The Fix Is In: No More Max Contracts

I love the NBA. You love the NBA. You don’t? Stop reading then, dummy.

Anyways, the league is in a great place right now, in terms of talent, popularity, and level of play, but that doesn’t stop it from being plagued with issues like “Super-teams” and “Tanking” and “Hack-a-Shaqs” (it should always be “Shaq” stop putting in other players’ names it’s no longer a beautiful poem).

NBA nerds like me have countless suggestions for fixing the problems facing the league. I don’t want to do the dirty work of actually coming up with ideas myself, I just want to critique the ones that are already floating out there. So I’ve decided to use my amateur writing skills and well-below-average knowledge of the inner-workings and business side of the NBA to do so.

This is: The Fix Is In.

Tonight, the Golden State Warriors will attempt to close out the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the NBA Finals, completing what would be an historic 16–0 run through the 2017 Playoffs.

A lot of people have a lot of problems with this.

It started last July when Kevin Durant, one of the top players in the NBA, left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Warriors. A team that finished the 2016 season a literal nut-kick away from repeating as NBA Champions after completing the regular season with an all-time best record of 73–9.

Durant would be joining two-time league MVP Steph Curry, along with two other bonafide superstars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, plus one of the strongest supporting casts in the NBA to create the latest in Super-teams.

Oh yeah, maybe it actually started when LeBron James went on national television with a bunch of children and decided to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami…or, wait, maybe it was when Danny Ainge brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Celtics to team up with Paul Pierce, or maybe…

Not one…not two…oh, actually, none.

Parity has never been the NBA’s bread and butter.

The NBA is driven by stars. With only five players on the court at a given time, the game is less cog-in-the-machine, everybody has their small part to do like football and more…this:

Not exactly that all the time, but you know what I mean. In the NBA you’ve always needed a superstar to win. Even when the league was smaller, dynasties would arise around the teams with the best-of-the-best. It’s always been that way.

The latest trend in building championship monsters is the “strategy” of getting as many great players as you can to sign with your team and surrounding them with solid role players and aging ring-chasers. While Golden State certainly built their core “the right way” with smart draft picks and crafty free-agent signings, the addition of Kevin Durant launches their franchise, and the entire concept of the super-team into another stratosphere.

Many analysts have pointed to the fact that the league’s salary structure, having maximum contracts for players, is a major contributing factor to the imbalance at the top of the league.

When there’s a cap on how much an individual player can make, it becomes easier to build teams with multiple stars through fancy salary cap finagling, or convincing max-level players to take slightly lower than max pay to build a juggernaut of a team. After all, they’re not really leaving that much money on the table.

Now THAT’s a lot of money on a table…and drugs!

Doing away with the max salary is a proposed way to let the market correct this issue. Players could be paid what they were truly worth, and would need to turn down much more in earnings in order to build a super-team.

Under the current rules, Kevin Durant can sign a contract worth a maximum of 30 percent of the team’s salary cap, which represents a number much lower than his actual value to his team. Doing away with the maximum salary would allow a team to offer him whatever they’d like to entice him to play for them. Want to offer him 99% of your total cap space? Why not, trot out Kevin Durant and a bunch of rookies/minimum contract guys and see if you can win with that.

That’s the beauty of getting rid of the max-level contract: it allows teams to approach team-building from much more creative angles. They can choose to pay true value to players like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and fill the rest of the roster with carefully chosen role players to complement their star’s talent, or they can spread out the wealth to some second-tier stars and role players to create a more balanced team. It would truly test the time-honored sports battle of “Super Duper Mega Stars” vs. “Beautifully Balanced Team Game”.

There’d be more nuance to restructuring than simply getting rid of the max-level contract. The salary cap itself would need to be evaluated. Should there even be one (I think, yes) should it be a hard-cap, or should there be flexibility that allows teams to go over in certain situations (resigning their own players, signing players to minimum contracts, etc.)?

