One of the peculiarities of NBA contracts is that salaries are completely guaranteed and unlike the NFL, rarely include performance-based incentives. There is almost nothing contractual that might hinder a player from taking a multi-year hiatus once their lucrative deal is signed. The oddity of the NBA isn't that there are so many players like the Baron Davis' or Eddy Curry's or Jerome James', it's that more aren't just like them.
The figure presented (click here, then click on image to see plot) shows Baron Davis' points-per-game over the past seven seasons. It epitomizes why NBA owners are hell-bent on reducing maximum contract lengths for the next CBA.
After peaking in 2003-04, Baron Davis' production declined the subsequent two years, before inclining again just in time to earn himself another large payday. After signing a new five-year, $65 million deal with the Clippers, Davis' scoring output has plummeted from roughly 22 points to 15 points per game the last two seasons. Now, in his third year with the Clippers, Baron rolls into camp out of shape, with a bum calf and a swollen knee.
What is an NBA owner to do?
Shorter contracts would be a double-edged sword. While they would limit the downside to Baron Davis-type contracts, short-term signings would also increase mobility among rising stars. This could potentially cripple the development of small market teams if players, like Kevin Love, were to gravitate towards the lure of New York, Chicago, LA, Houston and other larger markets instead.
At the same time, introducing incentives might not work out as well as it does in the NFL, especially from a team perspective. In football, playcalling is largely determined by the coaches, whereas in basketball, players routinely break off plays. The last thing the Atlanta Hawks need is to give black hole Jamal Crawford even more reasons to take ill-advised shots in order to pad his own individual stats.
NBA owners need to identify these pretender types more efficiently before they dole out millions in salary. Common sense is not enough of a guide. When payday comes, fiscal discipline is often tossed aside, as the fantasy of putting together a championship contender leads to choices they later regret (Jerome James!).
As we head into November, NBA owners need to keep in mind that some players will use the season as a personal showcase to secure new deals. The impeccable timing of Baron Davis should serve as a reminder that productivity boosts in contract years are not necessarily sustained long term.
Ken writes for NBA-Analytiks, www.nba-analytiks.com