Tax Trumps Max: Contract Sticker Shock Set to Spike Some Egos
The Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith is set to be a free agent this summer. He thinks he deserves a maximum contract. His 17 points and eight rebounds per game aren't too shabby, but these days, they are hardly worthy of a max contract.
There are plenty of players who deserve to be paid handsomely, but a max contract should only be awarded to players who elevate their franchise to new levels both on and off the court.
A max contract player should bring more to the table than just basketball skills. He should be a can’t-miss attraction for fans no matter where his team is playing. Why? Because the new tax system that came with the last collective bargaining agreement in 2011 absolutely pounds franchises who stray north of the salary cap. When teams have to pay as much as 325% of the cap excess, even the richest clubs are going to take a big breath before venturing into that territory.
For example, the top two road attendance teams in the NBA are the Lakers and the Heat. Despite the state of our economy, fans still flock to arenas to see big names such as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Dwayne Wade perform. Putting this into perspective, the Nets have two max contract players in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson but are ranked just fifteenth in attendance.
In other words, mention the names of Messrs Williams and/or Johnson to a casual fan in the same sentence as 'Nets' and/or 'NBA,' and chances are the response is going to include the term, "Who?"
The players are not to blame for this false sense of entitlement, though. It’s the fault of the front office. As a team’s key player is set to enter free agency, owners and general managers feel the pressure to not let that player walk away.
This is how the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert inked a max contract deal, and it is also why Josh Smith holds some leverage in his current situation with the Hawks. However, given the severe impact of the salary cap tax, such deals are destined to become the exception rather than the rule. This is not meant to discredit the talent of a Roy Hibbert or a Josh Smith. It is simply meant to put the thought of a max-contract deserving player in its proper perspective.
Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant are all champions who even by themselves draw large crowds and keep their teams relevant. In comparison, Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and other above average talents simply can’t fit this bill.
Here's the new reality in the NBA: Max contracts will be rewarded to players whose presence alone makes their team a title contender. At the very least, that player should make his teammates look better.
And he definitely needs to make the team's bottom line look better.