Lebron, Lee and your league

Sometimes it takes an extreme to shed light on the normal. July has seen two transactions on the “free” market notable for how much consternation they caused among the great and good. First Lebron James signed with the Miami Heat. Then Cliff Lee was almost traded to the New York Yankees. Believe it or not, these transactions (or near transactions) and the way we think of them can help us craft and enforce rules in fantasy leagues—particularly the dreaded trade veto.

The Lebron and Lee moments help by forcing us to evaluate what’s fair and what’s good. They help because all to often we let anything that is “fair” be considered also “good” when they need not be the same.

By teaming up with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, James has made the Heat the presumptive favorite to win and the prohibitive favorite to at least get to the finals next season. In a sport where one or two players make most of the difference, superstar players inevitable shift the balance of competition when they move teams. This was an extreme case, perhaps the most extreme in NBA history.

Was it too extreme? Evidently not, at least according to the NBA, which guards its marketability fiercely. I have zero doubt that folks in the head office know whether it is better for their league (and in a sense for fans) to have deep, NFL style competition with many teams rising and falling each year or whether it is better to have dynasties reigning (though I’m guessing they’d prefer two at once, a la Lakers-Celtics in the 1980s rather than one, a la the Bulls in the 1990s).

James is and should have been free to sign as he wanted. I have no qualms about him leaving Cleveland since that was his wish. But I am sure that the league would have found a way to squash the Heat deal if it had thought it was bad for the NBA (see for instance the Ilya Kovalchuk deal in the NHL). Leagues find ways to do these kinds of things usually (particularly outside of MLB, which has a stronger player’s union), whether for the good of the owners directly or for the good of the owners via the good of the fans (i.e., the more fans that like the league, the better).

The Lee deal to the Yankees is another story. If he had been traded to the Evil Empire, New York would have leaped from marginal favorite to return to the World Series to extremely likely to win it. I doubt the league would have in any way inhibited the deal. But I’m not so sure that Bud Selig wouldn’t have liked to block it if he could have (had the trade happened, of course). MLB loves that the Yankees are perennial contenders; it likes to have a team that everyone either loves or hates. But, whereas I think many casual NBA fans like to see “greatness,” I wonder if the marketing people in MLB haven’t found that casual fans in baseball prefer controversy, game-winning suicide squeezes and Cinderellas. Sure the Yankees don’t win every year (flukes can happen—this is targeting a certain ESPN Baseball Today personality who thinks that because the Yankees don’t win every single season it isn’t bad for baseball that they trade for all-star after all-star), but do we want a system in which they win way more than any other team? Random chance would mean they win one out of every 30 years. They win one out of four.

What would you have done if you were commissioner? Let’s suppose that you are like David Stern, that the written rules can be made or ignored as you please. Would you have overturned either deal? Would you at least consider it or would you tie your hands behind your back because each side had acted in its own best interest (the Heat and James, Seattle and New York)?

So if I’ve carried you this far, no doubt (at least) two things have occurred to you:
{exp:list_maker}Trades that are good for each side are not always good for the league.
It is a fine line dividing common good versus personal penchant. {/exp:list_maker}

I wrote last year about trades that may be bad for the league while benefiting both teams—one classic case is the dump trade. Dump trades end the season for all but one or two teams. A team that has an outsized lead is not likely to mean-revert once it picks up all of the last place teams’ high priced veterans in exchange for a few minor leaguers and some growth potential. By and large, it is better to have explicit rules constraining behavior that hurts the league (such as a rule that says that a team that trades a first-round pick must get at least, say, a third round pick back in return). But if two teams have found a loophole, far better to veto the trade than to let it go, hurt the season, and try to close the loophole for next year.

Of course, there is this fine line—the delicate balance between acting for the common good and acting for one’s one good or just out of spite. It is pretty easy to dislike a trade just because it helps the first place team (even if you like the leader). Many of us are naturally inclined to root for the underdog. Should we feel differently about the first place Rangers getting Lee rather than the first place Yankees? The Yankees were arguably in a more competitive division…

The voting system for vetoes helps here. One man’s opinion doesn’t reign. But alas nothing and no one is foolproof, except for David Stern and Bud Selig of course.

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Nice article.  A couple quick comments…

“Should we feel differently about the first place Rangers getting Lee rather than the first place Yankees? The Yankees were arguably in a more competitive division…”

The difference in treatment stems from the difference in payrolls.  That’s not to say that we necessarily “should” feel differently, but it seems fairly obvious that that’s why we would feel differently.

I think it’s also safe to remove the “arguably” qualifier.  The Yankees are clearly in the tougher division.

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

I have the dump trade issue in my league right now. I had a huge lead but one of my competitors was able to turn a bunch of mediocre youngsters into a roster of stars and now holds a difficult 5 point lead on me (and a better roster, he has the talent while I’m scraping together all the shifty fantasy techniques I can employ with an average roster). No other team is within 20 points and only 1 team is actively trying to catch me (12 team keeper, 1st and 2nd pay out). My response is to institute a… Read more »