The Role of Performative Gestures In NBA Contract Negotiations
The Cavaliers and Warriors have met in 3 straight NBA Finals. We compare them endlessly, but never as it relates to their organizational culture with negotiations. Now is the perfect time to do so.
“Negotiation is not limited to international affairs. It takes place everywhere where there are differences to conciliate, interests to placate, men to persuade, and purpose to accomplish. Thus, all life could be regarded as a continual negotiation.” — Fortuné-Barthélemy de Félice
Sports are often viewed as an escape, a reprieve from reality as we indulge ourselves in a world where the laws of physics that bound the world are continuously tested by athletes most can only imitate in our minds. Because of this, we often think that athletes are free from many of the things that we “everyday people” are subjected to. But athletes aren’t Supermen disguised as Clark Kents, walking among us even though they aren’t bound by our reality; they’re subjected to some of the most basic things we’re subjected to.
If life is but a series of negotiations that take place one after the other, as Fortuné-Barthélemy de Félice surmised, then no man beneath the stars should be free of them. Athletes are not exempt of this, as they, too, are governed by the same basic human needs that govern us: security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, and control over one’s life (Fisher & Ury, p. 50). And when these basic human needs are not met, they, too, are subjected to conflict and have to take part in negotiation.
Take NBA (National Basketball Association) players, for example. Their contract negotiations are not much different than what you would find in other walks of life. They come to the proverbial negotiation table looking for most, if not all, the same needs you or I would want met. It is then up to higher-ups to balance those needs with their own, if that player is one the organization wants to retain.
To accomplish that, organizations often have to use performative gestures, acts and displays performed in order to meet certain expectations (Friedman, p. 85). These performative gestures, although rarely explicitly labelled as such — are often a means to the end of meeting a player’s needs. This paper will examine the role such performative gestures play in NBA player contract negotiations by analyzing and comparing how they are used by two opposing organizations, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
Points of Analysis
Performative gestures are of note because while they are increasingly relevant in the NBA, they are not exclusive to professional basketball, or even Sports. If we define a performative gesture as a symbolic act performed as a means to the end of acknowledging the receiver’s interests, then performative gestures have been a part of negotiation for a long time, with the most notable example being the show or “gesture of goodwill” often found in Business.
Just like acting in show business is scripted, one way to identify whether an act is a performative gesture is to consider whether or not that act has an established script. Even without a deep knowledge of Business negotiations, many of us would know that “hardball”, or “tough talk” (Hampson & Zartman, p. 37), entails a certain directness and “don’t budge one bit” attitude. This established way to act makes it performative.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors organizations were chosen not only because they happen to be two of the most relevant teams — the two have met to play for the championship each of the last three seasons — but also because both organizations’ track record with player contract negotiations in those same three years have been diametrically-opposed.
One of the key points of analysis will be what is referred to as the “max contract”, a contract designation under the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that sets a player’s salary as a function of the league’s salary cap — the total amount organizations can spend on players, without penalty.
The max contract is of significance because it has come to not just represent the highest salary a player can receive, but also validation of worth and respect of value, two things that are basic human needs. Because of this, giving a max contract to a player has also become an act performed to show that an organization appreciates a player’s value and an acknowledgement of their needs.
NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement 101
Every season, based on “Basketball Related Income (BRI)” the league earns in the previous season, a league salary cap is set. That salary cap, as previously-mentioned, is the most teams can spend on player salaries, without penalty. As an example, the salary cap for the upcoming 2017–2018 season has been set at $99.093 million (NBA.com).
Because there exists a limit on how much teams can spend on players, there is also a limit on the salary that can be given to any one player. Assuming a player’s on-court performance warrants it, the maximum annual salary a player can receive is set as a percentage of the salary cap. This percentage is either 25%, 30%, or 35% (all three are considered “max contracts”, not just the 35% variant), depending on the years of experience that player has (National Basketball Players Association, p. 36).
These details of the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement are important because we must first establish an understanding of the relevant foundational components of player contract negotiations so we can properly understand certain details of the cases that will now be outlined and discussed.
The Cleveland Cavaliers
In August 2015, it was reported that Cavaliers Power Forward Tristan Thompson had rejected a $80 million contract that would keep him in a Cavaliers uniform for 5 more years (Feldman, 2015). Reports claimed that Thompson and the Cavaliers had verbally agreed to this contract earlier that summer, but after seeing the contracts his contemporaries signed, Thompson decided to turn down the offer, saying he was looking for “a max contract of [5-year] $94 million” (Windhorst, 2015).
