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The NBA’s supermax provision failed

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The real question now is if it can be fixed or whether it’s best to stop digging an even deeper hole.

In the wake of Anthony Davis’ decision to ask the Pelicans for a trade, it has become clear that the NBA’s so-called Kevin Durant Rule — a tweak created in the wake of Durant’s exit from the Thunder that allows teams to offer even bigger contract extensions to their homegrown players if they meet certain criteria — has failed.

Four players have taken advantage of the “supermax” contract since its inception: Stephen Curry, James Harden, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook.

Curry and Harden were never likely to leave perfect situations on starry teams in glamour markets poised to win or contend for titles. The supermax was essentially just a bonus to each of them. The supermax might have convinced Westbrook to re-sign with the Thunder, though trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, plus an MVP in the season leading up to the contract offer, probably had just as much to do with it. Wall, meanwhile, is the first cautionary tale for the supermax. The mammoth $207 million contract extension hasn’t even kicked in yet and the Wizards surely regret ever offering it.

Then, there are the players who didn’t get the supermax, either because the investment was too steep for their teams (DeMarcus Cousins), because they just barely missed qualifying even though they were top-flight players (Paul George, Gordon Hayward), or because even the extra tens of millions of dollars were not enough to convince them to stay (Kawhi Leonard and now Davis).

In four of those five cases, teams ended up trading those star players with at least one year left on their contracts. (This assumes that the Pelicans will trade Davis no later than this offseason.) The fifth, Hayward, departed Utah in free agency

More star players have left their teams because of or in spite of the Kevin Durant Rule than have stayed. Whoops.

Those who care about these policy issues have discussed potential tweaks to make the incentive to stay stronger, such as allowing teams to offer even longer contracts, or making annual raises even higher for incumbent teams, or offering some salary-cap savings while boosting the raw dollar amount available to these players, or tweaking the criteria to give teams more flexibility. There are also potential policy tweaks to make the ability for stars to join other good teams in free agency more onerous, such as a harder salary cap.

The NBA will consider all of that and more in a few years when the next set of collective bargaining negotiations begin. But one question worth considering now is whether the NBA can ever abolish the failed supermax contract now that it’s in place.

We’ve seen that this was not the most effective policy to do what the league sought to do. But because it was framed as a win for both teams and players, taking it away will likely require a concession to the players’ union. The NBA will understandably be loathe to offer one to backtrack on a failed policy experiment.

For every Curry, there will be a Wall. For every Harden, there will be a Davis. For every Westbrook, there will be a Cousins. In fact, as salaries continue to grow, the relative incentive of the supermax shrinks. After all, as smart people have pointed out this week, after you get to $150 million or so, happiness and team success (often related) can look more important than a few extra dollars.

So eventually, the supermax could be worse than this. It could become more of an albatross that second-tier stars like Wall expect and more of an incentive that first tier stars like Davis disregard. We could see more teams treat prospective supermax players with decent sized risk factors like the Kings treated Cousins: by trading them before the bill comes due.

What a bad turn of events.

This rule change was supposed to help teams keep their stars. It was negotiated into place because the franchisees in charge of non-glamour teams felt too disadvantaged in free agency. Instead of helping those teams, the rule has made free agency essentially start a year early for this caliber of player.

As Paul Flannery briefly argues, maybe that’s for the best. The Pelicans know where they stand 18 months before Davis can actually walk, and that gives them time to make rational decisions and eventually a trade. But that certainly wasn’t the intent of the rule. The intent wasn’t to jumpstart superstar free agency a year early: it was to prevent it from ever happening!

Oh well. The sausage is out of the casing now, and the NBA is going to have a hell of a time getting it back in.

Perhaps it’s time to come to the conclusion that you can never make the best basketball players in the world stick with the team that drafted them. No matter what incentives you create, free agency is freedom, and that matters a whole lot to this generation of superstars.

Perhaps the NBA, and especially its non-glamour franchisees, would be wise to accept that and stop digging the hole deeper.