- Klay Thompson can no longer demand a supermax contract. Kemba Walker and the Hornets are in an awkward situation. Does the league's All-NBA supermax setup work for anyone?
The league released the All-NBA Team voting on Thursday, and Klay Thompson found out after the rest of us that his exclusion from the honor would prevent him from negotiating a supermax contract with the Warriors this summer. The disappointment on Klay’s face—perhaps more so to do with losing the distinction than the dollars—was uncomfortable to watch. On the other end of the spectrum, Hornets guard Kemba Walker made the All-NBA Third Team, which means he’ll be eligible for a mega contract this summer, putting Charlotte in a tricky position as it decides what to do with the best player in franchise history while trying to improve a roster that hasn’t made the playoffs in three seasons. Both the Klay and Kemba situations ultimately lead to the same question: Is the All-NBA supermax system working for anyone?
The supermax extension has already led to some issues, such as in the cases of Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, who told teams they wouldn’t sign the big deals, using the contract offer as leverage to try to force early exits from their teams. The All-NBA system adds to the fallout of what’s been a bevy of unintended consequences from the NBA’s most recent CBA. It’s worth pointing out that the supermax system, in theory, is designed to create parity around the league. The idea is that by allowing teams to offer homegrown stars massive money, it will prevent those stars from leaving, and it’s not a coincidence this system came into effect after Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors. We’ll circle back to the effectiveness of this system later, but for now, let’s talk about how frustrating it is for all the parties.
From the jump, the media is in a little bit of an uncomfortable position, because its awards votes now play a factor in potential earnings for the game’s top players. No one in the media that I know really cares for this responsibility. It’s awkward, and while most people take this voting incredibly seriously, the NBA still gives votes to people who do stupid stunts, like voting Dwyane Wade for the Second Team. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s a better system. Players being involved in the voting process for the All-Star Game hasn’t exactly been a slam dunk, and having fellow players play somewhat of a role in policing their contemporaries’ contracts could lead to a whole mess of other issues. I don’t expect anyone to have sympathy for the media in this process, nor should they, but it’s worth noting nobody really asked for this level of power.
For players, supermaxes force some unfair decisions. I’ve made this point before, but no player should have to choose between maximizing their earnings and maximizing their winning potential. Walker is in a weird spot this offseason. He’s incredibly important to the Hornets, and he should ask for all the money he’s earned. But what if he wants to play with other superstars, the kind of players Charlotte has had trouble signing? If Kemba wants to play with LeBron in L.A., he could end up sacrificing something like $80 million on his next contract. That’s bulls--t. In any case where a supermax locks a player into mediocrity, it’s unfair that he’s essentially being forced to choose between the best basketball situation, or signing for the most money that he’s earned through his stellar play.
Meanwhile, are the Hornets in a good position? Charlotte doesn’t have to offer Kemba a supermax, but then it risks alienating or insulting a player who has been the heart of the franchise for many years. The Hornets desperately need to reshuffle their roster, but that becomes considerably more difficult when one player is making 35% of the salary cap. Kemba is a great player and a legitimate All-Star. But building a championship contender becomes much more difficult when he’s being paid at the same level as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Stephen Curry. Again, no one is making the Hornets give Walker every last dollar, but are they any closer to a championship if he walks?
And what about Klay Thompson? Is it fair that he can’t earn a supermax contract even though he’s been a key cog of a team that’s made five straight NBA Finals? Did players like Rudy Gobert and Blake Griffin definitively have better seasons than Thompson, or were they aided by the positionality of the All-NBA rosters? The consequences of leaving players off run deep. Karl-Anthony Towns also didn’t earn supermax eligibility, which saves the Timberwolves millions of dollars against the salary cap and luxury tax. Isn’t that making team-building much easier for Minnesota compared to say, Charlotte?
There are too many threads to follow here. Some small-market teams actually gain an advantage when their best players are snubbed from end-of-year awards. Other teams are being locked into giant contracts that threaten to age poorly, especially when only an extremely select few players in the league are actually worth such a large percentage of the salary cap. Players in many cases have to choose between what’s essentially a bribe and pursuing the best basketball situation. The supermax is creating problems throughout the NBA, and I’m not sure it’s good for parity, either.
First of all, we’ve already seen players ditch the contracts when it interfered with their personal interests. Kawhi and AD both turned down the money, even though the supermax was created to make players like them stay in their respective cities. Meanwhile, teams that have handed out the contracts, like the Thunder and Wizards, haven’t exactly reaped the benefits of keeping their stars in house, and if anything have created bigger hurdles to putting together a championship contender. (It’s also worth asking if parity is what the NBA should be seeking. Parity of opportunity is important, to some extent. Things like the supermax and luxury tax are seemingly resulting in more problems than the robust middle class Adam Silver dreams of.)
The whole system is a mess, and a complete overhaul will almost certainly be required in the next CBA. These are solutions many people have offered at this point, but a good start would be making the All-NBA teams positionless, so the best 15 players in the league are actually being recognized. The NBA should also consider radical changes to the supermax. Maybe those type contracts can be offered by any team, but the player’s original team gets a salary cap break of some sort.
For now, nobody is winning. The media don’t want the pressure of being the deciding factor in these contracts. Players shouldn’t be put in a position of choosing between championship contention or an extra $80 million. And teams shouldn’t be relegated to salary-cap hell because they want to keep their best players on the roster. The All-NBA teams are supposed to be a celebration of what the game’s best did in the most recent season. Instead, it’s become a blatant reminder of how the current CBA is producing more problems than answers.