The NBA's Supermax Is Doing What It Was Supposed To

The provisions of a collective bargaining agreement can be tricky things. After all, by definition they’re negotiated and agreed upon by parties with different and largely opposed interests, who will want different and often directly conflicting things out of them. The purpose or intent of any given one of them can differ wildly depending on where you’re standing and to whom you’re talking. So it follows that your choice of where to stand and whom to talk to has meaning.

Take the NBA’s Designated Veteran Player Extension (DVPE), more commonly known as the “supermax” extension, for example. This is a provision of the 2017 collective bargaining agreement that grants a team, under certain conditions, exclusive rights to offer a qualifying player a contract extension for up to five additional years and with a starting salary equal to up to 35-percent of the total salary cap—far more than the rules allow that player to receive from other teams in free agency.

The conditions are important. In order to qualify to receive a supermax extension, a player must be entering their eighth or ninth NBA season; must be under contract with either the team that drafted them or a team that obtained them via trade while they were still playing out their rookie contract; and must have met certain high performance standards, such as having made All-NBA teams or won the MVP or Defensive Player of the Year award within a set time-frame.

The context for its creation likewise is important. In the summer of 2016, with the league’s salary cap spiking due to its huge TV contract and with no provisions specially privileging incumbent employers, free-agent Kevin Durant left the team that had drafted him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, for the team that had defeated the Thunder in that spring’s playoffs, the Golden State Warriors, forming a uniquely dominant juggernaut in Oakland. All of Durant’s suitors, including the hometown Thunder, had been offering broadly identical contract terms, circumscribed by the salary cap and the league’s maximum-salary rules—leaving Durant to base his decision on other factors, such as Golden State’s loaded roster and the near-certainty that joining it would mean playing historically great basketball and winning at least one championship.

The salary cap spike was an anomaly, all but certain never to recur, and everybody knew it. Without it, a team as stacked as the Warriors couldn’t have come close to making a competitive offer for a free-agent of Durant’s magnitude. (And that’s leaving aside that both the Warriors and Durant were themselves extremely rare anomalies in the history of the sport, by definition unlikely in the extreme even once, let alone more than once.) The simple passage of time would have sufficed to ensure nothing like the summer of 2016 ever happened again. Nevertheless, with the public and the media understandably recoiling from a new concentration of superstar talent that seemed to make (and then did make) a joke of the next two championship races, the owners seized the opportunity to leverage the “super-team” boogeyman in the ensuing round of bargaining, with themselves positioned as parity’s noble defenders.

What emerged from this was the DVPE, the supermax. What is the supermax supposed to do? That depends on where you’re standing. Nominally, superficially, it addresses two concerns. For one thing, from ownership’s side, it gives franchises a tool they can use to retain the rare and infinitely precious homegrown superstar, by offering that superstar better contract terms than anybody else can. From the players’ side, it allows the game’s very best players, who have also for many years been its most underpaid thanks to the artificial ceiling that the salary cap puts over their earnings, to receive something closer to fair remuneration for their work.

On these terms, the supermax has been an unambiguous failure. From the parity side, few players reach supermax eligibility, and of those, several have straight-up rejected supermax offers, accepting smaller salaries as the price of choosing where to play. Insofar as you buy that it was intended to prevent precisely this sort of thing, this summer’s spectacle of a handful of the league’s absolute best players deliberately concentrating themselves in huge coastal markets renders a pretty definitive verdict on the provision’s value as a parity measure.

Meanwhile, of the five supermax deals agreed upon by organizations and players, two—Russell Westbrook’s and John Wall’s, in Oklahoma City and Washington respectively—pretty immediately came to seem like grave mistakes on the part of the organizations. The Thunder had to take back a 34-year-old due up to $124 million over the next three seasons (Chris Paul) in order to trade away Westbrook last week, complicating that team’s pivot into a youth-centric rebuild. The Wizards likewise find themselves stalled out in the middle of what otherwise would be a total teardown of the roster, because the injured Wall’s contract is all but immovable. Meanwhile, the NBA’s absolute biggest stars likely still receive a mere fraction of their worth in actual basketball salary, and can’t even get the most for which they’re eligible without dooming themselves to playing on crippled teams locked out of meaningful roster improvement. 

