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Breaking Down the Supermax Contract

Loyalty is an extremely rare virtue in today’s NBA. Very few players actually spend the entire duration of their career on one team. The constant switching of teams has become a continuously more common phenomenon as the league has evolved. Over the past few years, NBA free agency has become one of the biggest events in sports, as major stars are now moving from franchise to franchise on a consistent basis.

For instance, All-Star guard Russell Westbrook has now been on three teams in three seasons after spending the first eleven years of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. With very few players committing to the teams that drafted them, the NBA decided to implement the supermax to reward team loyalty. However, are these types of contracts beneficial or detrimental to organizations?

The supermax was designed to discourage the formation of superteams and to give small-market teams an advantage when it came to retaining their home-grown players. The rule came to be in 2017 as a response to multiple veteran star players leaving their respective franchises in free agency the year prior. The main player guilty of this “offense” was Kevin Durant, when he left Oklahoma City to join the already star-studded Golden State Warriors. The NBA wanted to avoid these types of scenarios going forward, which is why this rule was put in place.

From a player’s perspective, the supermax allows them to earn more money by rewarding their team loyalty. Though the ripple effect that this has caused is that more players have begun believing they are entitled to this contract, therefore putting their franchises in difficult situations. Teams are now forced to either significantly overpay for their star player or lose them in free agency. There are many flaws that arise with the supermax, as they can essentially handicap a team into a certain position. 

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Looking over the transactions that have taken place since the rule has been introduced shows just how detrimental this contract has become. The supermax was targeted for players like Durant, as an incentive to remain on the team that drafted them. Top tier players should be earning that type of money, however, not all franchises have players at that high a caliber. But players who are still at the All-Star level know they could negotiate a price as high as these other top talents, otherwise they will force a trade or leave through free agency. The players are the ones who possess the power in today’s NBA and the supermax provided them even more leverage.

A perfect example of a player to fit into the borderline superstar category is Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker. In order to qualify for this elusive contract, a player needs to have a minimum of seven years of NBA service and earn either an All-NBA selection, win the Defensive Player of the Year award, or have won the MVP within the past three seasons. Walker made the All-NBA Third Team in 2019, therefore he had the ability to earn a contract worth $220 million over five years. Charlotte is a small market team that already had some fairly substantial contracts on their payroll by the time Walker hit free agency. Had they decided to offer him all the money he was eligible for, it would have completely decimated their chance at acquiring any viable free agents in the future.

On the contrary, Walker also carried the Hornets for eight seasons and was the face of their franchise. He sold jerseys, led them to the postseason a few times, and kept an otherwise irrelevant franchise somewhat watchable. Walker was never able to accomplish anything too recognizable, but losing him would reset all the progress the Hornets had made as a franchise with him on the roster.

Walker is a very competent player, who had a fantastic 2018/19 campaign with Charlotte, but the insanely high amount of money he would have expected to stay with the Hornets was really not an option for the organization. They had to let him walk, as they knew they probably were not going to win with Walker at that price tag. Charlotte did offer him a $160 million contract, but it was not enough to get him to stay. The Hornets really did want to keep him, but the additional money caused by the supermax halted any chance of Walker returning.

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Supermax contracts will have players occupying up to thirty-five percent of a team’s salary cap. It is not the most ideal move for building a franchise, but necessary if they want to retain their stars. And since only veteran players qualify for this contract, these massive deals are only given to players who are usually approaching or older than thirty years of age. Some franchises do not want to just let their players walk, therefore they feel obligated to concede the money to the player. This hurts the team the most when they decide to change the direction of the franchise because the player they had given the supermax to is not performing. Their contract becomes immovable, making rebuilding or doing a roster shakeup nearly impossible. 

The Houston Rockets recently struggled with this issue, as they were trying to deal Russell Westbrook, who would usually warrant numerous offers, but because of his contract, it was difficult for them to find a trade partner. They were able to trade the explosive guard to Washington, but only because they accepted another supermax in return with John Wall.

A common issue with teams who have players with these deals is that when they do not work out, the only way to move them is to eat other large contracts rather than gaining assets and draft picks. Teams will even offer picks to other franchises just for them to take on their highly paid players.

The issue with supermax contracts is not the players, but the fact that they usually depreciate in value as the player gets older. No one should really be at fault with these contracts except the league, as players who sign the supermax usually deserve it initially, while the organization is only trying to keep their star talent on the roster. The best players will obviously want to earn the most they legally can, and the team has to pay them.

The rule was implemented to discourage superteams and help small-market teams, but it has really done the opposite. Superstar players who want to join forces are not discouraged enough by the money differential to stay where they are. While small-market teams are only further handicapped, as they now have to choose to either keep their home-grown stars or limit their financial options in the future.

Teams will even trade their drafted stars before they can negotiate an extension or reach free agency, as organizations fear losing their young prospects for nothing. Supermax contracts force teams to commit to players that probably do not deserve all the money they can legally receive. For instance, a player like Rudy Gobert, who made All-NBA Third Team each of the last two years is eligible for the supermax. He is a fantastic defensive player and a valued member of the Utah Jazz, but making him one of the highest paid players in the league would definitely be a questionable choice.

Gobert is the anchor of the Jazz’s defense, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, as well as helping them win a few playoff series, therefore letting him go would surely hurt the franchise. It is just another difficult situation created by the supermax.

Without the option of this contract, these newfound challenges that teams face would never come into play. After overviewing all the factors that are influenced by the supermax, it is safe to say that they are not beneficial to the league. It really only helps players earn more money, but even though they are making more, the talent around them usually deteriorates because of the decreased flexibility of the team’s payroll. The rule made sense in theory, but the aftermath has proven that the supermax has failed its purpose.

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