LeBron James Is The NBA’s $alary Capped Crusader

"I'm going to show the people of Gotham that the city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt. People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can't do this as Bruce Wayne. A man is just flesh and blood and can be ignored or destroyed. But as a symbol… As a symbol, I can be incorruptible, everlasting." — prodigal son Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins

“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” — LeBron James in "I'm Coming Home" Sports Illustrated essay, July 11, 2014


It’s been a week since I last proselytized about the legendary return of Cleveland’s Dark Knight and already King James is leading his team into battle.

However, the four-time MVP reps more than just the Cleveland Cavaliers. The King who once pursued the NBPA Presidency has an unofficial responsibility to be an example for his peers across the league by not leaving money on the table for owners to stuff back into their pockets.

Financially, his arrival alone could rake in $500 million annually for the Cleveland economy , but James is far from making Bruce Wayne loot. Dan Gilbert is. Which is why James is playing hardball for his max money this time around. No longer taking paycuts to chase rings, James is reaching for a handful of bling.

Already, James has doubled down on shaking up the basketball world by eschewing a long-term deal for what appears on its surface to be a two-year $42.1 million pre-nuptial agreement with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This time around James wants to keep the front office on its toes, but this isn’t about going anywhere at the conclusion of his current deal. He’s finally embracing his place as the Jordan of this era on the court and as a capitalist off of it.

James is looking to maximize his earnings on the basketball court by angling for a projected five-year, $161 million deal in 2016.

Moreover, his machinations are dependent on the expiration of the NBA’s current eight-year $7.5 billion dollar television contract with Turner Sports/TNT and ESPN/ABC following the 2015-16 season. Early projections indicate that the next deal struck for the NBA’s broadcast rights will approach $15 billion over the same length.

The increased revenue would trickle down to the salary cap. While the first year of a max contract cannot eclipse 35 percent of the salary cap, if the cap increases from $63 million to $80 million because of an influx of revenue, James is in for a windfall analogous to the one his NFL counterparts are about to experience (just in case he decides he still wants to play tight end err… receiver for Manziel).

Without James’ Bird Rights, the Cavs could only offer James $22 million annually for four years. To put that figure in perspective, Anthony’s max could only scratch the ceiling of $26 million annually over the course of five-years.

However, Anthony left $5 million dollars on the table and settled for $124 million.

It's not all armored Brinks trucks and private jets for the ambitious salary capped crusader. Adversity looms over the horizon for James and his peers in 2017.

In the history of the modern NBA salary cap era, anytime player salaries spike, it portends a lockout by owners.

It seems like yesterday that the league was resuming business after a 161-day lockout. Yet, in the summer of 2017, the most relevant player opt-out will be the player’s union’s collective bargaining agreement opt-out option.

Michael Jordan’s one-year $30 million was the golden standard for athletes until he struck oil with $33 million deal in ‘97. Even after years of inflation, James could only have reached those astronomical numbers after three seasons if he’d agreed to the max Cleveland could offer.

That’s because in response to Jordan’s paradigm-shifting contract, miser owners clipped maximum contract amounts and implemented a seven-year limit on contract lengths.

In 2004, that became a six-year maximum and in 2011, the maximum length was shortened to five years.

The union didn’t oppose restrictions on high-end salaries too vehemently for a number of reasons. For one, superstar max salary players are the 1 percent in the NBA’s economic hierarchy. The proletariat class, which constitutes the vast majority of the union, will never see that type of money.

The ’97-98 season is enshrined in the minds of fans as Michael Jordan’s swan song, but those Chicago Bulls were also the epitome of the league’s increasing stratification.

That divide was never more noticeable than in the case of Jordan’s yacht-sized contract and Pippen’s dinghy checks.

Pippen had to feel some type of way about his modest pauper paper after seeing those incongruent numbers. Jimmy Sexton’s license should have been revoked for letting Kukoc, the ghost of Ron Harper and Luc “Jay Bilas Loves Him Because He’s So” Longley earn more than a Top 50 all-time teammate in his prime.

