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Labor Daze: NBA's Highest Earners Rarely Live Up to Contract

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2015

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as the Lakers trail late in the fourth quarter to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Staples Center on January 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  The Cavaliers won 109-102.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

At 37 years old, with almost two decades of NBA wear and tear on his body, Kobe Bryant is set to be the league's highest-paid player in 2015-16.

For the seventh consecutive season.

Now, Bryant's current deal—a two-year pact worth $48.5 million—was signed in November 2013, long before the Los Angeles Lakers actually knew how much of the old Kobe was left in a 35-year-old body rehabilitating an Achilles injury.

Yet, even then, Bryant's contract was viewed as a lifetime achievement award, not a harbinger of what he could still do. And while legacy deals such as his are a problem, they're part of a larger dilemma.

The NBA's collective bargaining agreement is, as Larry Coon's CBA FAQ shows, set up to pay players more later in their careers. And because of this arrangement, being the NBA's highest-paid player—or among its highest-paid players—doesn't mean what it should.

Familiar Faces, Excessive Contracts

NEW YORK CITY - FEBRUARY 8: Kevin Garnett #21, Shaquille Oneal #34 and Kobe Bryant 38 of the Western Conference All-Stars sit on the bench during the 1998 NBA All-Star Game played on February 8, 1998 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. NOTE TO USER
Steve Freeman/Getty Images

Since the 1999-2000 campaign, which is as far back as ESPN.com's individual salary database goes, only three different players have led the league in single-season earnings: Bryant (seven times), Kevin Garnett (seven times) and Shaquille O'Neal (three times). 

Bryant became the foremost earner in 2009-10, at the age of 31. At that point he was already 13 years into his NBA journey, with more than 41,000 playoff and regular-season minutes on his treads.

To believe that his best days were still ahead of him would have been an affront to common sense. Thirty is a dreaded age in the Association, as with most professional sports, and Bryant was three seasons removed from posting his peak player efficiency rating of 28.

Not surprisingly, his PER since 2009-10 (22.1) pales in comparison to his PER through 2008-09 (23.6). Where the Lakers, according to Basketball-Reference, paid him roughly $1.1 million per win share between 1996 and 2009, they've shelled out around $4.2 million for each of his contributed wins ever since.

Though Garnett and O'Neal were both the NBA's highest-paid player at some point in their mid-20s, they each also laid claim to the feat after their 30th birthday. Garnett did so three times, while O'Neal scaled Moola Mountain twice.  

Older players are more likely to suffer setbacks. They can get injured (shout out, Amar'e Stoudemire), be subject to minutes caps (shout out, Scottie Pippen) and just plain regress (shout out Gilbert Arenas). Contracts can also be just too darn long (shout out, Joe Johnson).

When talking about the most lucratively paid players, though, you expect to come across reliable high-end talent available on a nightly basis. Absences and natural declines aren't viable excuses—they're factors that help determine whether or not a player is worth his coin.

Bryant, Garnett and O'Neal all failed to qualify for Basketball-Reference.com's minutes-per-game leaderboard at least once as the league's top earner. They were each 32 or older at the time.

The cautionary tales write themselves. And yet, when the 2015-16 crusade rolls around, it will mark the 12th straight season in which the leading breadwinner isn't younger than 30.

A Deeper Struggle

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant drives the ball past Brooklyn Nets Joe Johnson during their NBA game at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, February 5, 2013.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand        (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DU
EMMANUEL DUNAND/Getty Images

Looking at the top-10 check-cashers in every season since 1999-2000 gives us more than 160 cases to analyze after accounting for identical salaries. This group, in theory, should represent a large chunk of the Association's best performers. 

But it doesn't.

Less than 26 percent of the league's total top-10 salary-earners since 1999-2000 have both qualified for the minutes-per-game leaderboard and finished in the top 10 of PER. Likewise, nearly 26 percent of all top-10 earners have failed to qualify for the minutes-per-game leaderboard during that same season.

And, as we see below, there isn't a positive relationship between salary and individual effectiveness (note that salary ranks are lopsided due to identical wages):

With the exception of those who have ranked first in single-season income, there is no reassuring trend. Most players, including first-place earners, don't come anywhere close to matching their PER rank with that of their salary.

