A Supermax Problem

Bleacher Report

When the NBA implemented the “Supermax” in the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement it was believed to be a provision that enabled smaller market teams the ability and advantage in retaining its veteran superstars once they hit the free agent market. The provision states:

“For a veteran player to qualify for such an extension, he must be entering his eighth or ninth season in the NBA, and have either:

  • made the All-NBA team (at any level) in either the season immediately before signing the extension, or two of the three previous seasons;
  • been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in either the season immediately before signing the extension or two of the three previous seasons; or
  • been named NBA MVP at least once in the previous three seasons.

Additionally, the team offering the extension must have originally drafted the player, or obtained him in a trade while he was on his rookie contract.”

The supermax was put into place after the league saw Kevin Durant leave Oklahoma City in 2016 to join the Golden State Warriors. Under this relatively new contract option, a player can earn up to 35% of his team’s salary cap. The thinking behind this is that it will push players to re-sign with their team, regardless of market size, because of the increased salary compared to joining another team. But, after two years of seeing how the supermax has played out, it is clear that it is not functioning nearly as well as the league hoped it was.

From a player’s perspective, the appeal of the supermax is not there for too many of these players who reach the illustrious qualifiers. Granted, there are players who have been in situations that were perfect for them and enabled them to sign such a contract (i.e. Steph Curry, James Harden). But, for the most part, the players that are eligible to sign them with the franchise that drafted them have opted to go elsewhere to compete for championships for tens of millions fewer dollars. Most recently, we’ve seen Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis force their way out of the city in which they were supermax eligible. Both of these players, like nearly any other supermax eligible player, have massive endorsement deals and shoe deals that enable them to seemingly take money out of the equation in choosing their next destination. What’s concerning is these destinations all seem to have something in common: their geography.

This summer alone we’ve seen Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant relocate to either New York or Los Angeles. All of them, aside from George, left substantial money on the table by not resigning with their respective teams. Durant and Davis were actually supermax eligible players (Davis in 2020) and opted to go to the league’s marquee markets instead of taking the supermax.

From the league’s perspective, this summer has been great. The NBA has been king with half of the league changing teams and lots of the league’s best stars relocating to its biggest markets. It’s the small market owners and fans that now have to begin to worry that these markets will largely continue to dominate the league.

The intention of the supermax was to enable teams who would not typically have a chance to land a big-time free agent the ability to keep their star. But now, it becomes apparent that teams are even growing weary of even offering these massive contracts to stars. The recent Russell Westbrook Chris Paul trade has highlighted just how cumbersome these contracts can become when the team or individual does not succeed to the level it should. Chris Paul’s contract was thought by many to be untradeable. It took a lot for Houston to get off his deal as they had to shell out two first rounders and two more pick swaps and got what many believe to be another negative value contract in return with Russell Westbrook just entering his supermax.

The supermax contract will have its ultimate test next summer as arguably its best young star in Giannis Antetokounmpo hits the market. If Milwaukee fails to retain him for his prime years, the NBA will have to seriously address how to keep competitive balance in the league by giving small markets every chance possible to compete.

While it’s been amazing to see the turnover and relocating stars in the league this summer, there are numerous problems that ownership could be fighting to address soon. Hopefully, for our sake as fans, the league is able to address them without a lockout in the near future.


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