Kudos to the Clippers for glimpsing a ceiling of 45–50 wins with Blake Griffin as their centerpiece and deciding to move on. There’s no way to know if any of the pieces the Clippers got from Detroit in the trade, including a likely lottery pick, will be a part of a contending Clippers team in the future. But once it became clear what a future with an injury-plagued Griffin approaching 30 years old and taking up enough cap space to preclude adding another superstar would look like, the Clippers figured they had nothing to lose.
Of course, the future didn’t look markedly different last summer when the Clippers made the decision to sign Griffin to the mega-deal that became such an albatross. Nothing that happened this year should have been a surprise. Griffin got hurt; no surprise there. He has surpassed seventy games in a season just three times in his career. He doesn’t really fit the mold of a modern power forward. That’s nothing the Clippers didn’t know from watching him for eight years. But they still signed him.
Los Angeles signed him to a monster contract because losing Griffin and Chris Paul in the same offseason would have devastated the fan base. They deluded themselves into thinking they could construct a championship roster around Griffin because the alternative was to start over. At the time, they weren’t mentally ready to face that. Are they better off with Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and a draft pick than they would have been simply letting Griffin walk? Depends on what they’d done with the cap space they would have had after Griffin left.
This scenario will play itself out over and over throughout the league. The collective bargaining agreement creates a scenario where very good to elite players are in a position to receive a massive contract roughly in their mid-to-late twenties. Since these deals generally run for five years if signed with the current team, they frequently take the player into his decline years while still paying him a salary befitting a superstar. If you’re LeBron James, your decline years are still worth well over $30 million per year because you can still be the centerpiece of a championship team. For just about every other NBA player, probably not.
Paul George will be 28 years old in May and is about to become a free agent. His negotiations with the Thunder won’t even involve the salary. He will get a max deal from somebody, and the Thunder have to show him a good reason to stay. But if he gets that deal from Oklahoma City, he and Russell Westbrook will make so much between them that the rest of the roster will probably be gutted. At least right now, George and Westbrook have enough talent between them that the Thunder can dream of contending for a year or two. But will that be the case when Westbrook and George are is 32 and 30 years old, respectively?
At least the Thunder can sell their fans on a brief window of potential. Memphis gave Mike Conley what was at the time the largest contract in NBA history when he was 28 years old and had never played in an All-Star Game. What they got in exchange is the inability to begin a much-needed rebuild for the next three seasons. Conley and Marc Gasol are good enough to keep Memphis from scoring any great draft picks, but not good enough to get them past the first round of the playoffs. Their combined salaries keep the Grizzlies from adding impact talent. That quagmire, combined with the lowest revenue stream in the league, might push the Grizzlies out of town before Conley’s career is over.
Perhaps the all-time cautionary tale is Isaiah Thomas. Last year, Thomas boldly announced that he expected a max contract when he became a free agent after this season, despite being arguably the worst defensive player in the league. The Celtics knew they didn’t want to face that choice, especially with Thomas injured, so they packaged him in a trade for Kyrie Irving. Now he’s Cleveland’s problem. Thomas may recover from his injury enough at some point to command a max deal, but by the end of that deal, he would be 34 years old. Thomas’ entire game is predicated on his quickness, and his performance thus far this season is indicative of how he would play if he loses some of that quickness.
It almost feels like the existence of a max salary has created a scenario in which that max salary, including the length of the contract, becomes a point of pride, as though a team’s unwillingness to pay that max salary to a core player conveys disrespect. Thus you have teams like the Timberwolves facing a scenario where Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins will all consider themselves “max” players when they reach free agency. In a free market, only Towns would get close to such a contract. Butler is at an age he should probably get a shorter deal, and Wiggins would get something less. But if Minnesota doesn’t fork over max money to all three, it faces breaking up its core and surrendering its shot at contention.
The NFL doesn’t have a max salary, and their market is set by players comparing themselves to each other, not to some arbitrary bar decided by a collective bargaining agreement. There are only a handful of NBA players for whom the caps on salary and length of contract act as a real barrier that prevents them from getting paid what they are worth. For everyone else, the team cap and common sense should be sufficient. I can understand caps on the length of a contract; insanely long contracts are the easiest way to avoid near-term salary cap consequences for general managers who probably won’t be around when the bill comes due. But the individual max has perversely become a minimum for every player who considers himself elite. Getting rid of it would make for a more efficient market.
Los Angeles Clippers