The Max Contract Is Turning Stars Into Journeymen

It’s really kind of hard to wrap your head around. The NBA’s trade freeze will be lifted in a matter of days. It’s so close that maybe ‘hours’ is the appropriate measure of time to use. For weeks, buzz has grown louder and louder about potential trades involving guards Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. While the former has revitalized what had become a slowly-demising career thanks to an All-NBA Second Team-caliber season with the Thunder, the latter is seemingly on the verge of being traded for the second time since the Summer of 2019. Granted, that availability on the trade market is by his own volition. The alarming thing about Westbrook’s trade value is this: the 29 other teams in the NBA are not interested in him. Think about that: Russell Westbrook, a perennial all-star and former MVP, in his early thirties, just months removed from some of the most efficient play of his career, has a trade market that is thin, if existent at all.

Back when Houston was dispatched in the second round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers, one NBA agent told me that the Rockets might have to consider trading James Harden just to create some salary cap flexibility within the roster. Why would an NBA agent say that about a player of Harden’s caliber? It doesn’t make sense that someone working in the industry would introduce that idea about James Harden, one of the greatest scorers of all time, right? Well, actually it does, because of one simple reality: Westbrook’s contract is so expensive that, even with his ability to single-handedly win games on a night-to-night basis, his short-comings render the cost far more significant than the value. The natural decline of a 31-year-old point guard whose game was founded on unrivaled athleticism is not the primary cause of his diminished value on the trade market. The primary cause is that he is owed a max contract and his salary is rising each of the next three seasons. Bear in mind, Westbrook’s perimeter shooting efficiency has declined each of the past three seasons, and his shot selection has always been questionable. With skills derived from athleticism beginning to fade, teams are understandably fearful that the decline will continue and they’ll be on the hook for over $40 million per year over the next three seasons. As good as Westbrook can be, and as capable as he is of carrying a team for weeks at a time, it is difficult to project when that capacity will evade him. So, it’s understandable that teams are not willing to give up real assets for a significant financial commitment to a star on the downside of his career.

What makes it worse and somewhat sad to see is that Westbrook’s contract will likely hurt his legacy. Not only is he currently a long way away from winning a championship, but he’s on the verge of being a journeyman in the NBA. Being a journeyman can refer to being a mercenary, jumping from contender to contender on short-term deals to deepen areas where the water was previously shallow. It can also refer to a player on a bad contract that with which contending teams don’t feel are worth hamstringing themselves and making it difficult to fit other pieces under the budget. That star player whose contract exceeds his value is shunned to a team that is looking to keep fans in seats and can afford the weight of that contract. In other words, that star is sent to a team that is hoping to make the playoffs and nothing more than that. That star player that could be playing a key role on a championship contender is wasting away on a team that is just hoping to make the playoffs. And, in most cases, it’s all because of the crippling nature of that player’s contract.

Let the example of Russell Westbrook serve as a cautionary tale about choices. Players have two options. The first is to continue to juice the most money they can out of teams and ride off into the sunset with wallets full of clout (I refer to it as ‘clout’ because, after a certain point, the money is more about status and ego than it is about insuring a lavish lifestyle) and likely no jewelry on the fingers. The second is to chase that max contract between ages 22 and 28 and then start to think about securing one’s legacy with stability and Larry O’Briens. I’m not saying that an NBA career has to be a fork in the road that promotes winning on the left turn and fortune on the right turn. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. But, as players begin to chase the proverbial bag for the sake of clout, they reach an intersection between natural breakdown and value. Suddenly, the negatively linear quality of play surpasses the slopeless value of that big contract. Suddenly, star-level players are trying to figure out the best ways to get to Madison Square Garden to play for the 18-39 Knicks because the Knicks are the only team willing to take on their contracts. As those players sit in the backseats of their Ubers in New York City, they’re wondering what happened. How did their legacies come crashing down so fast? What happened is quite easy to figure out: the contracts they signed did not account for inevitable decline. The contract they signed set their families up for generations upon generations. But, it undeniably turned teams off when they realized that they would be owing more money per year as the player aged. Maybe things would be different if that annual figure were decreasing instead of rising. Things would certainly be different had they signed for less than the eligible maximum.

If the legacy matters, if winning championships matters, that contract that brings star players into their thirties needs to be more financially valuable to the team signing the paper than it is to the agent accepting the deal. Otherwise, there’s a chance those players are sitting in the backseats of Ubers on their ways to Madison Square Garden, trying to figure out what the hell happened.

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