That last bit helps get at the supermax’s real value to ownership, one that has very little if anything to do with concerns about competitive balance. Here it’s worth noting that the provision changes nothing about the total amount that franchises can pay out in salary to players, only allowing a means by which that amount can be reapportioned to allow a single player to make 35-percent of a team’s salary cap allowance. What good is that? Here’s The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy, to explain it on ownership’s behalf in a piece that blames the supermax on Chris Paul’s leadership of the players’ union:

The supermax is a symptom of a larger disease. Richer teams will always have an advantage when the punishment for overspending is a punitive tax. Addressing that calls for an action far more dramatic than the designated player provision; instituting a hard cap that enforces a spending limit could be a start.

And here’s Bob Kravitz, writing for The Athletic:

While NBA Twitter was entranced by the wild machinations of free agency and offseason trades, where KD and Kyrie decided to look for their elusive happiness in Brooklyn, where Kawhi and Paul George chose to join forces with the Clippers, where Anthony Davis left New Orleans to join LeBron, where the rich generally got richer, small-market teams were left with their noses pressed up against the glass.

Is this healthy?

Let me answer my own question.

This is not healthy.

Would a hard cap — and good luck negotiating that into the next collective bargaining agreement — level the playing field?

Let me answer my own question again.

Absolutely.

This is the value of the supermax to ownership. A half-measure designed in combination with the salary cap and luxury tax to ensure that the league’s top stars could only make gains at the expense of everybody else, it could succeed by failing.

Players who accepted it could become, in media portrayals, grasping untradeable albatrosses who’d recklessly crippled their own teams. Players who declined it, preferring choice and leverage in free agency, could be portrayed as no-less-grasping insurrectionists wrecking the league so they can play with their buddies in the big city. Cheapskate owners could have an excuse for failing to build around transcendent players that shifted blame onto those players themselves (Hey, we’re paying this asshole over a third of the cap, nobody can say we’re not willing to pay to win) and a defense they could offer to fans for losing those transcendent players in free-agency (Hey, we offered this asshole way more money than anybody else, he just rejected you, personally, the people of [X city]). This summer even proved that teams can get away with never even putting a supermax offer on the table when beloved homegrown players hit the market. The Charlotte Hornets were happy to let Kemba Walker escape to Boston and trust everyone would interpret it as smart team building, which is exactly the analysis The Ringer’s O’Shaughnessy offers for it. What the supermax has done is completely insulate ownership from receiving any criticism for how it has altered the league.

But this insulation is only functional for as long as wised-up, GM-brained basketbloggers choose to do ownership’s work for it. They do this by advancing the idea that superstar players being permitted to seek salaries closer to their actual value amounts to a conspiracy between those players and the league’s richest franchises—on the phony basis that those franchises are the only ones that can afford to spend into the luxury tax to build actual functioning rosters around supermax salaries. If one such wised-up, GM-brained basketblogger wanted to be the most effective stooge possible for ownership, they could pitch the idea of a hard salary cap—in other words, the idea of paying the players less money. The specter of the richest big-city owners outspending the rest could be leveraged to sell an idea that benefits all of those owners, at the expense of the players.

The idea that a hard salary cap will create parity is almost too silly and baseless to engage with, especially because parity self-evidently is a less worthy goal than labor fairness, and one the owners themselves only care about insofar as they can use it as a cudgel against the interests of the people doing the NBA’s actual work. But if anything, the exact lesson of the past several summers of free agency ought to be that attempts at leveling the financial playing field between the mega-rich franchises in media capitals and the somewhat less obscenely rich franchises in the middle of the country just serve to exacerbate the very reasons the big coastal cities have more money to spend in the first place: They’re more appealing places to live and work, which is why so many people want to live and work in them. After all, nearly every superstar who changed teams this summer took somewhat less than the absolute largest possible payday in order to do so, for the sake of choosing where to spend the next chunk of their life.

From that perspective, yeah, the supermax isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. From another, it has laid a rhetorical basis for once again posing the players’ justified pursuit of fair salaries as antithetical to the interests of the sport. That’s the supermax working as intended, for the owners. With a little help from their friends, of course.

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