Can the NBA solve its supermax problem by paying players at a younger age?

The NBA should start paying its players at a younger age.

Once again, the supermax contract (A.K.A. the designated player provision), along with all its power and possibility is at the center of the NBA offseason.

The contract, which escalates the portion of the salary cap a player can earn from 30 percent up to 35 percent so long as the player is still on the team that drafted him, has been a pro for eight years and made at least one All-NBA team in the previous season (other criteria work too but are harder to achieve). It’s supposed to be a juicy carrot to hold in front of the game’s best players.

As far as the controversy around it goes, we’ve been here before. When Kevin Durant declined to sign a big deal with Oklahoma City, it seemed like a doomsday scenario for the league, especially small-market franchises. Yet there were other organizations that simply did not deem their players worthy of huge paydays, including the Charlotte Hornets with Kemba Walker, Sacramento Kings with DeMarcus Cousins and Chicago Bulls with Jimmy Butler. Some situations saw elite players simply decline the contract even if they were eligible, like Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, knowing they could make up most of the money in future contracts or sponsorship deals. In other cases, many players did get the big bag, from Russell Westbrook to James Harden to John Wall to Chris Paul to Damian Lillard.

As a result, we are now in a situation in which the players who wielded control of their fate by turning down that huge money sit atop a league that is turning itself over in large part to account for the hefty salaries of those players who did sign their supermax. Take as an example the fact that Westbrook and Paul were traded for one another last summer and Westbrook and Wall could do the same before long. By creating a new class of contracts, the NBA also made it next to impossible to trade these players, which serves as a punishment to teams for doing the desirable thing and paying their homegrown talent. That means Washington and Houston in particular are now stuck with very few trade destinations that work and no real recourse to rebuild quickly should they have to deal their superstars.

All the while, the bets that Davis, Durant and Leonard made are paying off. They have been milking shorter contracts for all they’re worth and also wielding their leverage to get to more attractive markets and direct star teammates to their side. While the second tier of players is stuck in mud, aside from Harden, the elite talent that the supermax was designed to keep in place has been the most willing to shirk it off in favor of control and flexibility.

How can the NBA tweak its supermax structure to fix the problems it’s created?

Clearly, this is not what the NBA wanted, but that doesn’t mean the outcome is unexpected. The precise criteria players have to meet to be eligible almost ensures teams are overpaying based on past performance and carrying substantial risk for the future. The example of Butler and the Bulls illustrates this well. Butler was not a one-and-done college player, meaning by the time he’d been in the NBA eight years, he was already 30. Should Chicago have kept Butler and ponied up for a supermax for him after the 2018-19 season, he would have been in line for $40-plus million at age 35. Very few players in league history would be worth that type of contract at that age, and only one, LeBron James, exists in the league right now.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote when Chicago dealt Butler, the Bulls’ decision highlighted the grizzly luck-chasing the NBA has incentivized: “Unless you get a top-five player, a true superstar, you could get trapped in this cycle forever: draft a Jimmy Butler, get pretty good, blow it up, find a new Jimmy Butler — or a few interesting young players — and blow it up again before you have to pay them.”

But what if teams could pay elite young players sooner? The league was onto something with the Derrick Rose Rule, which creates optionality for a player’s second contract to balloon if they make All-NBA or are named MVP. If flattening maxes doesn’t incentivize the very best in the NBA enough, why not just replace the Rose Rule with a supermax? Give it to players at a younger age.

In the past, the league and the players’ union have discussed eliminating the difference between maximum contracts available to players coming off their first contracts versus these supermaxes, and all the others in between. If substituting Rose Rule extensions for supermaxes isn’t palatable out of concern that the next Andrew Wiggins could be even more overpaid, rather than setting normal maxes at 30 percent of the cap and supermaxes at 35 percent, why not settle on 32 percent total for all of them?

Other options have been discussed but none truly works as well. Third-Team All-NBA players are never going to be worth a supermax in the first place, so why not just punch up the criteria so that it’s only the Davises and Leonards of the world who are eligible? There’s no sense in creating drama around someone like Rudy Gobert getting a supermax, even if he’s likely to be eligible after the 2020-21 season.

Another idea that’s never really gone away is allowing teams with supermax players to only count those contracts partially against the salary cap. Maybe the 30 and 35 percent maxes could remain separate, but the supermax would count against the cap at the same value as the lower max, to even the playing field and treat the supermax solely as a financial reward rather than have it weigh down the franchise.

None of that quite eliminates the substantial risk of guaranteeing aging players long, expensive contracts like the flattened maxes would. By the time Durant came off his first contract, the Thunder knew they needed to keep their MVP candidate at all costs. Wouldn’t they have paid him 35 (or 32) percent of the cap? Of course.

It may sound like a small thing, but it isn’t. Westbrook’s supermax started in 2018-19, the same year that Nikola Jokic signed his regular maximum contract with Denver. Jokic will make $29.5 million in the third year of that deal. Westbrook is due $41.3 million. The money adds up quickly.

One would hope that allowing players on their second contract the chance to earn these hefty paydays would also create more parity among maximum deals. Last week, De’Aaron Fox, a promising if unaccomplished young point guard, inked the same contract as Jayson Tatum, a player who already has the same odds as Damian Lillard and James Harden to win the 2021 MVP award. There’s no convincing me that Fox and Tatum are equally valuable. It’s not just that older players are being overpaid for past performance. Young players are being underpaid too.

This is also a change the players’ union and owners would be more likely to agree on. Making it harder for players to earn more money by increasing the supermax criteria would not go over well with the NBPA, just as cutting the cap hit for supermax players would not bode well for some owners who already operate at a spending disadvantage in smaller markets.

What once was believed to be a carrot nobody wanted to eat, the supermax is now proving to be one nobody can digest. Westbrook and Wall did what the system intended and it hurt them and their teams far more than expected. While past fixes centered around keeping player and team married for longer, the bigger issue now is making things easier on those marriages. Rather than maintaining so many hoops that both sides must jump through to lock in a player on a big, long-term contract, it may be best now to allow the marriage to happen as early as possible so as to maximize the time together.