In Defense Of Max Contracts — Or, Why NBA Superstars Should Shut Up
The massive TV deal that the NBA agreed to with Turner and ESPN this week is good news for the league, but portends ominous happenings in a few short years. In 2017, the players will almost definitely opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement from 2011, which gives them at most a mere 51 percent of basketball related income (BRI).
The players are talking a big game about not letting the owners get the same kind of deal the next time around, and rightfully so -- the players are the entertainment, and didn't deserve to lose out on the billions in revenue that will instead go to the rich(er) guys over the next few years.
One of the talking points for the more vocal superstars is the idea of no more "max contracts," a concept that the league created when Michael Jordan made $33 million in 1998 (Jordan made more that year than 19 other NBA teams' rosters). The argument here is that guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are worth more to their team and their city than their contract is to them. Here's a direct quote about that, from Durant:
Kevin Durant's full comment on potentially doing away with max contracts: pic.twitter.com/DcvwZxmQ2v
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 7, 2014
Look, I get why LeBron and company would be interested in making more money. More money is awesome. Plus, the Cavs are a more valuable franchise, and Cleveland a more valuable city, with him in it (though probably not $500 million a year more valuable). He's certainly worth more than he's getting paid -- no one denies that.
But max contracts and the NBA's soft cap (including the luxury tax) aren't just avenues of limiting how much players can make -- that's what the BRI is for. The max contracts and luxury tax are the league's way of keeping rosters competitive. It punishes owners who overspend on talent (i.e. the Nets' Mikhail Prokhorov) and rewards those who build their teams creatively. If there were no limits on spending, most NBA teams would just take the New York Yankees route and spend into oblivion.
Besides, if we agree that no one superstar (or even two, or three) can win a championship, should they really be worth more than 30 to 35 percent of the cap? In a way, max contracts help teams stay viable by limiting the mistakes they can make. LeBron is worth a ton, but is he worth more than, say, six other able-bodied NBA-caliber players combined? Ask the 2013-14 Heat if three nearly-maxed-out superstars was enough to win a title.
Saying all this may make it sound like I'm anti-labor and pro-ownership in this debate, and that's absolutely not the case. The owners of NBA teams (and sports teams in general) are insanely wealthy, and their cries of poverty in 2011 look even more ludicrous today than they did three years ago. But you're not going to get me to feel bad for LeBron James in this situation. LeBron is rich as shit. He makes as much as anyone can playing basketball in the NBA, plus another $20 million from his Nike sponsorship alone this year. Since he's turned pro, LeBron has made an estimated $300 million in endorsement deals. He owns part of Manchester United. He's the 1 percent; he's rich, bitch; he'd be fine if the NBA shut down tomorrow and he never took the court again. As it is, he'll probably end up making over $30 million a year when he signs his next free agent contract, thanks to this TV deal.
Meanwhile, if the owners agree to do away with max contracts, they'll likely want a concession along the lines of wanting non-guaranteed deals, a la the NFL:
Mark Cuban on ESPN says that if the players want to eliminate max deals, owners will likely respond by looking for non-guaranteed contracts.
— devin kharpertian (@uuords) October 7, 2014
Unless negotiated otherwise, all NBA contracts are guaranteed. This comes back to haunt owners and franchises when guys like Gilbert Arenas play gun chicken in the locker room and then get injured, but it ensures that even the bench-riding veterans, the underperforming rookies and the minimal impact role-players -- i.e., guys who are not getting $20 million from Nike -- still get paid.
Does LeBron really need another $10 million a season to feel secure in his place as the NBA's top player? Is winning championships and MVP awards and the adoration of millions not enough -- to say nothing of his $22 million salary this year?
Of course, if LeBron doesn't get the money, that means Dan Gilbert and company will. And that sucks. But here's a newsflash: The incredibly wealthy screw over the lower classes all the time. It's practically -- no, it is literally -- their job. NBA owners are no more greedy and selfish than other CEOs and magnates. American CEOs make 331 times as much as the average American worker. This is a societal problem, not an NBA problem.
If you want to be that rich, LeBron, give up basketball and become an investment banker with accounts in the Caymans, like everyone else.
So if LeBron wants the league to "take care" of the players, fine. But that means taking care of all of them, not just the stars. The players union can and should fight for more BRI in the next CBA -- and they should get it, too -- but not at the expense of leaving the league's less fortunate (and yes: that means less talented) out in the relative cold. I say relative because at the end of the day, these guys play fucking basketball for a living. What would you do to make even $507,336 a year?
Photo via Getty
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