What has happened to the max contract? This sacred contract was only meant for those who had truly proved to be superstars capable of leading a team to a title. Today we see them being given out in a way that makes you think GMs are just trying to get rid of them. The type of player who deserves a max contract has always been uncertain, and there are usually a tier of players who fall just under those qualifications. It seems, however, that in the last half decade the players who usually fall short of max player qualifications have started receiving max contracts. To what can we attribute this change in sense of value? Are there just not as many max contract worthy players as there used to be? Are we as fans supposed to reshape our idea of a superstar and lower our standards? Are GMs just forced to throw money at players to keep them happy? To clarify things, a max contract varies for different players. A player with less than seven years of experience receives 25% of the salary cap, a player with seven to nine years of experience earns 30%, and a player who has been in the league 10 or more years earns 35% of the salary cap.
To me, part of the problem lies with the attitude of some players in today’s game. Even though the NBA is a business and the players are essentially just assets that are moved around, players have started to control organizations. In the last few years, we have seen Carmelo Anthony force his way to New York (even though what the Knicks gave up for him ended up being a great deal for the Nuggets), The Dwightmare, and the courting of superstar free-agents like Deron Williams. After enough of these incidents, players start to feel entitled and feel as though a crime has been committed when he feels underpaid (“underpaid” in the players head; keep in mind that a man is always his own biggest fan). I blame part of this phenomenon on the social media revolution. With all the media exposure these players get, it isn’t unusual to think that they would gain an enormous amount of self-confidence and sense of worth. I’m sure most players are able to separate this media and fan driven worth from actual basketball worth, but who’s to say it doesn’t affect how players view themselves when it comes to contract negotiations?
Lets look at two players from the upcoming 2013 free agent class: Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. Both are great players who have a lot they can offer to any team, and both want max contracts. Smith is averaging 17.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.1 blocks per game. Jennings is averaging 18.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. They are very talented players who are good on both sides of the ball, but they are still not worthy of max contracts. Max contract players are the kind of players that are supposed to be able to lead you to a title. Though it may be too early to tell with Jennings, Josh Smith has never been out of the second round with all-star caliber teammates Joe Johnson and Al Horford next to him. Both of these players can serve as great second options on a contender, but max contracts cannot be used on complimentary players; they are there to reward stars and to establish them as the face of the franchise.
Despite this, these players will most likely still receive these contracts. This is why I cannot blame them for acting the way they do; most of the time they are rewarded. I cannot explain why GMs are hurling money at players who have yet to prove anything or are just not worth the offer. I want to say it’s just because of ruthless competition between teams and how hard it is for someone to part ways with a potential asset. We saw examples of this when Roy Hibbert and Nicolas Batum received huge contracts this offseason.
Portland gave Roy Hibbert a max contract offer because they had a glaring hole at the center position and thought Roy Hibbert would be the perfect defensive compliment to LaMarcus Aldridge. It makes sense that Portland would want Roy Hibbert, but they were so desperate that they gave a max contract to a guy who hadn’t accomplished much other than an all-star berth and a few good playoff games. Roy Hibbert was a restricted free agent, so this put Indiana in a tough situation. Roy Hibbert represents everything this team is built on: tough defense, paint presence, and size. Not to mention, Indiana had Miami’s come-from-behind playoff victory fresh in their memories, and was probably trying to preserve the core that could challenge Miami for the Eastern crown. I imagine somewhere along the line Indiana realized that Roy Hibbert was simply not worth max money, but they were forced to accept the offer because they were too scared to break up the core and identity of their team.
Later in the offseason, we saw Portland get a taste of their own medicine when Minnesota offered restricted free agent, Nicolas Batum, a lucrative deal (46m over 4 years). Minnesota saw Batum as a perfect fit next to their budding stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and made numerous deals in order to clear space for the forward. Batum is a fine two-way player, but he is too young and nobody is sure of his ceiling. Offering $46 million to a guy who hasn’t proved anything in the league is an absurd concept to me, and I don’t understand how you can go about taking potentially crippling financial risks on the hope that your image unfolds exactly as you had imagined. Portland ended up accepting the offer because of the fear of potential. Nobody wants to see a player with upside leave town and develop as a star in another city, especially when you had the power to match the offer.
In year one of these contracts, Roy Hibbert is having his worst season and is shooting 42%, and Batum has shown some solid progression. The result is that both cities are stuck with these deals, and are left to hope that the players can “live up” to what the money says they should be doing. The sad thing is that it isn’t their fault. The ideas of “the perfect fit” or overvaluing potential are causing the market value of these upper-mid tier players to be deceivingly high. Teams blindly throw money based on how they envision that certain player fitting into their system, or blossoming from the doldrums of their previous organizations to become the next surprise superstar. Most of the time, it just isn’t going to happen, and instead you are left with an insane contract that the player has to match with his play, and he will be scrutinized for his pay while trying to do so.
Now where does this leave the teams? The new CBA was constructed in a fashion that discourages multiple big contracts on the same team due to the increasing luxury tax penalties. You simply will not be able to compete with teams like Miami, OKC, San Antonio, and LAC if you are spending the same amount of money for players like Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, and Roy Hibbert as top teams are for LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. No matter how well they fit, or how much “upside” they have, you are not going to win. I’m not trying to say that less individually talented players adhering to a system can’t beat a collection of superstars; we’ve seen it before with the 2004 Pistons. In order to do so, however, you need to be able to afford a collection of talented players, rather than 2-3 good but not great players accompanied by veteran minimum contracts.
So to whom does the final blame go? Who cares. It’s equal parts GM stupidity and player overconfidence. What matters is that in order for small market teams to compete in this league, they need to start getting more bang for their buck. This can only be achieved if both sides come together to better assess what the player’s value to the team is worth, and to be able to combine skill sets that work together at an affordable price.