His reported position was that the $16 million annual salary the Cavaliers offered was less than what was given to players around the league he viewed as equals, as well as the fact that his teammates who share similar roles on the team all had missed numerous games due to injury and he had not missed a game in several seasons. He also believed that other teams would pay him even more the following summer when the league salary cap was projected to skyrocket. (Windhorst, 2015)
Thompson’s reported position gives us insight into his interests. Regardless of whether or not those he viewed as equals were in fact so, Thompson was looking for recognition. It’s less about the $3 million a year difference between what the Cavaliers offered and what he was looking for, than a “we view you as an integral piece of our team like x team views y player.” His argument regarding his availability also hints at his desire for acknowledgment, as his role on the team and productivity increased during the Finals after a teammate who plays his position suffered an injury and couldn’t play.
Across the table, the Cavaliers organization held the position that the 5-year, $80 million offer was “a fair-market contract” (Windhorst, 2015) and remained firm on this stance. It is then fair to surmise that Thompson and the Cavaliers had different views on what Thompson was worth to the team. They wanted to retain Thompson, but only at a reasonable salary.
The decision to remain firm on their position was standard “tough talk”, as it was a display that “expresses firm position” (Hampson & Zartman, p. 34). In this case, Thompson was looking for a symbolic gesture from the organization that acknowledged his needs, but the organization performed one that reaffirmed their own. In the end, the two parties settled on a 5-year, $82 million contract, and it can be argued that it was less than ideal for both: Thompson was still paid less than what he believed he deserved and the organization overpaid to keep him.
A year later, in September 2016, the Cavaliers found themselves in a similar situation, this time with Shooting Guard J.R. Smith, who was reportedly looking for a contract that would give him about a $15 million annual salary (Vardon, 2016), but the Cavaliers had reportedly offered Smith a contract that would net him closer to $11 million a year (Herbert, 2016). The main source of the agreement, however, was reportedly not the money, but the length of the contract (Moore, 2016).
Smith’s position, coming off of a season in which he played a significant role in helping the Cavaliers win the championship, was that he wanted a longer contract. Smith also had some leverage because the Cavaliers were already $22 million over the league salary cap — partially the result of the aforementioned Tristan Thompson contract. This meant that the team could not spend money to replace him with a player not already on the roster, but, because of a rule in the CBA, could go over the cap to retain him.
Like Thompson, Smith’s position also gives us insight into his interests and needs. A player seeking a longer — 4 or 5 year — contract typically does so because they have one need that comes before all else: security, which is, again, a very basic human need (Fisher & Ury, p. 50). Up to that point in his career, Smith had largely taken shorter contracts in hopes of setting himself up for a chance to play himself into a bigger payday. Now that he had, he wanted a contract that would give him the security he didn’t have before.
The organization’s position, on the other hand, was that not only were they significantly over the salary cap — meaning they would have to pay a significant tax — but a longer contract would take Smith to his mid-30’s, the age where player production generally starts to decrease. They also wanted a certain level of future financial flexibility that would not be possible with multiple hefty, long-term contracts on their payroll.
What resulted was a stalemate almost identical to that of Tristan Thompson’s from the previous year with the two sides agreeing on a contract after several months. The contract they agreed to was a 4-year, $57 million deal. However, while NBA contracts are typically fully guaranteed, only 3-years and $45 million of Smith’s contract would be fully guaranteed (Windhorst, 2016). Again, the final agreement was less than ideal for both: Smith did not get the security he wanted and the organization had to raise their original offer.
The Golden State Warriors
In early July 2017, Kevin Durant signed a 2-year, $53 million contract to stay with the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant is widely regarded as a top 3 current player in the NBA who was eligible for a max contract that would have gotten him approximately $35 million a year (35% of the salary cap). Instead, he took a contract that gives him an annual salary of $26.5 million, which, by NBA standards, is a significant pay-cut, and there were absolutely no signs of disputes. Furthermore, the decision is largely believed to be voluntary.
