Ranking Every NBA Supermax Contract

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2019

Ranking Every NBA Supermax Contract

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    Ever since the NBA and its players union struck a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017, the "supermax" contract has been a topic of conversation every time year-end awards are announced.

    Technically known as a designated player extension, the supermax allows players to get to the "35 percent of the cap" deal earlier than the 10 years they'd typically have to wait. The only players who've been able to take advantage of it so far are Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

    Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ explains the designated player rule in depth. The SparkNotes version is that it can go to a player who meets a number of various criteria and hit some lofty performance-based qualifications:

    • All-NBA, Defensive Player of the Year or MVP in the most recent season
    • All-NBA or Defensive Player of the Year in each of the two seasons prior to the most recent season
    • MVP in any of the last three seasons.

    As for what it's worth: 35 percent of the cap in the first year with 8 percent raises in each of the following seasons. For a supermax starting in 2019-20, as Wall's does:

    • $37.8 million in 2019-20
    • $40.824 million in 2020-21
    • $43.848 million in 2021-22
    • $46.872 million in 2022-23 (player option)

    With 2019 awards trickling out, we already know of three players who are now eligible for the so-called supermax: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker. All three made All-NBA teams this season. Lillard and Walker have both been around long enough to sign this summer.

    Giannis has to wait until next summer to get his seventh year of service, but he's qualified regardless because he was All-NBA last season, as well.

    Then, of course, there's Anthony Davis. He's qualified by virtue of his All-NBA selections. But given Shams Charania's report for The Athletic that AD still wants to be traded in the aftermath of the New Orleans Pelicans winning the lottery, such an extension is unlikely. 

    That leaves four signed on the supermax dotted line already and three potentially on the way. It's time to rank them based on who's most likely to live up to the value of the enormous contract.

    Just a few more caveats. Walker getting the deal seems unlikely. And according to ESPN's Malika Andrews, the Milwaukee Bucks may need a trip to the Finals in 2020 to "tip the scales" in favor of retaining Antetokounmpo. A lot could happen in a season.

    Lillard, meanwhile, may already be on his way to the deal, according to Yahoo's Chris Haynes.

    Walker and Antetokounmpo will still have space dedicated to them here, but Lillard is the only recent qualifier who'll find an official spot in these unofficial rankings.

Honorable Mention: Kemba Walker

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    Walker deserves a ton of credit for the progress he's made during his eight years in the NBA.

    Over his first four seasons, his true shooting percentage of 49.5 was well below the league average (53.5) during the same span, giving him a relative true shooting percentage of minus-4.0. Over his last four campaigns, his relative true shooting percentage is plus-1.1.

    One of the catch-all metrics, box plus-minus (BPM), tells a similar story about Walker's career. He produced a respectable 1.2 in Years 1-4, followed by a 3.5 in Years 5-8.

    But a feel-good story does not a supermax-worthy player make.

    Among players with at least 4,000 minutes over that second four-year sample, Walker's 3.5 BPM ranks 25th in the NBA. Westbrook, Harden and Curry are all in the top five. Wall, meanwhile, is 32nd. 

    Questions and concerns already abound about the Westbrook and Wall deals. The Charlotte Hornets would quickly find themselves in the same boat if they locked Walker into such a monster deal.

    If he got the max money and years (five), Walker would be in his age-33 season by the end of his supermax. And there simply isn't a great track record for diminutive NBA point guards in their mid-30s.

    Since 2015-16, the Hornets' net rating is 7.9 points per 100 possessions better when Walker is on the floor, but they haven't made the playoffs in three years.

    For a team so far from contention to commit over a third of its cap space to a borderline top-30 player who may be on the verge of a downturn would go beyond risk.

Needs Another Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    The amount of money in these deals makes each at least a little bit of a tough pill to swallow. Antetokounmpo's is one of those rare few that should be a no-brainer.

    Unlike those who'll be in their mid-30s by the end of their supermax extensions, Giannis would only be 31 at the end of his. And at 24, he just put up MVP numbers in an all-time-great season.

