The Supermax is Super Bad for the NBA

The supermax contract was introduced to prevent players like Kevin Durant from joining superteams like the Warriors and to help small market teams retain their talent. It's on track to do a lot more harm than good for the teams it was intended to protect.

Like who really run this?

Like who really run that man that say he run this?

Who who really run that man that say he run this, run run run run this?

Like who really fund this?

Like who really fund who say he fund this?

Like who in the world gon' tell Donald Sterl who to put on the “you can’t come” list?

Source: Killer Mike on Lie, Cheat, Steal

Did Kevin Durant break the NBA? Did the Warriors ruin basketball? No, and no. Did the resulting reaction cause a lot of damage to small market teams who face a greater challenge in retaining their star players? Is the "supermax" contract hurting the very teams it was intended to protect? Is anybody surprised?

Durant's decision to leave Oklahoma City to join the 73-9 regular season Warriors was perhaps the greatest shake-up we've seen in terms of our collective attitude towards the league's rules (or lack thereof) to maintain any semblance of parity. Why is it, exactly, that the league can influence the Philadelphia 76ers to let go of their former GM (and tank prodigy) Sam Hinkie but can't step in and prevent the assembly of the greatest super-team of all time? If it was because Philly's deliberate and shameless tanking was hurting the league's bottom line, why has there been no intervention with teams like the Knicks who have been mediocre-to-awful for all but one season since 2000? Why, oh why can't the National Basketball Association and therefore our entire existence make sense?

Prologue: Screwing the Sixers

Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, make no mistake here: Philly got unjustly screwed by the other team owners and the league office.

Since the summer of 2014, NBA owners have been lobbying the league's front office to step in with regard to the direction of the Philadelphia 76ers, sources told on Monday night. It was that effort that helped lead to the hiring of Jerry Colangelo to a senior position earlier Monday, the sources said.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was instrumental in forming the partnership between Colangelo and 76ers owner Joshua Harris, according to the sources.

Source: ESPN's Brian Windhorst

The owners pressuring the NBA to act on the 76ers' tanking strategy implies that there's a standard they expect each organization to adhere to as far as pulling their fair share of weight (revenue) proportional to the market they're in. If the owners truly cared about that standard, Knicks owner James Dolan, and everybody who works for him, would have been fired into the sun over a decade ago (Kristaps Porzingis was traded to Dallas in a salary dump less than four hours after I wrote this paragraph). I'd make fun of the Bulls, too, but they sell out games because that city is apparently full of basketball-loving masochists. Or maybe it's a more religious approach out there -- so long as the church of His Airness is maintained, their god might rise once again. Praise be to the Zion (Williamson).

Changes in ownership are rare in the NBA because, among other reasons, it's unclear what standards one should uphold to keep their job. Donald Sterling was swiftly removed after a flurry of racist comments went public. Mark Cuban is evidently safe after harboring an unsafe work environment for women. Team success evidently has no bearing on their fate so long as the tickets keep selling. Coaches and general managers, however, could be canned at any moment, for any reason. That's all fine and good -- teams should be able to make personnel changes as they deem necessary -- but the team owners becoming a protected class (The "top one percent," if you will) is an inherently corrupt system where those that govern aren't subjected to their own rules.

These are the wrong people to cater to when it comes to changing the rules. And yet, the common appeal to fans against players having too much agency is that it hurts teams more than it helps.

Super Overreaction

Philadelphia's tank-fest inspired a change to the NBA lottery odds so that the worst team no longer has the best chance at the number one pick. Now the bottom three teams all have the same odds at 14%. The general attitude towards the new rules will be affected by where these teams land. The third worst team winning the lottery could be seen as a success while the worst team winning could mean the opposite. And if Cleveland stumbles into another number one pick... I'm burning something.

One change where we can already see the negative effects taking place is the addition of the supermax contract, which exists as a courtesy to anybody that felt cheated by Kevin Durant's decision to join the Warriors. Because the system is broken if Durant joins a dynasty instead of staying in Oklahoma City, right?

If you think the Warriors ruined basketball, let me ask you this: Do you think another team could recreate what they did? The Warriors were the Knicks of the West for the longest time -- drowning in mediocrity, but not without an injection of false hope after one faithful playoff run punctuated by a second-round exit. Here's a quick timeline:

1994-2006: The Warriors stink

2006-07: The Warriors won a playoff series! As the eighth seed!!!

2007-12: Bad again (oops)

2012-14: Apparently they're pretty good? Let's fire Mark Jackson and see what happens.

2014-19: The actual best team ever assembled. Stephen Curry, once plagued by injury concerns, becomes the best shooter of all time on a cheap contract. Klay Thompson becomes the second best shooter of all time and the lowest maintenance player of all time, on a VERY team friendly contract. Draymond Green becomes the best defender in the league on a (relatively) cheap contract. Kevin Durant signs in free agency after an inexplicable 2016 Conference Finals loss (followed by the Warriors' inexplicable Finals loss). DeMarcus freaking Cousins signs in 2018 because the league has cold feet over his Achilles injury. All the while, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are the perfect complimentary veterans. Do any of these things warrant a rules change? If anything, you might look at players choosing to sign for less than their market worth to keep the band together. But I don't think it's necessary.

So the supermax exists now. And here's how to qualify:

  • For a veteran player to qualify for such an extension, he must be entering his eighth or ninth season in the NBA, and have either:
  • made the All-NBA team (at any level) in either the season immediately before signing the extension, or two of the three previous seasons;
  • been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in either the season immediately before signing the extension or two of the three previous seasons; or
  • been named NBA MVP at least once in the previous three seasons.

Additionally, the team offering the extension must have originally drafted the player, or obtained him in a trade while he was on his rookie contract.

Players who qualify can be offered contracts with a starting salary between 30 and 35% of the salary cap. The extension cannot last more than five years after the expiration of the player's current contract (or five years for a player who is a free agent when signed), but can be negotiated and signed one year before the current contract expires. The extension can be offered to a team's own free agent as well as a player with time left on his contract. Additionally, once a player signs a DVPE, he cannot be traded for one year.

Source: Wikipedia

Who is the supermax for?

Seriously, who is the supermax contract for? It sure isn't for Kevin Durant, who's been taking one-year deals on a discount since leaving the team that drafted him.

It's not for Stephen Curry, James Harden, or Russell Westbrook, who didn't need an extra financial incentive to stay put.

Is it for John Wall, who qualified for it, signed the extension, and then suffered a season-ending injury before it kicked in?

That's an honest question. Does the supermax contract exist so the John Walls of the world can eat up all the cap space?

Again, for emphasis: Would you entrust the future of your franchise to a player of John Wall's caliber? If you say 'yes', you're contractually obligated to only watch Wizards games (in which Wall will not be participating until at least next season) for the next five years. Those are the rules now.

Players like Anthony Davis opting towards free agency (if not traded first) says a lot about the effectiveness of supermax deals. You can't even pay me to stay in New Orleans. That's the kind of message it sends. Or if that's too extreme, then it at least reveals that a better contract doesn't play a central role in his decision. Why? Because the money he can earn from endorsements in a big market can offset any money lost in turning down the supermax. Fun fact about brand endorsements: No salary cap! That's, like, endless money.

So who is the supermax for, exactly?

There's no evidence that it affects free agency, so maybe it's not there to make players happy. Maybe it's just there for franchises to feel like they have another tool at their disposal. Perhaps it's a bandage for the wound Durant left on the league. If that's the case (and I think it is), then it's like putting a cast on a paper cut. Instead, it puts teams in an impossible position. Let's say the Wizards wanted to retain John Wall (owed $46 million in 2022-23) without paying him the supermax. What are they supposed to do? Tell him that they want him, but not badly enough to pay him? Because if they do, they've lost leverage. The only way to keep him is to fork out the money and, in turn, sacrifice more cap space to keep your star player happy. It's a lose-lose.

Conclusions and solutions

It's pretty easy for me to sit here and say things are broken. Coming up with meaningful solutions is a lot harder. How about this: make it so that supermax contracts don't increase the luxury tax. Teams will have less top-heavy payrolls and could theoretically be swayed to spend more on role players as a result. It works in theory, but in practice, it would likely lead to ridiculous bidding wars for role players. When the cap spiked in 2016, teams didn't spend more wisely. Instead, they were aggressive. Yet another reason to not cater to the needs of ownership -- they often can't get out of their own way.

The current collective bargaining agreement is in effect until 2023-24, with a mutual opt-out as an option the year before. My hunch is that we're getting more band-aid fixes since fixing the root problem -- governing based on overreactions -- has no real solution of its own.

Rules are dictated by money. Free agency sometimes isn't. It's an imperfect system we'll have to live with.

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