There's more than one explanation for this phenomenon, but age is clearly the biggest factor:

More than half of the NBA's top-10 earners during this time have been older than 30 and on the downward slope of their career productivity arc. Even 29-year-olds and 30-year-olds often have a decade of NBA mileage under their belts, putting them on the fast track toward decline.

Contributing Factors

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 05:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks greets Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers after a game at American Airlines Center on November 5, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Huge contracts aren't exclusively handed out to ebbing stars in their late 30s.

Some excessive salaries are the result of long-term deals reaching their conclusion. These pacts were signed when a player was productive, perhaps still in his prime, but over the course of three, four or five years, his pay grade outlasted his stardom.

Scaled salaries enable teams to extravagantly reward star players as time goes on and they continue to age. Incoming rookies typically play at discounted rates for the first four years, before their extension kicks in or they enter restricted free agency.

As a function of the CBA, the road to that second contract favors incumbent teams. They can not only hand out the most money, but they also have the ability to match any offer a restricted free agent receives, basically ensuring top draft prospects are tethered to their first team for at least seven or eight seasons.

Then, when these players enter unrestricted free agency for the first time, they're in their late 20s, with some of their best years already behind them, looking to get paid. And interested suitors are going to pay them, because that's the market; the more experience a player has, the greater salary he can command.

Plus, as ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan previously wrote, teams have a propensity for putting premiums on the past:

This system also hamstrings teams in the case of older max players whose production no longer matches or justifies their max salaries. It has become standard practice to continue to pay older max players based primarily on past production, but this off-kilter valuation often makes it difficult to field a competitive lineup.

In the current salary-cap climate, with the highest possible wages reserved for the oldest possible talent, the onus falls on the players to accept drastic pay cuts as they enter their twilight—which isn't ideal for teams.

Contracts are, for the most part, fully guaranteed in the NBA, as opposed to the NFL, where teams are often able to save money by cutting injured and underperforming talent. NBA players, unlike NFL players, also aren't permitted to renegotiate current deals on a whim, so the Association's owners cannot bank on substantially reducing their investment at a later date.

NBA teams don't enjoy the absence of a salary cap either. 

European soccer franchises can pretty much spend as they please, so long as they have deep enough pockets. Significantly above-market deals don't necessarily preclude them from spending on other talent—something to which NBA organizations cannot relate. 

The Curse That Might Not Be Lifted

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 21:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waits to inbound a pass during the second half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on January 21, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: Use
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sometimes, as in the case of Tim Duncan, who will earn close to $100 million less than Bryant by the time both retire, aging stars do give out discounts. 

Other times, as with Bryant himself, the concessions they make aren't big enough. And that's their right. Some, like Bryant, might even say it's their responsibility.

"It's very easy to look at the elite players around the league and talk about the amount of money that they get paid and compare that with the average [player]," Bryant said ahead of last season, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "But we don't look at what the owners get paid and how much revenue they generate off the backs of these players."

Nor do we always look at what the best players are giving up earlier and over the life of their careers by default. Their salaries are capped from start to finish, either by rookie scales or max percentages, giving them every incentive to make as much as they can, whenever they can.

Altogether eliminating max salaries is really the only way to address the NBA's uneven compensation structure. 

Free from predetermined contracts, players could sign for what they're worth, whenever they're worth it, theoretically decreasing the number of overpriced late-career deals. But changes to the max-salary scale won't be implemented, if they're implemented at all, until at least 2017, when both the players and league have the right to opt out of the current CBA. 

For now, the NBA's late-career-leaning salary guidelines remain the same.

Not only will James be making less than Bryant next season, but he will rank in the top three of salary for just the first time—12 years after entering the league.
Not only will James be making less than Bryant next season, but he will rank in the top three of salary for just the first time—12 years after entering the league.Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Next season, the top-seven earners will all be 30 or older. LeBron James, the Association's best player, an all-time great and 12-year veteran, will tout a top-three salary for the first time.

A 37-year-old Bryant will be the game's highest-paid player, his steep price tag the latest in a long line of evidence that proves the most lucrative salaries aren't reserved for the most valuable talent.

Stats and career earnings courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise cited. Season-by-season salary information via ESPN.com. Ages determined by how old a player will be by Feb. 1 of that season.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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