The NBA is a smarter league now. Even if things are about to get silly.
The league’s salary cap, benefiting from an influx of new television money, is set to hit around the $90 million mark (and possibly more) in 2016. It will shoot well over the nine-figure in 2017, and the league’s players, executives, owners, media and fans are all well aware of this.
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News about the impending TV money has been around since the 2014 offseason, and this is why the outrage of a then-so-so player like Gordon Hayward signing a four-year, $63 million contract that summer was so brief. It’s why the four-years and $52 million handed to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a small forward who didn’t take a single three-pointer last season, was referred to in many circles as the bargain of the 2015 offseason.
Everybody, it seems, understands the finances. And because the NBA and its teams have collectively bargained themselves into a place where one team can’t set the league on fire with a bit of free agency trickery – though Houston and Dallas have tried in recent years – the figures won’t pin your ears back even with all the cash that is flowing around.
Williams had come off the bench in all but 10 of the Cavaliers’ games the season prior, though he was a valuable contributor in averaging 11.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 25.9 minutes a contest. Cleveland had lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round that year in an upset, but this was still one of the NBA’s best young teams. And deepest, with the 26-year old Williams leading the charge off the pine.
The Miami Heat, coming off of a 15-win expansion season that saw them feature a player payroll of merely $3.4 million, was looking to augment its young roster. They dialed in on Williams, a restricted free agent whose defense-first game would pair nicely next two the scoring touch of center Rony Seikaly.
What they offered blew everyone away.
Seeking to approach the NBA’s minimum salary floor of $9.6 million, the Heat offered Williams $26.5 million over seven years. The front-loaded contract would start at $5 million. Faced with losing their versatile defensive big man, charged with remaining a championship contender while watching a sometimes-brittle Brad Daugherty and aging Larry Nance run the floor as starters, the Cavs felt they had no choice but to match the terms.
So they did, making Hot Rod the second-highest paid player in the first year of the deal.
Not the second-highest on the Cavs, and not in the NBA. In all of sports. Only Jose Canseco, coming off of a World Series championship, made more at $5.5 million.
Immediate reaction was sensible. Here’s Kevin McHale, as quoted by Jack McCallum in Sports Illustrated:
''Higher risks for higher rewards,'' said the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale, a better forward than Williams who will make far less ($1.4 million) than Hot Rod this season. ''John Williams played the game by the rules. He waited until his time came, and he hit a home run.''
Ha, just kidding! Everyone just lost their damn minds over the deal. From the same piece:
''I guess just about every team in basketball is upset with Miami,'' said one NBA team executive who asked to remain anonymous. ''What they did was very irresponsible and bad for the league.''
"Now sometimes you can get too excessive," Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin said of the Williams deal. "I don't know if we reached that or if we're going to reach that. This particular contract, in my mind, is ridiculous. That kind of money for that kind of player doesn't make any sense. And I would tell my fellow owners that in a meeting. The front-loading is part of it. The entire salary structure as dictated by the salary cap makes some sense, but somehow there's got to be some sense in it other than the cap -- what the worth of a player is in the whole structure of things."
For John “Hot Rod” Williams, a sixth man who made $364,000 the season before, to not only top the Jordan/Magic/Bird triumvirate in terms of salary but also the hallowed income of your Joe Montanas, Wayne Gretzkys and all but one participant in the National Pastime was abhorrent to some. To many.
Many that hadn’t seen Hot Rod’s recently-updated resume, we’re guessing.
Williams and several of his Tulane teammates made national news in 1985 when they were arrested under suspicion of point shaving. The Cavaliers selected Hot Rod in the second round of the 1985 draft, but he was forced to play two seasons in the minor leagues while awaiting and working through trials that could have led to his NBA banishment.
After one mistrial, Williams was acquitted of all charges in the second, and he quietly joined the Cavaliers in 1986-87, starting 80 games. That quiet ended when Williams took the Cavaliers to court prior to his free agent turn, arguing that his time spent away from Cleveland based on unfounded charges should go toward his overall NBA tenure, making him an unrestricted free agent. The judge declined, turning Williams into merely a restricted free agent.
The judge may have done him a favor.
Williams making over 42 percent of the NBA’s $11.8 salary cap in 1989-90 did not cause basketballs to spontaneously explode mid-flight, and it hardly signaled a new era of reckless spending. The league was benefitting from a salary cap it imposed in 1984, the implementation of “Bird Rights” that allowed teams to go over the soft cap in order to retain free agents (enhancing team chemistry and consistency), and the players were benefitting from the 53 percent of the pie guarantee that NBPA leader Larry Fleisher negotiated for in 1988.
Both were about to benefit from the slow and steady influx of other revenue streams, increased attendance, and above all the money earned from new TV packages with NBC and Turner Sports.
Hot Rod never put Cleveland over the top, and in 1995 he was dealt to Phoenix for quite the price: Dan Majerle, a younger player that made the All-Star Game the previous season, and a first-round pick that turned into Brevin Knight.
By 1995-96, the final year of Williams’ front-loaded deal, he was well underpaid at $2.5 million. A few weeks after Hot Rod’s contract expired, Michael Jordan would take his rightful place atop the NBA’s salary list at over $30 million for 1996-97. Phoenix then re-signed Williams as an unrestricted free agent in 1996 for $4.1 million, in hopes to battle new Laker center Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq had just signed a seven-year, $120 million deal: $93.5 million more than the seven-year deal Williams signed just seven years earlier.
He signed one last weird contract – a three-year, $3.6 million deal at age 36 with the pre-Mark Cuban Dallas Mavericks in 1999 – but only made it 25 games into that contract before being let go. Dallas would go on to use that lingering contract in trades, and Williams finally hung it up in the fall of 2000 after being cut in Boston Celtics camp.
And, over 25 years on, we can safely conclude that John “Hot Rod” Williams’ contract didn’t kill the league, and that the NBA isn’t crazy.
(Unless it signs Bradley freakin’ Beal to the max.)
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