The Max Contract’s True Worth

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What is a max contract, truly, in today’s NBA? How do we measure who is a max player and who isn’t? Which sets the value of a player more: market or production? How do we determine which precedent is the proper one to go by?

These are all questions that we wonder every day–especially around this time. In recent years, we’ve seen many max contracts go and come to a bevy of different players. Some max contracts panned out, but some didn’t.

We’ve seen guys like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant earn their max contracts–Durant’s was done before the collective bargaining agreement was implemented so its grandfathered in. On the other hand, we’ve seen guys like Amaré Stoudamire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams fall to the value of their contract.

A max contract is a bigger gamble than it has ever been before because teams too often don’t go by player value when dishing these out. The market determines the value of a player before the players production and injury history determines that for them. Brook Lopez was given a max contract after missing most of the truncated 2011-12 NBA season. Roy Hibbert was offered a max contract because the Portland Trailblazers offered him one and the Pacers were forced to match it. Hibbert is a force on the defensive end, but is shooting less than 45% from the field this season.

Andrew Bynum will go on the free market this offseason and the market will determine that he’s a max player because of how big he is, but won’t take into account the fact that he missed more than 75% of this NBA season. Because of what he could potentially do for a team, some owner is going to be willing to take a gamble on him and give him a max deal.

John Wall recently said that he believes that he is a max player, but even he missed a large chunk of the season and hasn’t quite proven that he can shoot the basketball and be a productive player without turning the ball over at an alarming rate.

Of course, Wall should say that he’s a max player. Bynum should take a max contract from whoever offers it to him as opposed to the 2 year, $10 million deal he should get. Taking the money is something that every player should do if a team is going to give it to them. You can’t demonize players for doing that.

But what we can do is shift the blame to the NBA owners as a whole. The objective of the collective bargaining agreement was to control the shuffling of players and the over-the-top spending of different owners, but owners essentially shoot themselves in the foot by giving out max contracts to guys who haven’t proven that they are max players.

Two years ago, Steve Aschburner of NBA.com wrote a piece on how the max contract works now as opposed to how it worked just 15 years ago.

As free agency further evolved, so did the max contract. Teams figured out that they could pry players away from other organizations by offering them money that other teams couldn’t afford. That’s the new value of the max contract. Instead of letting the player production set their own value, a team need does that instead. Instead of letting a player get paid their actual worth, they’re consistently overpaid and underproductive. Then that team will be locked into a contract that they’ll regret two years later. This next quote from Aschburner says it all:

In that context, getting labeled a “max guy” now has a new connotation: Overpaid. Overrated. Under-productive. In a league in which Wade, James, Bosh, Nowitzki, Pierce and others with greater portfolios can be paid less — and in fact, willingly sign for less to play on stronger teams — being a “max guy” could wind up having a taint that didn’t exist before this summer. The owners are going to love that, if they can scale lesser players below some of the deals accepted by “salary sacrificers.”

Players who willingly sacrifice money–even if its a smaller amount–do go unnoticed because they aren’t getting paid their maximum value and are essentially outperforming their contracts. Meanwhile, we have max players who aren’t even suiting up right now. There are guys who are being paid huge amounts of money that aren’t living up to it.

With that being the case, we can almost certainly be prepared for another NBA lockout as soon as the owners get the option to opt out of the deal. We’ll have the same arguments that we’ve been having for the last 10 years because owners can’t keep their pockets closed. Then they wonder why they’re losing money–this is insanity manifested in its truest form.

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