    Giannis' 2018-19 BPM is the 17th-best in NBA history. When his basic numbers are adjusted for pace and playing time, he tops the average MVP since 1974 in points, rebounds, assists and blocks. His relative true shooting percentage and game score were better, too.

    Even if he costs over a third of their salary cap, how could the Bucks afford to let go of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/LeBron James hybrid in his mid-20s?

    They probably can't, but it also isn't up to them.

    Ultimately, Giannis will have to make the decision on whether he stays. As Andrews wrote: 

    "Antetokounmpo has consistently made public proclamations of his love for Milwaukee, as he grew up and became acclimated to American culture in Cream City after moving from Greece. ... But he is all about winning. In more concrete terms, a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future."

    Finals or not, five years and $247.3 million would be difficult to turn down. And Andrews' source didn't say Milwaukee has to make the Finals for Giannis to stay.

    But on the heels of four straight losses to the Toronto Raptors, trepidation from Bucks fans over this report is understandable.

    If he does end up signing the extension, though, this is one that should age just fine.

5. John Wall

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    He may already be on one, but Wall's case for a supermax might be even worse than Walker's.

    Through no fault of his own, Wall has only played 73 games over the last two seasons. In the same time frame, he's 123rd in value over replacement player, and his net rating swing is an uninspiring plus-0.6.

    Injuries, especially the Achilles he ruptured in February, and the potential for their lingering effects have made Wall's deal—$169.3 million over the next four years—terrifying. In the final year, which carries with it a player option, the Washington Wizards are set to pay Wall a whopping $46.9 million in his age-32 season.

    But even before the health concerns popped up, this was a deal that should have raised some red flags.

    On the surface, Wall is a consistent 20-and-10 guy when he's right. And prior to the last two injury-riddled seasons, Washington was significantly better with him on the floor.

    But he's never completed a campaign in which he reached the league-average true shooting percentage. And his career mark from three is a "leave you alone out there in the playoffs" 32.4 percent.

    In today's NBA, it's difficult to get away with shooting limitations if you're not an athletic marvel with size like Giannis or Ben Simmons. At one point, Wall had the athleticism. Age and injuries make it hard to guarantee he'll ever get it back.

4. Russell Westbrook

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    The raw numbers Westbrook has put up since Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder are mind-boggling: 26.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game.

    As recently as three or four years ago, the idea of anyone averaging a triple-double for an entire season seemed ludicrous. In the '90s, McDonald's even made a burger with three patties and two slices of cheese (get it?) in honor of Jason Kidd, who finished his career 30 triple-doubles shy of where Westbrook is now.

    Fast forward to 2019, and Westbrook has averaged the feat in three consecutive seasons.

    But he has some significant red flags, as well.

    Westbrook's true shooting percentage peaked in the first triple-double season when he posted a career-high 55.4 for the second consecutive year. It's been downhill since then.

    In 2018-19, Westbrook took 1,473 shots. Among the 254 individual campaigns with at least as many attempts, his true shooting percentage ranked 240th.

    And as we've seen in the last two postseasons, Westbrook's seemingly insatiable competitive drive gets his team in trouble. On more than one occasion, he's tried to shoot his team to victory. The only problem is that he can't shoot.

    Westbrook has played in eight games in which his team was eliminated from the postseason. His average shooting line in those eight games is 10.1-of-27.5 (36.8 percent). In his last two farewell games, both in the first round, he went 29-of-74 (39.2 percent).

    Seventy-four shots in two games.

    Now, much like Wall, there is plenty of evidence that Westbrook helps his team. But unless he figures out how to shoot, that competitive fire, combined with his age, could make the final year of his supermax dicey.

    In his age-34 season, he has a player option for $46.7 million.

3. Damian Lillard

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    Small- and mid-market teams are at an inherent disadvantage in NBA team-building.

    The big-name free agents almost never give them a look, and trades are far less common than NBA Twitter and 2K general managers think.

    So when a team like the Portland Trail Blazers is able to draft and develop someone like Lillard, who eventually makes first team All-NBA, they understandably want to do all they can to keep him.