In The Art of Contract Negotiations, former NBA agent David Falk says “leverage is the bottom line in my business” (Falk, p. 7). Indulging that for a moment, Kevin Durant had all the leverage. Last summer, he made a very unpopular decision to leave the team that drafted him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to join the Warriors, an already historically-great team, all but ensuring them another championship. He was already a top 3 player at that point, and he played like it, winning the Finals MVP award en route to winning this year’s championship.
The Warriors, on the other hand, were in no position to deny Durant a max contract. Durant not only helped ease the pain of an embarrassing loss to the Cavaliers in last year’s Finals, he greatly reduces any margin for error stopping the Warriors from winning more championships. His on-court performance was everything they hoped for, and more, and he had gotten them the result — another championship — they wanted.
Prior to the final agreement, it was reported that Durant was not going to take a max contract and would, instead, opt to take a contract closer to 2-year, $63 million (Ziller, 2017), which was already a pay-cut he did not need to take, but he ended up taking an even larger one, of his own volition. Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr called Durant’s decision “a remarkable gesture” (Chiari, 2017), and referring to it as a “gesture” is apt, as it was an act performed as a means to the organization's desired end of continuing to win championships — an end, or interest, Durant acknowledged because it’s one he shares.
That same week, Warriors Point Guard Stephen Curry agreed to a maximum 5-year, $201 million contract to stay with the team (Golliver, 2017), giving him an average annual salary of $40 million (35% of the salary cap each year, as the salary cap continues to increase). No hints of contract disputes were reported, as you would expect, but there was also no reported disputes between Curry or the organization with Durant, who took a pay-cut.
Like Durant, Curry was in a great position. He won the regular season MVP award twice before this season and also led the Warriors to a championship in 2015, all while being significantly underpaid, as a result of a contract he signed earlier in his career amidst chronic ankle injuries. Curry wanted a max contract — there were no reports he would take less — and the organization was in no position to deny him of it.
The interests of both parties were also very straight-forward. Curry wanted a max contract to make up for his being underpaid the previous two years. He wanted recognition in the form of economic well-being and security. The organization, recognizing Curry’s value, gave him the max contract he wanted, simultaneously achieving their goal of retaining him at any cost.
A Glaring Contrast
How is it that the Warriors can give a player the richest contract in NBA history and also get a player who deserves a max contract to offer to take a pay-cut, but the Cavaliers can’t even negotiate market-value contracts without a summer-long standoff? How does one explain this glaring contrast?
One obvious answer is that, in the case of the Cavaliers, both Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith were and are not considered to be top-tier players to the Cavaliers, leaving more room for tension and conflict, as their value to the team is more subjective, as opposed to the Warriors with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, whose value — being two of the objectively best players in the league, let alone the team — is undeniable.
That’s a valid explanation, but what makes the comparison of the Cavaliers and Warriors so interesting is that, unlike other organizations that have contract disputes, there exists a larger factor that explains their contrasting results with contract negotiations. And the answer becomes obvious when we zoom out and look at the two organizations’ other contract negotiations.
Just this summer, negotiations for the Cavaliers include: refusing to pay the General Manager, David Griffin, who put together their current team — a team who has made it to the Finals in three straight seasons, and won a championship — a market-value contract (Windhorst & McMenamin, 2017), and offering potential replacement GM, Chauncey Billups, a “low-ball offer” far below the average market value (Winfield, 2017).
On the other hand, negotiations from this Summer for the Warriors include: signing free agent Nick Young to a 1-year, $5.2 million contract, retaining starting Center Zaza Pachulia on a 1-year, $3.5 million contract, retaining David West on a 1-year, $2.3 million contract, and signing free agent Omri Casspi on a 1-year, league minimum $2.1 million contract.
One may read the list of Golden State’s signings as the organization being frugal and demanding players take pay-cuts, but this is not the case. Two of aforementioned signings, Young and Casspi, were on different teams last season, so the correct reading of their signings is that they took less to join the Warriors. The other two, Pachulia and West, did the same thing last summer and actually received pay-raises this summer.
All four signings are much closer to the league minimum contract than the league maximum contract, and, once again, no negotiation disputes were reported. This contrasts the Cavaliers, once again, whose signings/non-signings have all been, as reported, tense. This contrast makes clear that the cases surrounding Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry did not occur in a vacuum, and, in fact, are a continuation of an organizational philosophy and trend, a trend explained by one thing: culture.
