These rookie salaries, which usually last four years, exist solely for the protection of NBA franchises so they don’t have to deal with another Glenn Robinson and Milwaukee Bucks situation. Robinson owns the distinction of having signed the richest rookie deal in the history of the NBA at $68 million over a 10-year period.
The following year, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed between the NBA owners and the NBA Players Union, instituting a rookie salary cap of sorts. This effectively eliminated rookie holdouts (a good thing) and saved franchises from signing unproven rookies to ridiculous contracts (a great thing).
Now it goes without saying, not many players are receiving these anymore for obvious reasons: Team salaries have become more rigid. The salary cap has tightened up with the much more punitive nature of the latest iteration of the CBA. This has fundamentally altered the landscape of free agency and, thus, driven down salaries for players for the fear of receiving exorbitant luxury tax bills from the commissioner’s office.
Despite these external pressures, teams are still offering max contracts to players approaching the end of their rookie contracts. John Wall, of the Washington Wizards, got his. Paul George from the Indian Pacers recently received a long-term deal. Kyrie Irving is sure to receive one in the summer of 2014 and DeMarcus Cousins is closing in on an extension with Sacramento before play begins for the 2013-2014 season.
With these future potential post-rookie max extensions up-in-the-air, let’s review some of the more recent max contract extensions and see where they rank in terms of value and risk.
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1. KEVIN DURANT – SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
My two-year-old nephew couldn’t have screwed this up. Durant had just made his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game, led the league in PPG and was the darling of Oklahoma City and the envy of every GM not named Pat Riley. If not for a certain King in Miami, Durant would probably have won the MVP award at least twice since 2010. He also happened to lead the league in scoring twice since signing his extension on top of leading his team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012.
2. JAMES HARDEN â€“ SG, Houston Rockets
This is exactly the reason I don’t blame Sam Presti for trading Harden away. Sure, Thunder fans probably feel differently about it but under this new CBA, unless your name is Mikhail Prokhorov, it’s impossible to retain basically four max contract players (Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka). The Houston Rockets immediately signed him to a max contract offer, then Harden proceeded to crown himself the best shooting guard in the NBA, not with talk but his actions. There were many critics who wondered if Harden was worth the max but 25.9 PPG, 5.8 APG and 4.9 RPG while carrying your team to the playoffs quieted pretty much everybody. It even convinced Dwight Howard that he would rather play with Harden than Kobe. I’m pretty sure Sam Presti still has nightmares about Harden’s Euro step move, especially after Russell Westbrook went down with the knee injury in the playoffs last season.
3. BLAKE GRIFFIN â€“ PF, Los Angeles Clippers
He’s on his list not because of his statistical output or less-than-stellar playoff record. Rather it’s all the intangibles that Griffin offers. He brought excitement, hope and a general positive outlook to this god-forsaken franchise. He dominates highlights, fills the stands with fans, plus sells jerseys, cars, sandwiches, etc. He’s marketing gold. He’s not the perfect player: He flops too much, doesn’t defend the rim like he should and doesn’t have the type of post game that scares anyone — ask the Memphis Grizzlies. But he earns every cent of his max contract extension in other ways. He’s also probably a huge reason why Chris Paul decided to re-sign with the Clippers. That in itself should warrant consideration for a Nobel Prize, right? Or at least a seat in Congress.