The NBA Supermax: A Double-Edged Sword for Small-Market Teams
By: Dante Camilli
Life is hard for small-market teams in the NBA. The last few years of NBA drama has demonstrated that players call the shots in this league and franchises can only do so much to keep them happy. The Oklahoma City Thunder had three players on their roster during their 2011-2012 Finals appearance that went on to win MVP awards in the last decade, yet none of them are with the team anymore. Through a combination of contract concerns and frustration with a lack of winning, that nucleus was disbanded, however, James Harden and Kevin Durant are now reunited in a much larger market with the Brooklyn Nets. There is a laundry list of players in the NBA that expressed their unhappiness with their first franchise and were shipped off elsewhere. From Anthony Davis to Jimmy Butler, players always get what they want.
However, there is now a weapon that gives small-market teams a fighting chance at keeping their stars happy. That something is so powerful and absolute that it would be insane for a player to walk away from their first team. That weapon, of course, is money.
In 2017, the Designated Veteran Player Extension, otherwise known as the “super max” contract, was added to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The super max allows players who have played eight or nine years in the league to sign a contract with the team that drafted them, or a team that traded for them before their fifth year in the league, to a five-year deal worth somewhere between 30-35% of the team’s salary cap. For reference, the NBA’s salary cap for the 2020-21 season is $109.14 million, which would result in a salary of $38 million for a super max player. These contracts also yield an 8% annual increase in salary based off of the first year of the contract.
The only players that are eligible for the super max are those that make an All-NBA team, win MVP, or win Defensive Player of the Year for either the preceding season or two of the three seasons preceding their free agency.Seven players have signed a super max contract since its creation: Stephen Curry, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo…and Rudy Gobert. The outlier in this high profile list is Gobert, and his recent super max deal is a perfect illustration of the double-edged sword this weapon created for small-market teams.
Where it Works
To the relief of Milwaukee Bucks fans, two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo recently signed a $228,200,826 super max contract to remain with the Bucks and keep their championship window open for the next five years. Milwaukee is not an attractive place for NBA free-agents, but a combination of Antetokounmpo’s loyal nature and a ton of money was the perfect recipe for this small-market team to retain its biggest asset. The Bucks would have been set back several seasons if Giannis jumped ship for warmer weather in Miami or Los Angeles, but the super max gave them that extra incentive to retain the man who may be the next best player in the NBA (if LeBron ever slows down). By re-signing Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were able to keep their championship aspirations alive for the foreseeable future and feel better about trading three future first-round draft picks for Jrue Holiday.
This is where the super max shines: it gives the little guy a chance to outbid more attractive landing spots by way of an extra year and $51 million more in salary. Without this weapon at their disposal, Giannis would have certainly made it to free agency next summer and tested the water in other cities. Unfortunately for Milwaukee and other small-market teams, the water is a lot warmer in Miami.
Where it Hurts
On the other hand, the super max can potentially imposition small-market teams to re-sign one of their core pieces to more than he is really worth. Rudy Gobert is not a bad basketball player, in fact, he has won 2 of the last 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards, which is exactly what qualified him for the super max. However, Gobert’s numbers on the offensive end are not awe inspiring. In 2021, Gobert is averaging a scoring career high. That statistic does not compare as well because Gobert has averaged 11.7 points per game (PPG) in his career and is eclipsing that with a scalding 12.5 PPG to begin the season.
A comparable big man who will be making considerably less than Rudy Gobert this offseason is Andre Drummond, a center for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Drummond is an upcoming free agent this offseason and he has been scoring 18.7 PPG and pulling in 14.6 rebounds per game. Drummond is making $28,751,775 in the last year of his current contract and his value in his upcoming free agency is uncertain due to the ever-evolving NBA and the phasing out of the prototypical big man.
Conversely, Gobert’s super max extension will net him $35,344,828 next season and $46,655,173 in the final year of his contract when he is 33 years old. The difference between Gobert and Drummond is hard to pinpoint by just scrolling through their Basketball Reference pages. If you had watched the last couple years of the NBA, you would know that Gobert is a force on the defensive end, consistently finishing as a top defensive rebounder and routinely finishing as a top 5 shot blocker. That of course led him to his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, qualifying him for the super max.
