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No, NBA stars aren’t changing teams more just because of shorter contracts

This new phenomenon isn’t because of what Adam Silver hinted at recently. It’s (mostly) because of LeBron James.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently wondered if the league had erred in ratcheting down the maximum contract length players could be offered. “Part of the issue is our own doing,” Silver told Bill Simmons at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, pointing to the “unintended consequences” of the 2011 labor agreement.

The comments were seen as shockingly candid. They shouldn’t be. The commissioner’s diagnosis for why players are moving around so much isn’t quite complete, and the league has already tried to address the dilemma Silver spoke about.

Silver’s assessment is that shorter contracts lead to shorter timetables for players to get miffed with their teams and either request trades or leave in free agency. This may be a contributing factor, but it’s not the main reason. The biggest reason star players are quicker to flee bad situations is LeBron James.

Back in 2006, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh introduced the world to the concept of a rookie extension that was shorter than maximally allowed. Each signed three-year deals with player options for a fourth season, allowing them to become free agents at the same time before they teamed up in Miami in 2010. Five-year max extensions were the norm then, occasionally with a player option on Year 5. That’s the deal Carmelo Anthony signed the same summer LeBron and friends signed their mini-max deals.

This was an enormous innovation in player power. Signing those deals essentially allowed LeBron and friends the latitude to make their own destiny as much as two years earlier than otherwise would have been possible.

The NBA had been ratcheting down maximum contract length since the 1990s, and continued to do so after LeBron used his mini-max innovation to leave Cleveland earlier than stars of the prior generation would have.

But LeBron innovated again to preserve his own flexibility, giving us the “1+1” contract in 2014 — one guaranteed year for the most money possible, with a player option for a second year. That was then adopted by Kevin Durant in signing with the Warriors in 2016, and is one of the primary sources of the heavy rumors surrounding Durant’s future this summer.

The current set of young stars — including Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons — grew up during LeBron’s reign. The previous generation — Harden, Westbrook, Durant, Paul George — grew up in an era where stars like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki stayed with their teams forever. Davis and Simmons were in high school and Irving had just graduated when LeBron left the Cavaliers. This is the league they know: one where stars make their own destiny and don’t hitch their apple carts to whatever team got lucky enough to draft them.

Take a closer look at Davis’ situation. He was drafted by New Orleans in 2012 and signed a normal rookie deal. In 2015, he signed a full-length max rookie extension. (It’s interesting that he chose that over the LeBronian mini-max, though Davis’ spotty injury history was a factor.) Nothing about shorter contracts figures into Davis’ trade request: he’s signed at the maximum length at every turn. The same applies to Irving, who requested a trade from Cleveland even earlier in his rookie contract extension than Davis did.

Even beyond the dispute over the cause of greater player movement, it’s disingenuous to see Silver’s comments as shocking. After all, the NBA has shown its hand that it was too tight on the issue of maximum contract length in recent labor deals.

First, a little backstory. Over the course of multiple labor deals from 1998 through 2011, the NBA tightened what was possible in player contracts. Seven-year contracts used to be fairly common; now, in only certain circumstances can players sign for five years, and four is the norm. This has been a massive change for the NBA, and for non-superstars it arguably contributes to more frequent player movement both in the trade market (shorter contracts are easier to move when flexibility is at a premium) and free agency (players have opportunities to switch teams almost twice as frequently at the high end).

But in the 2016 deal now in place, the NBA tried to open up the length issue a little through the so-called Kevin Durant rule that allows teams to extend players who meet certain criteria to a total of six years (including years they are already under contract). We know this as the “supermax provision.”

Since then, James Harden signed a 4-year extension with Houston in 2017 that put him essentially on a 6-year contract. John Wall signed a similar extension that same summer with the Wizards, while Russell Westbrook signed one that locked him up in Oklahoma City for five years. Through the provisions in the rule tweak for free agents, Stephen Curry signed a 5-year deal with the Warriors.

When Durant left the Thunder at no real cost to himself, the NBA realized it needed to help teams keep their homegrown stars a little longer. That’s why it moved in the opposite direction on contract length, switching from a restrictionist viewpoint to cautiously expanding the ability of NBA teams to sign really long deals.

Notice just how carefully Silver’s league tried to expand these powers, though. Players have to meet rather high criteria to qualify for the so-called supermax contract or extension. The criteria is tough enough that neither Paul George or Gordon Hayward met it when approaching free agency.

The league has already shown its open to longer contracts ... but only for worthy players. No more Erick Dampier seven-year deals.

These selective tweaks to allow longer contracts again are all about protecting NBA franchisees and franchises from themselves, which is also exactly what the 15-year project to shrink allowable contracts was about. The entire 2011 lockout was about two things: cutting players’ guaranteed share of revenue and protecting poorly-run teams from themselves. Now, Silver is musing that perhaps the NBA went too far on contract length and sparked the current atmosphere of constant wanderlust among players.

This yarn ball is impossible to fully untangle, but in my estimation, Silver shouldn’t beat himself up too much. No matter what type of contracts the NBA allows these days, switching teams is normal and natural for the post-LeBron generation. If you’re going to blame anyone, blame Cavaliers franchisee Dan Gilbert for failing to put a good team around LeBron in the Aughts.

And if Silver needs a reminder of why the NBA prioritized cutting down on contract length over those 15 years of labor deals, he only needs to take the Acela down to D.C., where Wall’s supermax extension almost immediately went sour despite the league’s high-qualifying criteria.

If Silver really wants to save teams from themselves, perhaps the only way is through regularly scheduled mulligans, even beyond the stretch provision.

Of course, with the way that teams botched the old amnesty provisions — go Knicks! — even that isn’t foolproof.