Dwight Howard and the SuperMax Contract

Dave,

What the HECK is going on here? The whole POINT of the stupid LOCKOUT was to make sure small and mid-market teams had a CHANCE to be relevant. Then the VERY NEXT OFF-SEASON we get DWIGHT HOWARD going to the LAKERS, the most EVIL of all EVIL big name teams in the WHOLE LEAGUE. It STILL isn't fixed! What's the POINT???

Evan

First, I admire your SUBTLE use of EMPHASIS in the question. Points for you!

Second, as I said in an earlier post about this trade, you can't entirely blame the Lakers. They had the resources to make this move, namely one Andrew Bynum. They selected him 10th in the 2005 draft, nursed him through his league infancy, and made him enough of a star pupil to pull Howard in trade (albeit indirect trade). Several things could have gone wrong in that process. Someone else could have selected Bynum first. The Lakers could have passed on him, refusing to risk a rare lottery pick on a 17-year-old. They could have developed him poorly. They did not just luck into this deal. They did everything right every step of the way to bring themselves to this point. This ain't no Shaq thing. Credit where credit is due.

Nevertheless I, and many of your reading compatriots, agree that there's something...dissatisfying about watching L.A. scoop up yet another superstar. Since you can't blame them for, or restrict them from, taking advantage of the market you'd have to tinker with the process in order to change the landscape.

The cap, the luxury tax, and trade restrictions are inadequate for these purposes. Indeed, I've long posited that capping salaries will disadvantage the teams most in need of talent. When offered the same $15 million by New York or Milwaukee, most people will choose New York. When you're young and athletic you can find far more interesting ways to spend your money in the Big Apple than in cheese-head central. Despite this, there's no way in Pittsburgh that league owners would ever agree to an unrestricted salary system. Nor would the players agree to a hard cap, which might also enhance balance. Despite the system's shortcomings, we're at an impasse here.

If you can't regulate the endpoint--the Lakers and big-market teams--and tinkering with the middle ground won't help either (salary cap and such) there's only one option left. You have to address the issue at its source: the initial team. The current CBA gives teams extra incentives to retain stars but it provides them no actual power to do so. In most cases this isn't an issue. The incentives are enough to retain good players. But in rare cases like this, when you're talking league-wide superstar, big-market finances and personal preference outweigh the CBA. In other words the system works until it doesn't. Unfortunately the cases where it doesn't are precisely the cases where it needs to most: the irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime megastars deserting their original teams for the chance to play on a super squad under bright lights.

Spit-balling an at-the-source solution, teams need to have the option to retain a player every once in a while. This can't be cavalier. The player needs to be protected and paid. Application needs to be limited. But I could envision a rarely-used contract provision which would head off many of these issues. For lack of a better name, we'll call it the SuperMax contract.

  • The first provision of a SuperMax contract is that teams can only employ it once in a decade. If you SuperMax a player in 2012 you cannot do so again until 2022. The idea is that SuperMax would be a last and rare resort, used only for generation-defining stars.
  • You may only SuperMax a player who has been with your team at least 2 full seasons. Bird Rights can be transferred in trade. SuperMax eligibility cannot. This guy must have a long-term association with your franchise before you employ the SuperMax.
  • A SuperMax deal only comes into play when the player would otherwise become a free agent. You can't extend into a SuperMax situation or opt into it. When his old contract is done and when all other choices to retain have been exhausted, that's when you think about SuperMax.
  • As the name implies, a SuperMax contract is just what it says, a maximum, five-year deal. No incentives. No option years either way. No chicanery. You are paying this guy every single penny the CBA allows, complete with max raises for five full seasons.
  • The SuperMax contract may not be refused unless the player opts to leave the NBA. He automatically stays with the team offering the contract. If the player does refuse the SuperMax to play in a different league he may not return to the NBA until the SuperMax contract would have ended...five seasons from now.
  • On the other hand, the team may not trade or cut that player for the duration of the contract. They are married to the guy they SuperMax. He loses the flexibility of playing for another team for five years. The franchise loses the flexibility of being able to deal him.

In this way much all the posturing and angst that came with "The Decision" and the Dwight Howard situation would be eliminated before it started. Both James and Howard would know that a SuperMax was a fait accompli for their teams if they couldn't work out a deal. They'd have way more incentive to play nice, which is the whole point. If Howard knew that Orlando could retain him no matter what he'd have little option short of ruining his own career. He'd simply accept that he would be with the Magic for the next five years and hold off any machinations until the end of that run.

Granted there will still be worst-case scenarios. If you had a superstar who really hated his environment he could effectively force his team to SuperMax him after his fourth season. Still, this would give his original team 9 years of service. That's way more than half a career. If you can't make hay in 9 years, maybe this wasn't meant to be. In most cases players would probably be willing to sign a contract after their rookie-scale expired with the standard opt-out clauses after three years or so. If a team makes any kind of impression during his formative years they should have the option to retain him through a dozen years of his career. After that if he wants to go chase rings as a 32-year-old, so be it.

Obviously the Players Union would not like this idea one bit. They already feel movement is too restricted. But teams wouldn't really relish the idea of SuperMaxing players either. Getting stuck for all that money with no option to trade is a significant burden, especially since the guy's going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of that time. The sign-and-trade after the contract expires would be the only way to get value out of him if he chose to leave after you SuperMaxed him. But every once in a while retaining that superstar might be worth it. And since he's being paid max salary, the prison is pretty well gilded for him.

It's not a perfect solution. You could well see agents advising their clients to raise a stink early on in their careers to force a SuperMax and retain flexibility later. You'd also see the occasional team making a SuperMax mistake and having to eat it for a few years. But I can't help but think the last couple years would have gone more smoothly if Dwight Howard knew he'd be with the Magic for five more seasons no matter what or if LeBron had spent 9 years (minimum) with the Cavaliers instead of 7. You might still get super teams on either coast but they'd be harder to form and shorter-tenured. Meanwhile hometown fans would have more to root for and longer to do it. As a fan of competitive balance--and a guy who understands that the sports world economy isn't like the "real" world and a player's right to choose where to work gets balanced against their unique advantages--those developments would appeal to me.

Got another idea? Share below.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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