How and Why We Care about the Andrei Kirilenko Trade

"Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,

Loyal and neutral, in a moment?"

Macbeth. Act ii. Sc. 3

The rumored trade of Andrei Kirilenko to the Denver Nuggets has tested the patience of many a Jazz fan. This transaction represents a flash point for emotion precisely because it strikes somewhere near to the heart of the tripartite nature of sports in American society. Sport serves three different functions, and each function contains its own value system. Is the Utah Jazz a business? Yes. Is it a basketball team? Yes. Is it a social institution? Yes. The problem, then, lies in the fact that the way you run a business is different from the way you run a team and in turn the way you run a social institution.

Whenever you have two value systems, conflicts between them will inevitably arise. The things that make movies successful as art (subtlety, inventiveness, and novelty) are the very things that make them unsuccessful at the box office. If you want to turn a profit on a movie, you should make something with simple dialogue, semi-predictable plots, and well-known actors. If you look, you’ll see these values tensions all over the place: a university deciding between teaching and scholarship, a religious institution deciding between bringing in sinners and purifying saints, a museum deciding between engaging kids and preserving the artifacts, creating a Christmas lights display that is visible from the moon versus using more electricity than Switzerland, or an internal struggle between staying late to be a good employee versus going home to spend quality time with family. Wherever we wear multiple hats we find ourselves forced to choose between competing interests.

As I stated above, the Jazz reside at the nexus of three different value systems. Businesses have a primary obligation to turn a profit. Basketball teams have a primary obligation to win games. Social institutions have a primary obligation to unite people in common pursuits. But when you embody all three models, what is your overriding obligation?

Sometimes obligations line up nicely. If, hypothetically, there is a very good basketball player who has been on your team for a very long time, then it is good from both a winning (i.e. basketball) and loyalty (i.e. social institution) standpoint to keep said player around. Sometimes there is a formerly good player who has been around a long time but is now hurting the team. In that case the social value and the athletic value of keeping him around might be in competition.

For most fans, it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the business aspect of running a sports team. On the other hand, owners are almost invariably people who have made their mark in the business world. This means that the business component of sports ownership is something they understand more acutely and value more highly- even when they are not being tightfisted. Even if the owner has no problem spending lavishly without hope of financial return, he is most likely still wedded to the business model of understanding transactions.

Winning and losing, by contrast, is something fans understand quite well. Even if we lack the prescience to know which transactions will in fact lead to the best possible outcomes, we know what it means to think about winning and what it looks like to have it as the highest priority. Balance sheets and personnel reviews may not be an intrinsic part of the human condition, but people everywhere strive for victory in interpersonal, societal and athletic pursuits alike.

The social nature of sports shades into more complicated territory. We rely on the Jazz not only to captivate our attention with exciting play, but also to strengthen the bonds between us and even to teach us about morality. In the perfect world, we would support a team which wins the championship every year, gives us occasion to embrace (both literally and metaphorically) fellow fans who are complete strangers, and inspires us by modeling persistence, sportsmanship, and winning the right way. The team’s role as a social institution frequently divides fans against one another. Some would support a team which wins even if all the players used drugs, covered themselves with tattoos, beat their mistresses, and formed a Society for the Torturing of Innocent Kittens. (This is slightly similar to what Portland fans experienced during the JailBlazers era.) Other fans take the social nature of the institution quite seriously and would rather lose with dignity than win at all costs.

This brings me back to the competition between the different value systems required of the same organization. Upgrading from Carlos Boozer to Al Jefferson proved to be a relatively easy test case. He was expensive, underproductive on the basketball court (if he could be dragged onto a court in the first place), and a divisive me-first type. Happy trails! AK, however, forces us to confront an instance of value systems that are tugging at each other. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether Andrei is better than Boris or, more generally, whether player A is better than B. But what we also really need to be discussing is whether value C is more important than value D. Is it okay to kick a loyal employee to the curb for the sake of $18 million? That’s a difficult question which statistics will probably not help us answer. Are the Jazz a more or less praiseworthy institution if they trade Andrei and then flounder? What if they trade and flourish? Should the on-court result even matter in considering the social value of the trade?

These are difficult questions which likely will exceed our capacity to resolve. But if we want to understand what the front office is doing and discuss whether we agree with their decisions, then we have to look past the simple statistics and impressions we form of on-court matters. These are invaluable tools which we are right to ponder and debate. Ultimately, though, the Jazz are operated as a team, a business, and an institution. If that’s how they’re going to run, then we need to broaden our scope and learn how to balance these different value systems in a way that does justice to all three. And brings a championship.

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