    It should come as little surprise that both sides are already working toward a deal, according to Yahoo's Chris Haynes.

    "Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension," he wrote.

    And, as explained by Lillard himself, Portland's success with him at the helm is part of the reason this deal makes sense:

    "Look at what we did this year. We played without our starting center [Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a season-ending leg injury]. We played without CJ [McCollum] toward the end of the season. So, looking at that, we were still able to get here. We were one step away [from the Finals]. And not only here, we had double-digit leads in three of the four games. I think getting here is reassuring that we can get the job done."

    Even in the star-heavy West, Lillard was able to lead his team to the conference finals. That's one of the key differences between Lillard and Westbrook, Wall and Walker. Portland is closer than their respective teams.

    Oh, and Lillard can shoot. That's important for a couple of reasons.

    First, shooting has always been the game's most important skill. In this era, it's as important as ever. Second, being able to shoot from distance makes it easier for a player to age gracefully. Think about Ray Allen's career after his athleticism faded. Or Jason Kidd after he added a reliable shot in his 30s.

    Lillard won't be able to get to the rim and dunk over bigger defenders for nearly as long as he'll be able to hit a jumper.

2. James Harden

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    Harden is one of the greatest offensive players of all time.

    LeBron James, Curry and Michael Jordan are the only players in NBA history with better career offensive box plus-minuses. Only 14 players have higher career scoring averages.

    And in his age-29 season, Harden just had arguably the best individual scoring season since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points in 1962 and 44.8 in 1963. Thinking Basketball's Ben Taylor adjusted for differences in playing time and pace and found that those two Wilt seasons and one each from Jordan and Kobe Bryant were the only ones at or above Harden's level.

    And somehow, it doesn't feel like he's slowing down at all.

    Harden has raised his scoring average in each of his last five seasons, culminating with the 36.1 he averaged in 2018-19. Keeping that streak of improvement alive seems almost impossible, especially with the Houston Rockets "set to do some soul searching" this offseason, per Shams Charania of The Athletic.

    If he has the ball less, it will only be natural for Harden's scoring to dip a bit unless Houston directs any new wrinkles toward replacing those isolations with catch-and-shoot, cutting or post-up possessions for its star.

    However the Rockets play next season, it's tough to imagine Harden's value suddenly cratering. Maybe he goes back to the double-digit assists he averaged in 2016-17. Maybe he gets more open threes playing off the ball.

    Regardless, this is a player to whom you can justify throwing massive amounts of money. Even $46.9 million in his age-33 season. He's a one-man offense. And as long as he's on your team, you're likely to be one of the best in the league.

1. Stephen Curry

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    With all due respect to Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who may all be in the Hall of Fame one day, Curry is the system that has won three of the last four NBA titles.

    When he's in the game, the dimensions of the floor seem to almost physically change. At least one defender has to know where he is at all times, pretty much all the way out to the half-court line.

    The attention he commands has given his teammates so many advantaged possessions against scrambling, short-handed defenses. And the numbers more than back up the eye test.

    Throughout the point guard's career, Golden State's net rating is a ridiculous 12.1 points better when Curry is on the floor. Over the last six seasons, it's an otherworldly 17.2 points per 100 possessions better.

    For comparison's sake, here are the six-year-peak net rating swings of a handful of players since 2000-01 (as far back as Basketball Reference tracks the stat):

    Few players in NBA history were as dominant as Curry has been over the last six years. We just don't think of him that way because it's a descriptor that has generally been reserved for bigger guys.

    At some point over the next season or two, as LeBron regresses and Curry progresses through his prime, the latter will pass the former for the all-time lead in career offensive box plus-minus.

    How long he stays at No. 1 is a different issue, but he'll likely distance himself from the field through the life of his supermax extension. Though he'll be paid $45.8 million in his age-33 season, his game has never been as predicated on things that diminish with age as those of Wall or Westbrook.

    Shooting and basketball IQ may well be Curry's two biggest assets, and those could conceivably continue to improve—or at least hold steady—for another five or six seasons.

               

    All statistics, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference