Maxed Out

NBA teams handed out billions in free agency, and a lot of it went to stars on max contracts. But league execs wonder if the biggest deals will deliver everything the money suggests.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJuly 16, 2019

Ten free agents signed maximum-salary contracts this summer. How many check all the boxes that a team would want from a player making the absolute most it can pay him?

Based on an informal survey of a half-dozen NBA front-office executives: not one.

There were a few who had the requisite talent, while others had the requisite leadership skills. But none had both along with the skills and desire to be the team face and spokesman.

A former player who is now a front-office executive says a "max guy" is, ideally, "a leader in the locker room and on the floor. [Someone] I'm confident and comfortable giving the ball in late-game situations. He's leading my organization on and off the court where we need to go. Guys that I played with, guys that I continue to watch, I want them to get as many dollars as possible. But when we talk about that term—'max guy'—how many of those guys, realistically, are there?"

(We should note that this view doesn't take into account what a player means to a team's bottom line but what front offices, coaches and personnel people expect under the manufactured limitations of the league's salary-cap rules.)

Kawhi Leonard, fresh off winning a championship with and for the Toronto Raptors, comes close. Leonard, who signed a three-year, $103 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers that makes him eligible in two years for a supermax salary, is widely regarded as one of the best two-way players in the league, a positive locker room presence and capable of creating and making shots in crunch time. But one Western Conference general manager stopped short of describing him as a leader because of his sphinx-like demeanor and his limited playmaking ability. (For comparison, Jamal Crawford, considered primarily a scorer, averaged more assists—3.6—in 18.9 minutes per game than Leonard did—3.3—in 34.0.)

"Kawhi is great getting his, but he doesn't elevate anyone," the GM says. "He doesn't rally his team."

An Eastern Conference vice president of player personnel somewhat agrees. "He does have leadership qualities," he says, "but it depends on how you define 'leader.' He's obviously not vocal, and he's not a galvanizer. He does it with his work ethic and by example."

At least Leonard comes closer to fitting the profile of what a max guy should offer, unlike a handful of playersKhris Middleton, Tobias Harris and D'Angelo Russell being the most obvious exampleswho, the surveyed executives felt, received max offers because of circumstance more than capacity.

The Milwaukee Bucks signing Middleton to a five-year, $178 million deal is viewed as advance payment on convincing their best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to sign a supermax extension next summer and forgo free agency in 2021, when he is sure to have every team in the league bidding for his services.

While Middleton made the Eastern Conference All-Star team last season, he did not receive a single vote for any of the three All-NBA teams, and there are questions about whether he can be the second-best player on a championship-caliber team—which is what his salary now demands. The Bucks, a league source says, had that same doubt. They contemplated not offering Middleton the full max in hopes of also retaining restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon, who, despite battling injuries, was arguably a more effective playoff performer. Brogdon wound up with a four-year, $85 million contract and going to the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade.

"The Lakers can make Khris Middleton their fourth-best player and still make money," the Western Conference GM says. "The Bucks can't."

Khris Middleton's new contract with the Bucks is considered by many in the NBA a down payment on the team's desire to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo to a new deal next summer as much as it is an acknowledgment of Middleton's ability to space the floor with his shooting.
Khris Middleton's new contract with the Bucks is considered by many in the NBA a down payment on the team's desire to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo to a new deal next summer as much as it is an acknowledgment of Middleton's ability to space the floor with his shooting.Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

While some players take issue with salaries being made public, they are keenly aware of how much everyone else is making and generally judge their peers strictly on what they can do on the court, not their community service or willingness to deal with the media. Team chemistry is as much about the payroll structure as it is about personalities and passing the ball. Give a max salary to a player with less than max talent, and he better be making the most of the talent he does have and respected in every other way "or behave in a way the guys in the locker room don't resent what he makes," the Western Conference GM says. "They may not be generally happy, but they're not discontent about it."

One Eastern Conference scout says their resident star had immediate respect for an acquired veteran simply because of his contract. "He was like, 'Look what he makes; he must be good,'" the scout says. "The players do look at that. That's another thing you have to factor in."

The flip side is that a player salary structure that doesn't reflect the pecking order in value and contributions can cause dissension. Several executives believe that is the dynamic that upended the Boston Celtics last season. The team had less success with Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, making $31 million and $20 million, than it did the previous season when led by players on their rookie contracts: Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum.

"In that situation you have Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier making names for themselves and hadn't got paid yet," the player-turned-executive says. "They got a taste of the Eastern Conference Finals, they go seven games, and all of a sudden Kyrie and Gordon Hayward are back the next year and everything changes. It's a tricky situation."

Even though it will be hard for Hayward to ever live up to his max four-year, $128 million deal, it shouldn't prevent the Celtics from building a competitive roster. Small-market teams, on the other hand, face a far greater dilemma: Refuse to give a player with less than max talent a max salary, and risk losing your biggest drawing cardas the Charlotte Hornets did with Kemba Walkeror pay him with the knowledge that your ability to sign additional talent has been severely compromised.

Still, overpaying for players who may not have max talent but are exceptional in every other way can work for teams in less glamorous locales. Mike Conley's tenure with the Memphis Grizzlies is an example. Despite never being an All-Star, Conley was unreservedly respected by his teammates and peers alike and was both a model leader and community ambassador.

Eyebrows across the league were nevertheless raised when Conley signed what was then the richest contract in NBA history: five years, $153 million in July 2016. Not even Mike Conley Sr. would've argued that his son's talent on the floor warranted the biggest paycheck.

"But you knew San Antonio and a couple of other teams were interested, so what do you do?" the player-turned-executive says. "At the same time, Mike is a guy who is well respected in the community and among his peers, not just in Memphis but the whole league. He'd done everything Memphis had asked him to do. It's a no-brainer. I don't think in that situation you can worry about, 'How does this impact what happens from here on out?' When you have the Mike Conleys and the Dirk Nowitzkis of the world—guys who have been with one organization, done everything in their power—it becomes a little bit different. Now you name other situations, it becomes a little more dicey."

Mike Conley's $153 million deal may have appeared to be an odd fit for the Grizzlies, but his play on the court and the leadership he offered the franchise made sense for Memphis at the time he signed it.
Mike Conley's $153 million deal may have appeared to be an odd fit for the Grizzlies, but his play on the court and the leadership he offered the franchise made sense for Memphis at the time he signed it.Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Those other situations include the Philadelphia 76ers re-signing Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons to max contracts or the Brooklyn Nets signing Irving away from the Celtics with a near-max deal—Irving took slightly less to make room for another player he recruited, DeAndre Jordan—and Boston then luring Walker away from the Hornets with the maximum it could offer: four years and $141 million.

In Harris' case, he was acquired from the Clippers in a midseason multiplayer trade that included two first-round picks and a promising rookie, Landry Shamet, going to L.A. That, in part, created the impetus to make sure Harris didn't go elsewhere. But it meant making him the team's highest-paid player at an average annual salary of $36 million, $6 million more than All-Star center Joel Embiid and $2 million more than the new deal Simmons just signed.

Even though the Eastern Conference scout believes Harris won't generate the commensurate value on the court and that his contract could create discord within the locker room, he understands why the Sixers did it.

"You don't want to lose an asset for nothing," he says. "Philly gave up a lot to get Tobias Harris. It's going to limit you going forward, you're not going to have as many options, but what other choice do you have?"

The Golden State Warriors made similar moves. Once they knew Kevin Durant intended to sign with the Nets, they orchestrated a sign-and-trade that brought them back Russell on a max deal for a fifth-year veteran—four years, $117 million—to ease the void left by KD. Whether or not Russell can live up to a max contract with the Warriors or on the trading block is another matter. He was a first-time All-Star last season in helping the Nets reach the playoffs, but the Eastern Conference scout says: "I don't know if he's really that good. Everything went right for him. I wouldn't be surprised if last season is the best one he ever has."

The Warriors also re-signed Klay Thompson to a five-year, $190 million deal—the max for his eight years of service—even though he is expected to miss most of next season with a torn ACL. Several minority owners with the Warriors floated the idea of seeing if Thompson might give the team a hometown discount, a league source says, but abandoned it over fear he'd jump to the Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers.

The consensus is that Thompson is an ideal fit next to Steph Curry as an outstanding catch-and-shoot threat as well as a premier defender, but if his max contract makes it too expensive to keep the Warriors' other elite defender, Draymond Green, are Curry and Thompson good enough to be the two-man nucleus of another championship squad? Thompson's media shyness and stoic locker room presence also leave a few max-salary boxes unchecked.

"He's a good player, but he's not a leader," the Western Conference GM says. "He just shows up and hoops."

Walker's leadership and media friendliness are what convinced some to rank him higher last season than Thompson as an all-around player. While the free-agency market suggested otherwise, the Celtics still agreed to pay him an average of more than $35 million annually over the next four seasons to replace Irving.

Had the Hornets re-signed him—and league sources say he would've stayed if they offered a five-year deal, even if it wasn't for the full $221 million they could offerthey would've been following the Grizzlies' model with Conley. As in valuing Walker's reputation in the community and stature in the locker room even if he failed to be a perennial All-Star. Though that may have been an expensive pill to swallow, it would've been understandable for a team that at least was in the hunt for a playoff spot thanks to Walker's heroics and is now almost assuredly lottery-bound next season without him.

When the Hornets didn't offer Kemba Walker the five-year max contract they could have, he opted to sign with the Celtics, who lost Kyrie Irving to the Nets in free agency this summer.
When the Hornets didn't offer Kemba Walker the five-year max contract they could have, he opted to sign with the Celtics, who lost Kyrie Irving to the Nets in free agency this summer.Brandon Dill/Associated Press

"Smaller-market teams have been apt to give max contracts to good people," the Western Conference GM says. "There are two kinds of players. One, you give them the money and you sleep well. The other, you give them the money and you never sleep. Guys like Khris Middleton and CJ McCollum and Kemba—at least they're still going to do everything they can to earn that contract."

The trick for teams is finding the complementary pieces to make the max-level signing a success and not a salary-cap albatross. Or, better yet, building a winner by not just accurately assessing talent but also paying it appropriately, which has long been an overlooked reason for the San Antonio Spurs' two-decade dominance.

"San Antonio, what they did besides having the cornerstones from [David] Robinson to [Tim] Duncan—they were able to structure their payroll and keep guys in line accordingly," the scout says. "Today, for most teams, that is so hard to do."

They also were able to convince their cornerstone players—Duncan and Manu Ginobili included—to accept contracts in line with their waning skills. But even the Spurs found they couldn't satisfy everyone when, as league sources say, their offering Leonard less than the available max at one point soured the relationship. That might've accurately reflected Leonard's place in their financial pyramid at the time, but it cost them.

Then again, retaining the requisite talent to keep stars happy but not overpaying for it is not a new problem. In the 1990s, the Seattle SuperSonics' All-Star forward Shawn Kemp forced his way off the team because they signed center Jim McIlvaine to a $35 million contract Kemp didn't think McIlvaine merited. In the 2000s, Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams had similar issues, a league source says, with Andrei Kirilenko receiving a max contract—six years, $86 million—and ended up elsewhere as well.

The superstars taking issue aren't wrong, a Western Conference assistant GM says.

"The big issue is when a guy can't live up to the contract," he says. "We're in an era where we feel like we have to pay the player to keep him. The new GMs don't want to deal with players or conflict, so then they trade them."

Exacerbating the problem today is that overspending on ancillary players is no guarantee a superstar will stay through the course of his contract. Paul George's decision to pressure the Oklahoma City Thunder into trading him to the Clippers a year after signing a four-year, $137 million max deal has GMs questioning if they ever can feel secure about a superstar.

"I know players have more juice today and we're a player-friendly league, but it has gotten out of hand," the Western Conference GM says. "We have players deciding they're not even contracts, they're guidelines and payment structures. Now we have them saying, 'I'm done hoopin' with you guys; I'm going to hoop with my boys.'

Paul George's trade request while still having three years left on a contract he signed last summer has some NBA front offices nervous about the ability to keep their teams together even when they offer their stars the biggest contracts they can.
Paul George's trade request while still having three years left on a contract he signed last summer has some NBA front offices nervous about the ability to keep their teams together even when they offer their stars the biggest contracts they can.Rob Ferguson/Associated Press

"If the league would step up about player movement once a smaller market signs a guy, then teams wouldn't have to overpay just to show they're not afraid to spend money. What happens is the star leaves anyway and you're left with these bloated contracts, making the problem even worse."

That's not the circumstance in which Durant left the Warriors, but the combination of his ruptured Achilles tendon and following Irving to the Nets has raised questions about which max-salary boxes he checks. He and Leonard were the only consensus picks as "pay whatever it takes to get him" in this free-agent class, but the track record for players previously seen in the same light is mixed.

The biggest issue is what signing a player to a max contract implies—that he's among the two dozen best players in the league—and what happens when a player fails to live up to that implication. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Andrew Wiggins, John Wall and Kevin Love are just a few of the names feeling the weight of that dichotomy.

"Everyone is expecting creme brulee," the VP of player personnel says, "and then everyone is pissed when you wind up with mac and cheese."


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.

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