What do you do about the draft? Some have proposed doing away with the draft completely, and allowing incoming rookies to sign with any team they choose (which is probably a topic for an article of its own). This idea does seem to pair nicely with eliminating the max level contract and allowing teams to create cap space to offer incoming potential stars bigger money than the current rookie scale allows.

It’d be a gamble, throwing big bucks at yet-unproven players in an attempt to land the game’s next superstar, and another way to allow for creative, analytic-based team building strategies to rise to the top of the league. General Managers would become even more crucial to a team’s success than ever before.

The nerds win! The nerds win!

But, let’s just say we keep the draft as-is, lottery in place, with the worst teams having the best chance at the best picks, allowing them to lock up players for the first four years of their careers (with none of the current rookie max salaries though).

This wouldn’t do much to curb single-season tanking for teams at the bottom of the league, especially in years with “can’t miss” prospects entering the league. But it could stop teams from long, drawn-out, multi-year rebuilds (that totally make sense under the current structure, TRUST THE PROCESS) but would no longer under the new rules.

Teams wouldn’t be able to use the theoretical tank-and-draft-well method to throw a few seasons, acquire three or four top draft picks who all pan out, and become a home-grown super-team. True superstars would leave for greener pockets after their first contracts were up. The best-case-scenario for the strategy would end in heartbreak over-and-over again. Any team that tried it would be setting themselves up to be the next Oklahoma City (sorry, Thunder fans.)

Theoretically there would still be nothing stopping players from taking less money than they’re really worth in order to form super-teams. Well, except for the sweet-sweet-cash and most likely extreme pressure from the Players’ Union to make sure they’re getting paid what they deserve.

It could also hurt the players in the middle of the pack. Giving more money to the stars at the top could mean there’s less money for the players who aren’t stars, but also deserve more than a league minimum contract.

Even these potential negatives point more to issues with the current structure than the new model. The current structure allows for players like LeBron James to be paid at the same level as players like Mike Conley, DeMarr DeRozan, and Al Horford — all great players, but nowhere on the level of a franchise centerpiece like LeBron.

How many players in the league would truly deserve out-of-this-world money? I can think of four “For Sures” and a handful of “You Can Talk Me Into Its”.

For Sure:
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Steph Curry
Anthony Davis

You Can Talk Me Into:
Russell Westbrook
James Harden
Kawhi Leonard
Giannis Antetokounmpo

That’s it. Those are the only guys truly worthy of saying “here’s all our money, we’re going with you and a rag-tag-group-of-so-and-so’s” to.

Right? Who am I missing?

If a team wants to back a truckload of money up to somebody else’s door to lure them to sign with them, nothing is stopping them. Except for the fact it’s not a good plan and they will lose a lot of games.

That should allow the market to correct that potential problem right away. The guys at the top will get what they deserve, some teams may overpay for players that truly don’t deserve the pay they’re getting, but the losses will pile up fast and force them to adapt. That leaves the middle wide open for balanced teams with balanced salaries.

The deeper I get into this already way-too-long analysis, the more I’m on board. What, did you think I planned this out before I wrote it? No way, I’m flying by the seat of my pants, baby.

Ok, Aaron, you’ve clearly been thinking about this for too long. Wrap it up.

Maybe it’s not perfect, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of better-than-what-we-have-now. If superstars want to join together and create super-teams, fine, nothing is stopping them, but they’d truly be sacrificing a hell of a lot of money to do it. So, even if they did it, you gotta respect the sacrifice they’re making to do it!

It completely changes the narrative of super-teams from that of ruining the competitive nature of the game to “look how unselfish these guys actually are, you can’t hate a bunch of guys who want to win so bad they left a billion dollars on the table to do so”.

And guys probably don’t really want to win more than they’d want a billion dollars.

Oh, no. Does this ruin basketball with capitalism? Or save it?

I don’t know any more. What do you think?