During a season in which the salary cap was set at $26.9 million, His Airness pocketed 18 percent more than the soft cap’s ceiling!

That would be the modern equivalent of James making $3 million fewer than next season’s $77 million luxury tax when the soft cap is set at $63.2 million.

During the lockout that followed, the league’s 29 owners claimed that half of the league's franchises were losing money. Renowned economist Roger Noll determined that only four or five teams were in the red while the rest were deceptively hiding revenues through creative means.

In 2011, mismanaged franchised used similarly subversive accounting practices to make like Oliver Twist and ask for more of the revenue-sharing pie.

Those claims have been the reasoning behind owners pursuing a bigger piece of the league’s basketball-related income in every negotiation since the 1995 CBA was signed.

In the 19 years since then, the player's share of Basketball-Related Income has fallen from 60 percent to 50.

The 2005 CBA allowed 10.5 percent annual raises beginning in the second year of new deals for teams that own a player's Bird Rights. In 2011, that increase were lowered to 7.5 percent.

The rapidly increasing value of franchises and the exorbitant television deals being signed around the league mitigates should make similar claims during the next round of CBA negotiations fall on deaf ears.

The NBA’s owners has been pushing for a hard cap for two decades, but that’s a non-starter for the players.

For one, a hard cap would diminish market value for superstars of James’ ilk and fringe stars. The average NBA salary is $5.56 million, which is the highest of any major professional sport, more than double the average $2.4 million compensation for the players in 1998.

The elimination of loopholes that allows teams to exceed the cap such as Bird Rights, the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions would most likely eradicate the super team era and foster parity that resembles the NFL's. Parity works for the NFL, but it remains to be seen how fans of the Association would react to a socialist league hierarchy.

Despite the last 15 years of prosperity, superstar contracts have stagnated in the last 16 years and only Kobe Bryant is the only player to earn $30 million in a single season since Jordan. Unlike the rest of American society, the middle class is climbing. However, the NBA’s top five players make an average of $10 million less than the NFL’s top five or $2 million more than their MLB counterparts.

Dirk Nowitzki turning down max offers from the Lakers and Rockets to sign a three-year $25 million contract is the antithesis of Kobe Bryant’s cap monster of an extension.

Former NBA agent Joel Corry, who I spoke to about the trend, detests to the idea of the trend of player’s taking significantly less to win, blaming the '98-99 lockout, the luxury tax and Tim Duncan’s reign atop the West.

“I bet some of these same people advocating that in the media wouldn’t like it if their boss said ‘You know you need to take less than what you’re worth because in order for us to gain a larger market share of readership from viewers or subscribers, we need to attract better talent so that we have the strongest writing and broadcast crew around. So you need to sacrifice. I don’t think they’d like it if it applied to them.’” Corry told TSL with the repulsed tone of a vegetarian who’d just bitten into a McRib.

“None of these guys who are superstars are really earning their true value,” Corry added. “because if you didn’t have maximums, even if you have the luxury tax, James probably never leaves Cleveland because they would have been able to offer him $30 to $35 million a year and then it becomes too great of a disparity to consider taking less.”

Corry harkens back to the inception of the max contract during the prolonged ’99 NBA lockout as the moment when the NBA superstars diverged from the path leading to way A-Rod type numbers.

IN 2008, O’Neal would quip about seeking a $200 million extension from his Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, but Corry envisioned Shaq’s first Lakers pay raise deal as a $200 million, seven-year contract reality nearly a decade earlier.

“When I was working with and still doing consulting with my old boss in Orlando, you could still opt-out after three-years. We were going to have Shaq opt out after three years and ask for crazy money. Theeen… there’s the lockout and salary maximums. So that prevented us from doing that and it was better under the collective bargaining rules to sign the extension as opposed to opting out.” Corry explained.

