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Over the next two seasons, NBA league MVP Kevin Durant will earn more than $39 million from the Oklahoma City Thunder. If his current on-court production sustains or (as is the likely case) improves, and his team continues to win at a championship-level rate, he will be monetarily worth far more than that number to the Oklahoma City franchise. If the NBA would do away with the idea of a “maximum contract,” even the penny-pinching Oklahoma City owners would offer Durant a contract approaching potentially that $39 million figure on a yearly basis if they were allowed, mindful of his talents and the expected massive uptick in the NBA’s salary cap.
Other teams would do the same, and Kevin Durant understands this. If an NBA team could clear $50 million in salary-cap space to sign Kevin Durant to a $50 million yearly contract, it would – because the problem of building around Kevin Durant under the salary cap is far more preferable to the problem of not having Kevin Durant on your team.
This is what Durant was talking about on Tuesday, in regards to the NBA’s cap on yearly player salaries:
Kevin Durant on the idea of doing away with max deals: "A lot of these guys are worth more than they're making."
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 7, 2014
One might quibble with Durant’s use of the phrase “a lot,” because you’d tend to want to limit that line to a certain, qualified few. LeBron James for his brilliance, Anthony Davis because of his outstanding production on a rookie deal, Kobe Bryant for his ability to lure in viewers, and maybe a couple more.
There might be many more, though. Players beyond Durant and LeBron might have a sound case, and it will be something to explore as the NBA evolves, and when the players opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2017. They’ll rightfully look to take in a more appropriate percentage of basketball-related income in the wake of the television contract the NBA will begin to earn during the 2016-17 season.
If the players want to attempt to eliminate maximum contracts from the equation, however, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban points out that there would be conditions behind such a move. Conditions that would radically impact the rest of the 400-strong NBA player lineup that don’t currently work in the maximum stratosphere. From Jeff Caplan at NBA.com:
“If you give up guarantees,” Cuban said, “it’s a trade-off.”
“It was discussed during the lockout time among owners, but never got anywhere. So it was just one of those trial balloons,” Cuban said. “I’m not offering this as a negotiation, I’m not suggesting it, all I’m saying is that was something we discussed before, and max contracts are always a big question, guarantees are always a big question. But we have two years before that’s even an issue, so no point discussing it now.”
“Our net effect of impact per team is significant, but it’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re just going to be making $50 million apiece,” Cuban said. “We haven’t gotten NFL money.”
When asked about a potential 2017 work stoppage, and how it would compare to the 2011 work stoppage that Cuban and his fellow owners pushed for, Cuban pointed out that “most of those guys are gone” in reference to NBA team owners. While it’s true that some owners from the 2011 NBA lockout have moved on, a more accurate quote would probably be “most of the general managers that these owners hired to run their teams are, thankfully, gone.”
Cuban isn’t wrong. And though the league is changing in ways we’re not accustomed to, history can serve as a template, here.
In the mid 1990s, the NBA had plenty of top-tier veteran players making quite a bit of money – players who also probably deserved much more money per year. Handily, most of these guys were represented by agent David Falk, whose cadre of clients helped work certain concessions into the 1995 collective bargaining agreement that effectively ended the NBA’s middle class. The U.S. government, its two political parties and their corporate supporters soon learned from and built upon his work.
As a result, scads of players that would be working today on contracts around the $5 million or $6 million per year range had to settle for the veteran’s minimum (as low as $247,500 per year) after top-heavy rosters spent all their money on high-end free agents under the league’s salary cap. Rex Chapman, most famously, worked for an average of over $300,000 in three seasons spent with the Heat and Suns between 1996-98, despite being worth 20 times as much even during the late 1990s.
Players also were caught between the two CBA eras, as could be the case a few years from now. When Michael Jordan made an NBA-record $33 million in 1997-98, Scottie Pippen (who had signed an ill-advised long-term contract extension in 1991) was the 122nd-highest paid player in the NBA. And he would have been ranked lower, if not for the endless amount of veterans working for tiny deals, alongside the recently established rookie deal salary cap.
The NBA’s 1998-99 lockout, for better or worse, changed that. Jordan and Pippen’s Chicago Bulls even decided to end the team’s dynastic run in hopes of throwing a Jordan-sized contract at Kobe Bryant or any other member of his 1996 draft class, only to be undercut by the new maximum ceiling. Once 1999 hit, stars were relegated to about the same amount of money, and years in a deal.
Nobody likes the idea of unguaranteed contracts, we don’t want to be as savage as NFL front offices are, but Mark Cuban is completely correct in his estimation.
If a high-end few NBA players want to push for the elimination of the max deal, then they’re going to have to sign off on the idea that any NBA player could be waived without a cent being tossed their way at any time. This isn’t a case of buyer’s remorse with a maxed-out player like Gilbert Arenas or Rashard Lewis; we’re talking about a team deciding that even a valuable player like Anthony Morrow might not be worth the luxury-tax price when it comes to re-signing Kevin Durant to a massive yearly contract. It’s never going to be about NBA teams cutting players on max deals after they’ve outlived their usefulness, because this is still a sport that features only five to a side. It’s about the rotation members and role players being shoved out of the way.
Which would lead to more player turnover, more minimum deals, more bogus contracts that we know are never going to be fully paid out (like NFL fans are used to), and less continuity and team chemistry. It is borderline anti-capitalism to root against unabashed player movement, but this isn’t the sort of movement that players would want. And even LeBron and Durant, two smart guys who know they’re worth more, wouldn’t likely sell out their brethren like that.
Luckily, they’ll come to the table in 2017 with a sensible take, as will the owners. Billions of dollars in television revenue tend to help everyone get along.
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