Culture, Negotiation, and Performative Gestures
The contrast between the Cavaliers and Warriors organizations is best attributed to a “cultural variation in negotiation behavior” that “differ[s] in terms of the degree to which subjects will define a negotiation task as cooperative or competitive” (Carnevale, p. 311). This is closely related to the concepts of Individualism, which “pertains to [cultures] in which the ties between individuals are loose” and Collectivism, in which people of a culture have “integrated into strong, cohesive ingroups” (Carnevale, p. 312).
The culture of the Warriors organization, in our case, would be that of Collectivism, while the culture of the Cavaliers organization, then, would be more aligned with Individualism. Negotiations that take place within the Cavaliers organization, as described above, are tense and standoff-ish. They are competitive. Negotiations within the Warriors organization, then, are cooperative; “in-group goals have primacy over or overlap with personal goals” (Carnevale, p. 312), as exemplified by Kevin Durant turning down a max contract to assist the organization in retaining and signing other players.
The fact that the Warriors have gotten to this point where players voluntarily take pay-cuts to stay with the team should not come as a surprise, because the Warriors have openly modeled their organization and team after the San Antonio Spurs since the hiring of current Head Coach Steve Kerr, a former player who played for the Spurs. The Spurs are not only known as the most consistently successful basketball team, but also the most well-run organizations in the league. And it is all attributed to their culture, as “conflict is antithetical to Spurs culture” (Arnovitz, 2017).
The practice of players voluntarily taking less money originated with the San Antonio Spurs and the culture that was instilled by their Head Coach of 21 years — the longest tenured coach in all major U.S. Sports — Gregg Popovich, Hall-of-Fame player David Robinson, and future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan. This is a culture in which the “primary question in player evaluation for the Spurs, in the words of Popovich [is]: ‘Has this person gotten over himself?’” (Arnovitz, 2017). This is an allusion to what the NBA refers to as the “disease of me”, a term coined by Pat Riley, another influential figure in the NBA’s history, and all of it alludes to the aforementioned culture of Collectivism.
Which brings us back to performative gestures. In competitive, individualistic cultures — in our case, the Cavaliers organization — performative gestures are rare, conflict-provoking — like “tough talk” and “low-ball” offers — and unidirectional. On the other hand, in cooperative, collectivist cultures like the Warriors organization, performative gestures are regular, done towards shared interests, and can occur from all directions, whether from organization to player, in the case of Curry’s max contract, or from player to organization, in the case of Durant turning down a max contract.
The role of performative gestures, then, is as an indicator. Whereas the absence of performative gestures would be a likely indicator of a more competitive negotiation, one that is more like a game of “moves and turns” where “positioning is central” (Kolb, p. 255), the presence of performative gestures would likely indicate a cooperative negotiation that more resembles a dialogue, where inquiry, participation, conversation, creation, and collective mediation take place (Cayer, p. 173).
Although the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors organizations have been given labels in the process of this comparison, it is important to recognize that it is not meant as a complete critique of the Cavaliers organization and praise of the Warriors organization.
One could argue that Kevin Durant taking a voluntary pay-cut is detrimental to the league, as it perpetuates a precedent that puts the onus of making sacrifices on the shoulders of players and not the billionaires that own the teams. In the capitalistic world we live in, players like Tristan Thompson or J.R. Smith fighting to earn the most they possibly can — in a sport where the lifespan of earning potential is limited — can be seen as just and empowering. After all, that is part of the reason Free Agency exists, a right that players did not always have and had to be fought for by a previous generation (Rhoden, 2017).
It is important to understand that this is an analysis of a negotiation practice and not a judgement of its use. We, as humans, have a tendency to view things through a “good or evil” lens. This is often a false dichotomy, as not everything is inherently good or evil. Performative gestures are not inherently good or bad; they are simply a tool we use, so whether they are good or bad is dependent on how we use them.
We began by discussing the relationship between Sports and the world. If Sports are a microcosm of the world, then something that exists within Sports, like performative gestures, should also exist in the world, and this, in fact, is the case. There is no better example of this than “small-talk”, which consists of acts we all know how to perform. “What’s up?”, “look at this fine weather”, and other scripted things we repeatedly say are all a means to the end that is our interest to avoid awkward silence. Such encounters may not resemble popular definitions of negotiation, but they are. What is life if not continuous negotiation?
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