NBA's High-Priced Superstars-Are they worth it?
By Mark Montieth
In the NBA, it's difficult for general managers to cover up their mistakes.
So how do general managers decide who's deserving?
"You've got to use your research and, if it's your own player, your history," Philadelphia general manager Billy King said. "And even using all that" -- King paused to chuckle -- "you still don't know."
Such is the guessing game general managers play with their livelihood. But it might be instructive that the league's most underachieving team, New York, finished its 23-win season with three max players -- not including Allan Houston, a max player sidelined by a knee injury -- while just three players in the NBA Finals have what can technically be called maximum contracts.
Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Keith Van Horn each have one, although Van Horn's was inherited by the Mavericks from a deal he signed with New Jersey in 1999. So does Miami's Shaquille O'Neal, whose five-year, $100 million contract signed last summer personifies the quandary personnel executives face.
The Heat, who lost to Detroit in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last year, couldn't let him lumber off to another team, taking their title hopes with him. But at 34 and no longer an MVP candidate, he could quickly become an albatross if he decides to continue collecting paychecks until he's 39.
After next season, the Heat will have to award Dwyane Wade a max contract to keep him tethered to South Beach. But if O'Neal's play declines too much and he receives $20 million of their payroll, they'll have little chance to win a title or improve their roster.
Which would mean a few years in a painful state of limbo.
Some NBA general managers yearn for a system more like that of the NFL, where contracts are not guaranteed and players may be cut at any time -- or at least after the first two or three years of a long-term deal. Such a proposal would meet resistance from the players' union and probably lead to a lengthy work stoppage, and nobody in the league is pushing hard for it yet.
In the meantime, the luxury tax, which assesses a dollar-for-dollar tax after a team's payroll surpasses a threshold, has made teams more hesitant to hand out max deals. The tax was a factor in the Pacers' thinking in 2003. They awarded Jermaine O'Neal a max deal but elected not to re-sign Brad Miller when the bidding approached $70 million over seven seasons because of the tax implications.
"When the tax kicked in . . . that seemed to get owners' attention across the league," said Pete Babcock, former general manager in Toronto, Atlanta and Denver.
Yet it hasn't alleviated the pressure to keep young talents. While some players are so good they offer no-brainer decisions for GMs, others fall into a gray area. Their talent and potential might be obvious, but they haven't proved they can lead a team to title contention year after year.
But if only one other team is willing to make a major offer, how do you let them walk?
"Your fans and your media play into it," said Jim Lynam, who was Philadelphia's general manager from 1992-94. "They'll ask, 'How could you lose him?' It's tough for me to look into the camera and say, 'We think he's a good player; we just don't think he's worth this much money.' "
More than ever, general managers are forced to make tough predictions. Which players will view a max contract as an indicator of heightened responsibility and work harder? Who will take it as an indication they have it made, and slack off? Who, for that matter, will stay healthy?
"There's been some great returns on investments and there's been some busts," said former Pacers point guard Mark Jackson, who played 17 seasons before becoming a television commentator.
"Some guys wrap it up when they sign for $20 million and become content. And I've watched guys make a million dollars but play like they make $20 million."
Overpaid employees, of course, can be found in any profession. In the NBA, however, they can cause the unemployment of those who hire them.
"You're going to be wrong sometimes," Jackson said. "You just want to be right way more than wrong. The great GMs are able to do that."
A look at the players who have received the maximum salaries allowed under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, according to realgm.com:
Earning their money
Player Team 2005-06 Skinny
Elton Brand L.A. Clippers $13,152,000 No longer league's most underrated player.
Kobe Bryant L.A. Lakers $15,946,875 Like him or not, he's a force at both ends.
Tim Duncan San Antonio $15,845,156 Primary factor behind three championships.
Kevin Garnett Minnesota $18,000,000 Supreme talent in need of supporting cast.
Allen Iverson Philadelphia $16,453,125 Passion, production can't be debated.
Jason Kidd New Jersey $18,000,000 Once elite, but fading into overpriced status.
Shawn Marion Phoenix $13,770,0004 Perfect fit for Suns' up-tempo system.
Dirk Nowitzki Dallas $13,843,157 Could lead Mavs to first championship.
Shaquille O'Neal Miami $20,000,000 He's fading, and owed $80M next four years.
Paul Pierce Boston $13,843,157 Coming off most productive season.
Michael Redd Milwaukee $12,000,000 Averaged 25.4 pts in first year of max deal.
Jury is still out
Player Team 2005-06 Skinny
Vince Carter New Jersey $13,843,157 Great talent, but something is missing.
Antawn Jamison Washington $13,843,157 Offensive threat, but not a complete player.
Joe Johnson Atlanta $12,000,000 Was major producer on bad Hawks team.
Tracy McGrady Houston $15,694,250 Elite talent, but health is always an issue.
Jermaine O'Neal Pacers $16,425,000 Team's record without him raises questions.
Chris Webber Philadelphia $19,125,000 All-around talent, but past his prime.
Player Team 2005-06 Skinny
Baron Davis Golden State $13,770,000 Talent is there, but attitude is lacking.
Steve Francis New York $13,770,000 Orlando took off after trading him.
Grant Hill Orlando $15,694,250 Collecting dust from all his injuries.
Stephon Marbury New York $16,453,125 Like Francis, doesn't contribute to winning.
Jalen Rose New York $15,694,250 Traded three times since signing max deal.
Keith Van Horn Dallas $15,694,250 Mavs paying for New Jersey's mistake.
Example of a maximum contract
The maximum salary a player may receive is 105 percent of his previous salary or between 25 percent and 35 percent of that season's salary cap, whichever is greater, with annual raises thereafter. The percentage is based on experience. For example, Player A has fewer than six years' experience and made $5 million last season. The most he could make next season is $12.375 million, which is 25 percent of the new team cap of $49.5 million. (A player with 10 or more years could earn 35 percent of the team's cap.) Player A can get a 10.5 percent raise for each year of the contract if he stayed with the same team. If Player A signed with a new team, his annual raise shrinks to 8 percent per season.
Contracts can cover as many as six years -- seven until last summer's rule change -- and are guaranteed, meaning a bad deal made of misguided exuberance can hinder a franchise's ability to improve for years.
It's the dilemma of the maximum contract. A GM has to give them to keep great or even potentially great players and avoid looking like he's not trying to win a championship. But if he gives one to the wrong player, or the right player becomes too old or too injured to live up to the extreme expectations of a max player . . . well, that's often how ex-GMs are created.
The Indiana Pacers have awarded max contracts to two players, Jalen Rose and Jermaine O'Neal, and have received mixed results. Rose signed a deal for nearly $100 million in the summer of 2000, after he had been the leading scorer on a team that reached the NBA Finals. He failed to mesh with the Pacers' emerging young talent and coach Isiah Thomas and was traded to Chicago in 2002. He's since been traded twice, and with one year left on his deal, could be traded again next season.
O'Neal signed a seven-year, $127 million contract in the summer of 2003. He was one year removed from being named the league's Most Improved Player and had just averaged 22.8 points and 17.5 rebounds in a first-round playoff loss to Boston. He has been named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team every season since then, and has been voted a starter twice. But some fans became disenchanted with him this season, when the Pacers lost in the first round of the playoffs.