Consensus is growing that the NBA’s supermax contract does not work as intended. But because so much of the basketball punditry has already buried the supermax, there’s a risk of blaming it every time a team loses a homegrown star. A star like, say, Kemba Walker.
As a reminder: the supermax was introduced to the NBA in the wake of Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016. The NBA wanted to further strengthen teams’ ability to financially reward players they drafted or acquired while on their rookie deals. The league clearly loves the attention free agency receives, but its member teams — particularly the teams in smaller, less glamorous markets — don’t like losing their homegrown stars to more powerful franchises when those players are around age 26 to 29, in their physical peaks.
The supermax lets a team pay more to stars who meet certain criteria (like the All-NBA team or Defensive Player of the Year) so long as that player had been around since their rookie deal.
In practice, the supermax leads to divorces instead of long-term contracts. The long-term contracts teams do sign aren’t universally good, either.
Most of the previous supermax failures simply showed the seams in the concept of teams wanting to keep their young stars. The Kings famously traded DeMarcus Cousins to avoid offering him the supermax the following summer: they had no intention of paying the big man $200 million, even before his recent major injuries. Paul George just missed eligibility despite being universally regarded as a top-15 player; that seemed like a decisive factor in him telling the Pacers he wouldn’t be re-signing there, leading to a trade. Knowing he’d turn down the supermax led Anthony Davis to request a trade months before he was even eligible to get an extension offer.
The supermax hasn’t fixed the problem of superstar wanderlust. It’s made it even worse.
Kemba’s situation would appear to fit the pattern. Star player coming off his second contract, makes the third team All-NBA and becomes eligible for a supermax deal but leaves for a better, more powerful franchise. The lesser franchise is left with nothing.
But this wasn’t a failure of the supermax: it was a failure of the Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte didn’t offer Kemba the supermax he was eligible to receive, according to reports. If those reports are right — that the Hornets offered Walker about $160 million over five years — then Charlotte didn’t even offer him the max! Walker’s non-supermax max — in other words, the max he would have been eligible to receive if he had not made All-NBA — was roughly five years, $188 million. If the reports are right, the Hornets offered Kemba about 85 percent of the normal max.
A supermax contract for Walker would have been roughly $220 million over five years. The Hornets offered a contract less than 75 percent of that.
The Celtics, meanwhile, gave Walker a reported $140 million over four years, very close to the max that they could offer. This wasn’t a matter of a player turning down less money to escape a small franchise: Boston offered more money per annum. If Boston hadn’t offered the max to Kemba, a bunch of other teams would have. There was so much money floating around this summer — the Hornets had to know Kemba would be in demand. And that’s the offer they came up with. Not even the regular max. Less than that.
Of course, if the Hornets had any inkling that they did not intend to offer Walker even the normal max — let alone the supermax should he become eligible, which he did — they should have traded him back in the winter, when they could have gotten a nice package for him.
Instead, the result is a sign and trade for relatively unproven Terry Rozier in one of the most shockingly large contracts of the summer (three years, $58 million).
The supermax is a failed experiment the NBA should revisit and reform, if the league really wants to help teams keep homegrown stars. But the Hornets can’t blame losing Walker on that failed policy. They can only blame themselves for wildly mismanaging the run-up to his free agency.