely because teams would rather sell at a severely discounted price.  As a result, contract negotiations in the NBA are relatively quick and painless; instead you risk overpaying pseudo-stars and losing your real stars.  On the other hand, while you won’t lose your stars in the NFL, contract negotiations are an excruciatingly time-consuming procedure.  Pick your poison.

— Zain Gowani