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That player your favorite NBA team just signed? He’s worth it

And it’s arguable players are worth more than rules dictate they can be paid

One Twitter user is glad his team, the New Orleans Pelicans, didn’t give free agent Julius Randle the three-year, $63 million contract the 24-year-old received from the New York Knicks: “Not that he isn’t worth it, I just don’t want it to be my team that pays out that type of contract.”

Another account, this one apparently specializing in the lucrative business of Milwaukee Bucks internet memes (hence the handle, @memes_bucks), said former Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was traded to the Indiana Pacers and immediately signed for $85 million, wouldn’t have been worth “the extra $90 million the tax bill will cost in repeater [penalties]” to the team with the best record in the league last season.

Jimmy Butler, who eschewed the Philadelphia 76ers for the Miami Heat, isn’t worth the $142 million contract he signed because Butler’s “phony and a ball hog and would have blown up this team and would have been bad for [Ben] Simmons.” D’Angelo Russell? “Probably not worth” his $117 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. The Knicks (making multiple appearances, unsurprisingly) made the “right move” in not signing Kevin Durant because the former MVP is “damaged goods” and “not worth a max contract.”

Every professional sports league has a free-agency period — the NFL’s and NHL’s are still, technically, taking place — but the NBA arguably has the most popular period of player movement in all of sports. Maybe it’s because the league has the biggest collection of superstars across the globe. Maybe it’s because NBA games are broadcast to more than 200 countries. (Including Iraq and Iran. Who knew?) So while there are likely major arguments about whether Neymar was truly “worth” his €222 million transfer fee from Barcelona or if the Toronto Maple Leafs overpaid for John Tavares, NBA transactions receive the most media and fan attention.

Which elicits constant analysis, arguments and debates over the supposed worth of NBA players. Never mind that neither fans nor pundits actually pay the hundreds of millions of dollars in salary doled out by the league’s 30 clubs every season, there’s still an essence of ownership among these commentators when it comes to collective bargaining terms such as midlevel exceptions, Bird rights, repeater taxes and sign-and-trade salary cap configurations. What should be the most mundane months of the NBA calendar (the Finals ended less than three weeks ago!) have become a referendum on how much human beings are worth in a system where billionaire team owners exist.

It doesn’t help that the league is more than 73 percent black (Ricky Rubio, JJ Redick and Kristaps Porzingis were the few notable white players to sign new contracts this week), so the dehumanization of black athletes continues into the offseason, with players viewed as currency anxiously waiting to be exchanged through a transaction. The league has become a “high-priced reality show,” as L.A. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said Monday evening on SportsCenter.

NBA owners, since players began to organize in the 1950s under Bob Cousy, have attempted to undercut players and suppress wages at every turn. Before 1964, owners couldn’t afford to pay player pensions. Before 1967, owners couldn’t afford to pay players for exhibition games. Before 1971, owners couldn’t afford for players to have their worth determined by an open market. (Here’s a bit of irony: Players are supposedly overpaid, yet it was owners who negotiated for the designated veteran extension, or “supermax,” pushing player salaries into Major League Baseball territory.)

These “cries of poverty,” as National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts would put it, have worked on the American public: The Bucks shouldn’t re-sign Brogdon, just the eighth member of the “50/40/90 club,” because the team would have to pay a few million dollars into the luxury tax. Never mind that Bucks co-owners Wes Edens (who had a take-home salary of $54 million in 2016 from his day job) and Marc Lasry ($280 million in income in 2013) were given a gift of $250 million by Wisconsin taxpayers to build the Fiserv Forum.

And it’s arguable that players are worth way more than the salary cap dictates they can be paid. Players help bring in billions of dollars in revenue, from merchandise and gate sales to jersey sponsorships and arena naming rights to television contracts (ESPN and Turner Sports reportedly paid $24 billion to broadcast NBA games through 2025, and individually, Spectrum Sports agreed to broadcast Lakers games at a reported $3 billion over 20 years). Last year, ESPN estimated that LeBron James would likely be worth at least $64 million a season if free agency were a free market. Yet, James’ four-year, $153.3 million contract ranks just 16th in the league as of July 2, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“Why can’t people just celebrate these guys getting paid? Instead of comparing and talking about who ‘deserves’ what. You are worth whatever someone will pay you … young dudes (black or otherwise) getting multi millions is a beautiful sight,” Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet tweeted Monday afternoon.

NBA players sign contracts, but they are not a series of digits and decimal points. When Russell Westbrook signs a $205 million contract extension or Bobby Portis receives a $31 million deal, it’s because they were worth it to a team. Players can’t even be technically overpaid: Teams have to spend at least $98,226,000 this summer. The money has to go somewhere.

But if a team can’t afford to dip into luxury or repeater taxes, or can’t afford to build a roster around a $200 million man, the owner should, in the immortal words of one of those owners, “sell your team.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"