However, Gobert’s accolades now hold the Utah Jazz prisoner to paying an aging big man an average of $41 million for the next five years. The Jazz are a perennial playoff team with the duo of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, but they have not been higher than the fifth-seed come playoff time, and have never been to a Western Conference finals with those two at the helm.
This is a prime illustration of where the super max actually punishes small-market teams for trying to keep their nucleus together. Gobert is an outlier because he does not provide the offensive output that normally coincides with NBA stardom, but by fitting perfectly into the language of the CBA he is millions of dollars richer. The Jazz will continue to be a competitive team for the foreseeable future, but if Gobert begins to slow down, they may be in cap hell until his contract runs out. Next season Donovan Mitchell begins the first year of his five-year $163 million dollar contract, which will certainly make it harder for the Jazz to bring in other pieces to help them get through the highly competitive Western Conference.
This does not mean that the super max is a failure. When the current CBA runs out in 2024, some iteration of it will exist, it just begs the question of how it may be restructured.19 We have seen in three years of its existence that it can be a strong weapon for small-market teams to keep free agent suitors at bay, but it is also a tool that can severely hamper the cap flexibility of an NBA team. Perhaps the next CBA will include a provision making super max contracts an exclusive club open only to league MVPs. Regardless, it is an interesting creation by the NBA that, in the right hands, gives decision making power back to all NBA teams.
 NBA, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant a Big Three for Big Moments, nba.com (January 26th, 2021), https://www.nba.com/nets/news/sidebar/2021/01/25/nets-notes-james-harden-kyrie-irving-kevin-durant-a-big-three-for-big-moments
 Scott Davis, NBA supermax contracts pay stars at least $200 million to stay with their teams - but they're backfiring as often as they work out, Business Insider India (December 22nd, 2020),https://www.businessinsider.in/sports/news/nba-supermax-contracts-pay-stars-at-least-200-million-to-stay-with-their-teams-but-theyre-backfiring-as-often-as-they-work-out/articleshow/79881466.cms#:~:text=The%20supermax%20allows%20players%20entering,made%20an%20All%2DNBA%20team.
 CBA Breakdown, Contract Types, cbabreakdown.com (n.d.), https://cbabreakdown.com/contract-types
 CBA Breakdown, Salary Cap Overview, cbabreakdown.com (n.d.), https://cbabreakdown.com/salary-cap-overview#:~:text=The%20Salary%20Cap%20for%20the,20%20season%20is%20%2498.226%20million
 Davis, supra.
 CBA Breakdown, Compensation, cbabreakdown.com (n.d.), https://cbabreakdown.com/compensation
 Davis, supra.
 Spotrac, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Spotrac.com (n.d.), https://www.spotrac.com/nba/milwaukee-bucks/giannis-antetokounmpo-13328/
 James Herbert, Trade grades: Bucks acquire Jrue Holiday from Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three-first round picks, CBS Sports (November 17th, 2020), https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/trade-grades-bucks-acquire-jrue-holiday-from-pelicans-for-eric-bledsoe-george-hill-three-first-round-picks/
 Giannis Antetokounmpo, supra.
 Basketball Reference, Rudy Gobert, basketballreference.com (n.d.), https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/goberru01.html
 Basketball Reference, Andre Drummond, basektballreference.com (n.d.), https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/d/drumman01.html
 Spotrac, Andre Drummond, spotrac.com (n.d.), https://www.spotrac.com/nba/cleveland-cavaliers/andre-drummond-10817/
 Spotrac, Rudy Gobert, spotrac.com (n.d.), https://www.spotrac.com/nba/utah-jazz/rudy-gobert-13340/
 Basketball Reference, Gobert, supra.
 Basketball Reference, Utah Jazz Franchise Index, basketballreference.com (n.d.), https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/UTA/
 Spotrac, Donovan Mitchell, spotrac.com (n.d.)
 Adrian Wojnarowski, Sources: NBA, NBPA agree to extend CBA termination deadline through September, ESPN (May 11, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29161104/nba-nbpa-agree-extend-cba-termination-deadline-september