Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The Cooler, where there is no offseason. Let’s get to it:
*It was less than seven years ago, but it feels like 50 in many ways, that James Harden and Oklahoma City reached an impasse in contract negotiations that eventually broke up what might have been a mid-decade dynasty.
The Thunder, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already more established in their careers and signed long-term, could not come to terms with Harden on an extension. The sticking point: OKC was offer four years and $55.5 million. Harden wanted $4.5 million more for what, at the time, was the max extension he could get. Four years, $60 million.
While it is fine to wonder if Harden, Westbrook and Durant would have worked as a trio long-term and perhaps understandable that the Thunder had reservations about offering a max deal to a player who, at the time, had broken out as a top sixth man, it is unfathomable in modern NBA terms that the sticking point on any contract would amount to about $1 million a year. That’s the kind of money hidden in extra-long NBA couch cushions these days.
The NBA salary cap, which was more or less flat at around $58 million for six consecutive seasons from 2008-09 through 2013-14, right as the Thunder was making that key decision, ballooned to $94 million by 2016-17 with an influx of new TV money. By 2020-21, it’s projected to be $116 million — double what it was in 2013-14.
Combine that with the NBA’s complicated and at times faulty system of max salary slots for various extension-eligible star players, and you get a league that is now playing with Monopoly money compared to everyone else.
All of this is relative, of course, as many pro athletes make more in a year than many make in a lifetime. But top NHL players barely top $10 million per season. NFL quarterbacks and a few other stars are paid at a premium, but not like their NBA brethren. Same with MLB.
For example: The Blazers’ Damian Lillard is expected to sign a “supermax” contract extension this summer. The four-year deal, which would kick in during the 2021-22 season, escalates to the point that Lillard will make $52.6 million in the final year of it when he’s 34 years old. The total value is $191 million over just four years.
Think about that: Lillard will make almost as much in one year as the Thunder was offering Harden for four years not that long ago.
Teams still have to fit outside free agents under the salary cap (which is $109 million this coming season) in order to sign them. That’s why the Wolves, who have already committed $109 million in salaries to eight players next season, would have to do some wheeling and dealing to make any outside moves.
But the more meaningful threshold in a lot of cases is the luxury tax, which is set at $132 million next year. Teams can walk right up to that line while retaining their own players without penalty.
Five teams exceeded the luxury tax threshold in 2018-19. All five of them made the playoffs, including Toronto and Golden State, who battled for the NBA title.
As opposed to the hard-capped NFL and NHL, where teams can’t exceed the cap, the massive money and the NBA’s “soft” salary cap system creates a tilted playing field that rewards big spenders.
It still rewards creativity and smart decisions, to be sure. But just as in the uncapped MLB system, the biggest spenders in the NBA have greater margin for error and more flexibility to fix their mistakes.
Keep that all in mind as the frenzy escalates this summer.
*ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was apparently doing a live social media video and thought the sound was off while he was on the phone with a source. You can hear him talking about someone named “Gersson,” which I can only assume is Wolves President Gersson Rosas.
This is more amusing than anything, but now we’ve got a potential Woj bomb hanging over us.
*Bunt for a double? Bunt for a double.