NBA Utopia Project: Let Kobe Bryant get paid without it hurting the Lakers

The three best values in the NBA are players stuck on rookie-scale contracts, contributors making the minimum and true superstars. Each group makes less than what they contribute, which could make sense for players new to the league or on the fringes.

But the existence of a maximum salary means the best players in the NBA cannot make what they deserve, a point bemoaned by stars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as well as National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts.

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In an August series, the NBA Utopia Project, we set out to fix the league in the abstract or at least to think harder about the way the NBA is set up. We would love your participation, and any suggestions or ideas you have can be sent to [email protected] or posted on Twitter with the hashtag #NBAUtopia. Today, we are examining the maximum contract and how to make it more fair for the players within the constructs of the NBA’s soft salary cap system.

Keeping the max

Removing a maximum for player contracts would help with fairness. After all, it is strange for the players most fans pay to see to be among the most likely to be underpaid. Other forms of entertainment — including other sports leagues — underpay lesser figures to give stars their due. The NBA could adopt that logic with a downside that many teams with the best individual talents would be inferior on the aggregate because the money owed to that one player limits what they can pay the rest of the team, even with a less rigid system than the NFL. Functional limitations even hit MLB franchises, and they can spend whatever they want!

The middle ground would be maintaining individual maxes but making them much higher. Under the current agreement, players’ salaries are limited to 25 percent of the salary cap if they have 0-6 years of experience (with an exception for players qualifying for the Rose Rule), 30 percent if they have 7-9 years of experience and 35 percent with 10 or more seasons of service time. Shifting these up to 30, 35 and 40 or even 35, 40 and 45 pushes those stars closer to their worth without throwing the balance out of whack.

Increasing the max also makes “super teams” harder to assemble because using cap space to add more than two becomes almost completely unworkable. That change helps prior teams retain their pivotal pieces while still leaving the door open for players to chart their own path.

There would be less money for the middle class of NBA players, a group that has reaped the rewards of its sport's booming finances more than any other. Players who are not valued as superstars would not be able to make as much as they have in the past, but there still would be teams without maximum-level stars looking to field six or seven very good players to compete.

Those teams also would not have to deal with aging superstars becoming burdens on the salary cap. But in this NBA Utopia Project, we have built in an exception for that purpose.

The Cornerstone Exception

The Lakers limited their ceiling by paying Bryant what he was worth to them. The Heat are struggling to fairly compensate Dwyane Wade while maintaining the flexibility to be a contender in the East.

Adding what we are calling a “Cornerstone Exception” solves that problem and a few other major issues in terms of competitive balance. The premise is simple: Players who have spent nine or more years with their current team would be allowed to have only half of their contracts count against the salary cap and the individual maximum.

That makes a huge difference because it gives franchises an extra tool to retain stars in their prime who have played their entire career with that team. The Cornerstone Exception takes Bryant from a $25 million albatross to a workable $12.5 million cap number without cutting his salary at all and would allow Oklahoma City to offer Kevin Durant almost $30 million more per season than any other team.

The seasons counting for the Cornerstone Exception can be non-consecutive, meaning players like James (after the coming season) and Kevin Garnett, who left their first franchises, could return with this added flexibility.

Since teams would receive a discount based on their unique circumstance, trading a Cornerstone player would put their entire salary on the new team’s cap unless that individual had also spent ni

ne-plus seasons with the acquiring franchise. While that provides a de facto no-trade clause, since teams get the primary benefit of this change, using this exception also gives the player a full no-trade clause that disappears entirely if they waive it and the trade occurs.

Giving front offices this power adds some pressure on their side too because it takes away the easiest excuse for letting a star get away. Additionally, a nine-year timeline is long enough to prevent players from leveraging trades to big markets early in their career to facilitate these eventual paydays. Players would have a reason to be loyal to their teams, and teams would have a way to pay those players what they deserve.