The NBA supermax and the price of loyalty

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With another All-NBA berth the next season (2017-18), Butler would qualify for a five-year, $220 million supermax — vaulting to a salary equivalent to 35 percent of the salary cap, 5 percentage points more than normal for a player at his experience level. The difference would amount to $25 million or more over the full deal. Add annual 8 percent raises that might outpace growth in the cap, and such a deal could soak up 40 percent of a team’s cap space on the back end. It is as large a commitment as exists in the NBA.

Butler was the only star on a mediocre team. Without finding a second, and perhaps a third, the Bulls would go nowhere interesting during the length of Butler’s supermax. The sheer size of his deal could make luring those stars harder. china nike

Butler was about to turn 28. Depending on your taste, he at that point was somewhere between the eighth- and 12th-best player in the league. You do the supermax for a healthy top-five-ish guy in that age range without thinking; supermaxes for James Harden and Stephen Curry are no-brainers. Ditto for the deals with which Milwaukee and New Orleans hope to eventually retain Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, respectively. You shouldn’t do it for the 20th-best player. In between? That’s where it gets hard.

Butler carried Tom Thibodeau miles on his knees. A five-year deal would take Butler into the downslope of his career. Everyone knows a five-year max for a 33-year-old is probably going to end badly. The Rockets coaxed Chris Paul, 33, into a shorter four-year deal, and must still fear the projected bang-for-the-buck in Years 3 and 4.5

It is the kind of intentional step back more teams seem comfortable making — and one a majority of executives around the league consider appropriate, if painful.

Reducing the length of contracts in the last two collective bargaining agreements has accelerated the timing of those decisions. Stars reach their third contracts, the pivot point which tests commitment between player and team, earlier than they used to — before they even turn 30.

Chicago cut bait on the Butler era. The Kings wanted no part of a supermax for DeMarcus Cousins. Some within the Pacers had qualms about a supermax for Paul George, sources say — a dilemma that never came to pass, since George did not make an All-NBA team in 2017 before Indiana traded him.

The Clippers re-signed Blake Griffin, then 28 and their first homegrown star in decades, to a regular 30 percent max — and traded him at the first opportunity for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley on an expiring contract and a pick at the back of the lottery. We hailed it as a victory for LA.

John Wall (27) and Russell Westbrook (29) will earn almost $50 million toward the end of their supermax deals. Both have multiple knee surgeries in the rearview. There is a real chance that one or both of those contracts become of the sort of albatross that hangs on a team for years. Some teams, even those short on star talent, would not trade their best assets (or anything close, in some cases) for either.