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Kevin Durant and the Sanctity of NBA Contracts

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A Blazers fan asks if Portland could get players at a discount rate. We explain why not. Hint: it’s more than just win totals.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant recently agreed to a 2-year, $53 million contract to remain with the Golden State Warriors, a discount of $9 million off his potential maximum salary. The news set off a flurry in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag inbox, talking about free agent signings, super teams, and unfair competition. We’re going to address those issues over the next couple Mailbags, starting with this query from Patrick.

Hi Dave:

Long time reader/thread poster, first time Mailbag question.

As we know, Golden State recently re-signed Durant, but he took a pay cut so other players could be re-signed as well. Not that they necessarily would, but could Dame & CJ (and to a lesser extent: Turner, Crabbe, and Leonard) renegotiate their respective contracts slightly (nothing major), for the team to be able to lower its salary cap, and give it more 'wiggle room' in signing a free agent, if they find one still available that they like? I'm sure Dame is well taken care of financially with his Adidas endorsement, making this a possible reality, I would think. Could this be a potential solution, and is something like this allowed?

Thanks,

Patrick

No, that’s not possible. Once a guaranteed contract is signed by both parties, there are only three ways out of it:

  1. Pre-determined “option” years for the player or the team that allow one party to terminate the agreement early.
  2. Catastrophic inability to fulfill the contract through permanent injury or a gross violation of its terms.
  3. The team can release a player through waivers. But waiving provides zero compensation—the player simply departs—and doesn’t even guarantee that his salary will come off the books. Nor can the team turn around and re-sign a player they just waived.

In the vast majority of cases, once you sign a deal, you’re stuck with it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The National Basketball Players Association has worked hard to make sure that NBA players get the money that they sign for. Player protections are not automatic. Consider the NFL, where athletes have played without guaranteed contracts since the beginning of time. (Often for far less than NBA players make, too.) Players and their agents would be fools to take steps backwards in this regard.

Players do have options when it comes to salary. Their first 4-5 years in the league are pre-determined; they’re at the mercy of the teams who drafted them. Compensation rules usually extend that period farther, up to 9 years or so. After that unrestricted free agency rolls around and they’re allowed to sign with whomever will pay them their desired amount. If they choose to take less money for the benefit of playing in a better situation (to them, anyway), they have that right.

Even so, taking every penny is encouraged in the vast majority of negotiations. Neither the union nor players want to set a precedent where teams and fan bases expect to offer (or buy out) contracts for pennies on the dollar. It sets an unfair standard, making people who demand to be compensated at the agreed-upon level look bad. It could even affect the salary structure of the league if it became common enough.

Salary ranges in professional sports are determined through “comps”, or comparisons between similar players. In grossly-simplified terms, a player putting up 15 and 8 per night signing a $10 million per year contract will help set the market for other players with the same relative stats and style. Absent special circumstances, a second player averaging 15 and 8 would have a hard time demanding $18 million per year once that $10 million contract has been signed.

Durant’s signing hardly matters because there aren’t many players like him. Guys at that level can demand whatever they want, whenever they want. KD’s discount won’t affect LeBron James’ salary one bit. But in the normal course of things players should strive to make every dollar they can to keep the market honest and everybody’s pockets lined. Once you’ve played 15 years as a star and have made enough to bankroll a small island, you can think about ring chasing at a discount. If you’re a Normal Joe, not knowing how long your career will last or if a big payday will ever come again, you strike while the iron’s hot.

If Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard all decided to sign reduced contracts at this stage of their careers, their agents would probably have a conniption fit. They’d remind them of the potential for injury. They’d point out that the Trail Blazers wouldn’t show similar regard for them if their production dropped...that the team would look out for itself first and not return the charity they’re showing. I’d expect that they’d get advice from other places too, perhaps colleagues or the union, talking about the need to be compensated fairly for their work and the responsibility to uphold that standard for everyone. That advice would be right, too.

The system works best when every player plays as hard as they can for the duration of their contract and every team offers the appropriate amount for them doing so. It’s perfectly legit for a player to take less under extraordinary circumstances—to play for a champion or his hometown team—but when a middle-of-the-road franchise starts needing special discounts in order to compete, that’s a team management/philosophy issue, not the responsibility of the players. If an organization can’t win games without asking the players to take less than they’re worth, they probably need to play for an organization that can manage both at the same time.

(P.S. Don’t forget that Durant’s contract is only for two years and has an opt-out. He’s going to get paid, just not quite as much this year.)

Stay tuned next week for Part 2: Super-Teams and How to Combat Them. In the meantime, send your own question in to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard