Dump The Max Contract?
Open bidding could balance the League.
Fact: After next season, Dwight Howard will be an unrestricted free agent. He’s a shoo-in for a max contract, regardless of where he signs. The Magic would love to bring him back on a five-year, $109 million deal, but there’s nearly no chance he’ll accept it. That will open the bidding to everyone else, with the Mavericks and Nets likely to be his most serious suitors, though others will surely join in. Both are huge markets with potentially great rosters (as long as Deron Williams is in Brooklyn).
More Facts: Technically any team with enough dough saved up to offer a max deal should be in the running, but probably won’t be. This is the key here: Both big and small market teams will all be offering the same amount of money to Howard—max money—and therefore small market teams won’t have any real appeal. But if the NBA took my suggestion, it would not longer be this way.
Hypothetical: Say the Bobcats clear $30 million in cap space by next offseason. They can still only submit to Howard the same four-year, $81 million contract as everybody else with enough cap space to do it because the max contract limits what they can offer. As long as every team is offering the same money, there’s zero chance Howard would be interested in Charlotte.
Another hypothetical: If the max contract didn’t exist, the Bobcats could throw all $30 million at Howard. Suddenly his decision to spurn Charlotte doesn’t seem so easy, especially if Dallas and Brooklyn have, say, $20 million saved up to offer annually. All of the sudden the Bobcats are the top bidder, and going to a small market, as long as they’re paying the fattest check, instantly has at least some intrigue. It may be easy to pick a four-year, $81 million contract over one for roughly 5/$110, but leaving an offer for, say, 5/$150 and taking one for two-thirds the money over the same number of years is a completely different story.
This proposed system would make the League more balanced in two ways. First, teams like Charlotte, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Cleveland—small market franchises which struggle pretty consistently and are always turned away by superstars in free agency—would have a chance at the League’s top players in the free-agent market.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that players would go there, but that doesn’t even really matter. Just the fact that the Bobcats would be offering Howard $30 million per season will force the bigger market teams’ hands and make them raise their bid.
Maybe Cuban offers the same $30 million per year (assuming that he has the cap space to do so), and Howard decides to go to Dallas. Obviously that would be bad news for the smaller teams, but that would still prevent Dallas from building a super-team like the ones we are seeing in the League today.
The cap is at about $58 million, meaning teams can’t go over it to sign players who either cost more than the mid-level exception or aren’t already on their team. If Howard commands $30 million per season, it would be impossible for Mark Cuban to bring in another superstar, let alone two more, and fill out the rest of his roster. Say that second superstar is Deron and he wants $25 million per season. All of the sudden, Dallas’ payroll is at $55 million, just a few million under the cap, and they have to settle for role players and ring-chasers to fill out the open spaces. Sure a Williams-Howard duo would be amazing to watch, but not if they’re surrounded by 10 Derek Fishers and Juwan Howards.
Suddenly franchises would have to decide whether it’s worth sacrificing depth and balance on the roster to go after a superstar or two. What if LeBron opts out of his contract in two years and becomes an unrestricted free agent? Might some owner throw $40 million annually (2/3 of the team’s payroll) at him? Surely James would make up the difference in ticket and merchandise sales in a heartbeat.
If a team was able to shed all or nearly all of its contracts, like Miami did two summers ago, they could easily make a strong push for a top-tier player like James. It sounds a little extreme, but there may be a handful of teams willing to blow up their roster for cap space and a shot at one or two of the best players in the world.
Maybe the Wizards move everybody but John Wall for expiring contracts and try to lure James, Howard or the next huge free agent with a mammoth contract offer. Maybe a team like Sacramento does the same but hangs onto DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans. It wouldn’t be easy and it could easily fall apart (example A: the Nets if DWill walks), but it would undeniably be fascinating to watch.
For decades, every major professional sports league has struggled to find a way to balance the strength of teams so that fans everywhere can have a team worth rooting for. In the NBA, the salary cap and max contracts are supposed to act as equalizers. The former has been effective, but the latter has been a massive failure.
The max contract is an idea that could have worked. In theory it should keep players with their current teams and prevent rosters like the Heat from forming.
But the NBA overlooked players’ desire to win when it instituted the max contract. Players are willing to take a little less money to play with their friends or go after a Championship with a contender, and this idea has ruined the max contract business model.
Of course what these players are doing—putting winning ahead of profit—is a very respectable move, but ironically it’s hurts the League as a whole.
LeBron could have taken about $20 million annually to stay in Cleveland with blue collar players like Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, but instead took about $16 million per season to play alongside his friends, the extremely talented Wade and Bosh in South Beach. On a smaller scale, players like Shane Battier, Rip Hamilton, Baron Davis and many others are happy to take pay cuts to play for a title contender.
By ignoring how badly these guys want to win, the League has created even more inequality. By looking at solely the numbers, max contracts are logical. They give the player signing one an extra guaranteed year if he stays with his current team and also offers a bump in salary. But the difference in money is not big enough.
The fix isn’t just to increase what current teams can offer because then the contract will take up too much of a team’s salary cap, and we’ve already seen teams like the Hawks get bogged down after handing out a regrettable max deal to Joe Johnson. The League also can’t decrease what other teams offer, because then if a player does decide to sign elsewhere, that team winds up getting an unfairly great deal (for instance, if the Heat had signed LeBron for $13 million per season).
The only solution is to dump the whole damn thing.