Max Money, Max Problems

When the Miami Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh as free agents in 2010, it was a pretty big deal in basketball circles. People thought some wholesale change toward “superteams” would have to occur, and critics saw it as the death knell of “parity” in the NBA (a league in which two franchises, the Celtics and Lakers, had already won 33 titles between them). Of course, behind the veneer of the questionably kosher moves the Heat made to assemble their “Big 3” roster, there was the fact that no team in the history of basketball has won multiple championships in a short span without employing multiple Hall-of-Famers at once. Surely, Lebron wanted to lead a multi-championship team, but he wasn’t going to do it in Cleveland, with a subpar roster around him.

So, as we know, LeBron, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all took pay cuts to band together, since it would have been impossible to fit all three players’ max contracts under the NBA’s salary cap and still pay a roster that would not have been 75 percent minimum-wage schoolchildren and nuns. Even a team with that star power needs some sort of depth. Weeks prior to the Heat’s free agency coup, the Lakers had just sealed their second straight championship, the fifth for Kobe Bryant, who was in the midst of a max contract. Since that day, no team has claimed a championship while paying any player the maximum amount of money allowed. In 2010-11, the Mavericks’ leading earner was Dirk Nowitzki, whose $17.3 million salary that year was shy of the league’s maximum, and the team had three other players (Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, and Caron Butler) who earned more than $10 million that year.

The next two titles were claimed by the Heat, who paid their Big 3 around $16 million each. The 2014 title was won by the San Antonio Spurs, who also realized that their main cogs were too expensive to keep at market value, and therefore were able to compromise on reduced salaries that helped them stay competitive. Their best-known stars, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, made a combined $30.4 million, over $2 million less than Michael Jordan made by himself in the 1998 season, on a team that was only paying Scottie Pippen $2.8 million. Scottie, an easy Hall-of-Famer, had the misfortune of signing a long-term contract before the NBA, largely due to Jordan, skyrocketed in popularity and wealth.

This isn’t to say that teams haven’t tried to build around players making maximum money: one good example of an attempted superteam would be the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers, who somehow paid their three top-earning players (Kobe, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol) in excess of $66 million that year. To put this figure in context, the Lakers could have not paid Gasol at all, and the Kobe and Howard salaries would have still exceeded the nominal GDP of Tuvalu, which is an independent country with a functioning government and infrastructure. As a result, due to cap constraints, after the Lakers rounded out their starting five with past-prime Steve Nash and past-prime Metta World Peace, their bench could be charitably described as “Jesus Christ, anything but that.” As the basketball world saw, this was not necessarily the most fruitful experiment, and the (Kobe-less, but whatever) Lakers were unceremoniously disemboweled by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Kobe, while sidelined with an Achilles injury, signed a two-year pact for EVEN MORE YEARS OF MAX MONEY when he would almost assuredly never be himself again. Vegas does not like the Lakers’ odds of winning it all this year, for some bizarre reason.

Robert Sacre and Devin Ebanks (seen practicing above) saw bench minutes for the Lakers in the 2012-13 season.

Robert Sacre and Devin Ebanks (seen practicing above) saw bench minutes for the Lakers in the 2012-13 season.

One has to wonder whether players notice this phenomenon unfolding. I’m sure they do. This offseason, when Carmelo Anthony was mulling his free agency decision, he saw a set of suitors that could not offer him a good chance at a title (including, SURPRISE, the Los Angeles Lakers). Carmelo Anthony shows absolutely no signs of being a deluded or unintelligent man, none at all, so he probably also knows that the Knicks have an awful owner and a roster not nearly prepared to contend as currently composed, even in the far inferior Eastern conference. He and his representatives also knew, however, that the Knicks could offer him the most money of any team, due to rules codified in the most recent collective bargaining agreement (which was arguably influenced by the Heat’s moves just a year prior).

Carmelo’s choices essentially came down to “go somewhere else, make less, and don’t win anything” or “stay where I am, and where my wife wants to be. Maybe Phil Jackson figures out a magic spell or something. I don’t win anything, but I make more money.” When the choices are presented in that light, we’d probably all make the same decision. Maybe Carmelo accepted his fate as a very good player who’s being blocked from winning titles by players either in better organizational situations, or in the very rare strata of more talented players. Maybe he’ll sign for a contender in his mid-thirties when his deal runs out. Maybe he’ll do so at a discount.