The rank-and-file members of the union don’t want to relive another lopsided Bulls payroll scenario, but there is one proposal floating in the peripherals that could create payroll parity and simultaneously allow superstars to maximize their earning potential.

Commissioner Adam Silver is set on capitalizing on the soccer craze and mimicking FIFA’s Champions League by creating a mid-season NBA tournament in Vegas, however, the NBA is adopting concepts from the wrong soccer league.

MLS’ designated player tag should be the model for the NBA’s next salary cap shakeup.

Although the league’s salary has never eclipsed $4 million, each team is able to lure one player into one of their two designated player slots, which enables the owner to pay the majority ($335,000 is charged to the cap) of that player's negotiated salary. This exception enabled the LA Galaxy to sink their teeth into David Beckham .

In mid-February, Agent Bernie Lee proposed a similar idea called the “super max" extension , which would allow the most under-compensated superstars in sports-entertainment to earn their actual market value.

My criteria for a super max would be for a player who has achieved a certain number of deemed items. Items such as All-League 1st team, MVP or All-Star teams that you take a while to accomplish. Most players would have to wait till their third contracts to hit these goals, thus making these the deals signed by bonafide stars at about the age of 28 or 29, which is basically an NBA player's prime.

When achieved, that player would qualify for a super max contract that would have a dollar range that is between one dollar above the max contract of the league to ¾ for the total salary cap number of the entire league, which is $58 million this year. The super max number for this year would be $43.95 million.

The length of this contract would be for four years max, although you could add in a clause that limits this contract length to two years for players over 35 so it doesn’t become the golden hand shake seen in the corporate world. And it could only be offered by the team the last contract was completed by, i.e. it would also be an extension of the Bird rights and would assist teams in the retention of superstar players and more strongly increase the partnerships and bonds that develop between a superstar player in one market for his entire career.

This contract would not count towards the salary cap.

The aspect of the super max not counting against the salary cap is the real game-changer.

Under the current CBA, teams that exceed the cap and cross the threshold into the luxury tax are forced to pay punitively for every dollar they're over the limit which is why Oklahoma City traded James Harden rather than pony up for an $80 million extension.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets paid $90 million in luxury taxes alone this season for their $100 million roster.

An additional stipulation that prevents teams from operating at a particular limit above the cap or repeat luxury tax offenders, from amputating the super max from their gangrening salary cap/luxury tax punishments could be implemented to further promote parity.

However, only a handful of teams would be able to take advantage of this super max extension, therefore a mini-super max could be instituted for an All-Star on the roster to remain off the cap. Most importantly, a key component of that idea would be the requirement that it could only be offered the team that owns a player's Bird Rights.

When I explained Bernie Lee’s idea to Corry, he paused and actually assessed that it could garner support in the players union.

“That would end this whole players trying to collude so they can create super teams. If you can pay your one guy whatever you want and the other guys fit in the cap elsewhere that stacks the deck to stay put financially.”

However, drastic alterations to the salary cap structure for star players creates uncertainty and may frighten the owners into rebuffing that sort of offer.

“And Billionaires can wait out millionaires,” Corry interjected.

After years of sacrificing revenue sharing for the benefit of struggling owners, the sales of the Clippers, Kings and Bucks indicates that the tide has turned. It may be time for the players to look out for self and have the owners make concessions by forking over a few percentages back in their current 50-50 revenue-sharing agreement.

That way the league’s iconic superstars can continue their climb up the financial ladder into position to become future owners, the remainder of the league’s blue collar stars continues tracking upwards as well and the league doesn’t skip a beat. The odds are slim, but with a new executive director in place of Billy Hunter, perhaps the player's union can turn the tide after two decades of taking it on the chin.

Conversely, LeBron James strikes as much fear in the eyes of opponents as he inspires hope in the city of Cleveland’s adenizens. The next test for the man recently anointed as the most popular athlete in the world, is whether he has enough juice to spook the owners as well. 

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