November 22, 2017

By J.M. Poulard

Imagine a world where your favorite team can compete every single year for the top players in the NBA.

In this world, market size and athletes’ ages are not an impediment, and that gives every owner willing to spend an opportunity to acquire top-tier talent. For instance, the Milwaukee Bucks could pair Giannis Antetokounmpo with Kawhi Leonard heading into the 2017-18 campaign.

Interested, right?

This is the reality in professional soccer where clubs and players negotiate termination clauses in their contracts.

Essentially, any team willing to pay the termination charge amount in a player’s contract (this amount is different from the total value of the contract) is directly allowed to negotiate with the player. The lone catch is that utilizing the termination option does not buy the player’s current contract; rather it nullifies it and now gives the new team an exclusive opportunity to iron out a new deal (the prospective team would have to negotiate the terms prior to officially buying him out).

In other words, the new franchise must be prepared to spend, which is already the reality of teams looking to contend for championships.

If this new wrinkle – let’s call it the Karl-Anthony Towns provision, because it would be glorious for him to join the Houston Rockets with this tactic – was magically negotiated and added into the current collective bargaining agreement, what would the buyout amounts look like for the league’s top-five players?

Before answering that question, it’s probably best to outline a few guidelines.

Whereas soccer does not have a hard cap or luxury tax, the NBA does, and that may remove a player’s incentive to terminate his deal. After all, getting the max with the Miami Heat or Los Angeles Lakers might be preferable than getting it with the Brooklyn Nets. If the dollars are equal, players might prefer to stand pat in a sunnier location.

The one way to mitigate that is to present a competitive team to a prospective talent and hope his competitiveness takes him elsewhere. Thus, four CBA additions are in store:

  • The new contract of the terminated player will not count against the cap for two years
  • Buying teams can only utilize the Towns clause once every five years
  • The termination amount paid will not count against the cap
  • The termination amount cannot equal or surpass the amount of the lowest franchise valuation (New Orleans Pelicans at $750 million per Forbes this year)

The first addition allows teams that may have mismanaged their books an opportunity to add talent and clean house while doing so.

The second provision is to ensure a team like the Lakers or New York Knicks does not end up poaching all the stud players in the league in back-to-back seasons. The third CBA amendment is to make sure the team does not end up in luxury tax hell before even signing their new player, and the last one to ensure owners have limits on spending and potentially impulse.

What’s in it for the incumbent team? It gets to cash out big time by selling off a player. Remember, professional basketball is a business, and profit makes people do interesting things.

One last tidbit, these transactions can only take place between July 1 and Sep. 15 (training camps typically open in late September). In other words, NBA free agency just took another step in becoming more popular than the regular season.

Now that all of that is out of the way, what amounts would a prospective team pay for the NBA’s top five?

Let’s have a look (for the purpose of this exercise, the top five was based on BBBALLBREAKDOWN.com’s player rankings, in no particular order).

Rockets, James Harden

James Harden

Houston Rockets franchise valuation: $1.65 billion

Current contract value: four years, $169,3 million

Credentials: 2016-17 MVP runner-up, five-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA first team

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 28

Following a run to the NBA Finals in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden due to an inability to negotiate an extension with the Beard.

An argument could be made that OKC has been cursed since that move.

The Thunder still have not been back to the title round, and the team has since lost Kevin Durant (free agency), Serge Ibaka (trade), and Russell Westbrook might be on his way out of town as a free agent in the 2018 offseason.

On the flipside, the Rockets have slowly prospered with Harden.

Houston general manager Daryl Morrey badly needed a star in Houston and certainly got one in Harden, as evidenced by the team’s record before his arrival and what it’s been since he’s been in town.

Season

Record

2010-11

43-39

2011-12

34-32

2012-13

45-37
2013-14

54-28

2014-15

56-26

2015-16 41-41
2016-17 55-27

With Harden in Houston, management has had an easier time luring players to the Rockets. Sure, the Dwight Howard experiment failed in Houston, but the fact remains that a stud free-agent center – which Howard was at the time – chose to align himself with Harden in his quest for a championship.

Howard is now gone and replaced by another top-tier player: Chris Paul.

Keep in mind, Harden just enjoyed his greatest statistical season while playing point guard, and Paul still wanted to join forces with the Beard.

Harden is an impeccable ball-handler, capable of embarrassing defenders like few can, and his below-the-rim offensive repertoire never ceases to amaze.

The lefty guard marries all those skills with a killer step-back jumper that causes opponents to get fidgety whenever they are in Harden’s air space. If those compounded issues weren’t enough, Harden’s passing makes it difficult to bring extra defensive attention. Indeed, the multitude of shooters surrounding him always gets fed, and defensive concepts meant to contain ultimately break.

There is no other way to say it: Harden is the Rockets.

Everything runs through him in terms of philosophy and player personnel; and that’s why Houston has never allowed him to sniff free agency. Harden’s importance to the franchise has likely risen this summer with news circulating that the Rockets are for sale.

Would any prospective owner buy the team if Harden’s buyout amount allows him to walk by July 2018? Probably not, which is why it’s important to set the bar high when it comes to the Bearded one.

$250 million sounds like an exorbitant amount of money – trust me it is – especially for a player, but that figure barely approaches the total value of the franchise. In the event a team managed to acquire him via this new CBA provision, it almost becomes the equivalent of buying a new franchise altogether.

Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers might be tempted to consider spending that ludicrous amount of money on one player, and it could certainly be worth it as he enters his prime alongside some key young pieces.

Spurs, Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard

San Antonio Spurs franchise valuation: $2.6 billion

Current contract value: five years, $94.3 million

Credentials: two-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time Defensive first team, two-time All-NBA first team, 2014 NBA Finals MVP

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 26

Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the most intriguing candidate on this list given his age and standing in the league.

Leonard is unquestionably a devastating force on offense and defense, to the point of reminding folks a little of the early-career versions of the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

If that sounds hyperbolic, one can simply look back at the 2016-17 matchups between the Spurs and Warriors. The Klaw led San Antonio to a 29-point season-opening shellacking of the Warriors and had Golden State on the ropes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Indeed, San Antonio was drumming the Warriors – leading by 25 at one point – before Leonard exited the game with an ankle injury, never to be seen again for the remainder of the postseason.

With Leonard out, Golden State happily and easily dispatched San Antonio.

An argument could be made Leonard alone was the obstacle preventing the Warriors from marching to the Finals, and the proof certainly supports that notion. Although it’s a small sample size, the Spurs were plus-21 during the series with Leonard on the floor, and minus-85 during the time he sat.

Leonard creates havoc with his ability to swipe the ball away from opponents, the way he shrinks passing lanes and the skill to defend at a high level without fouling. The consistency and brilliance led to two DPOY trophies, and he’s added an offensive repertoire that’s creepily starting to look like Kobe’s.

The lone thing hurting’s Kawhi’s stock – and it’s pretty silly – is his marketability. In the basketball world, matters it does not. On the business side, though, it’s a huge driver.

Leonard probably makes any team a quasi-title contender, depending on the roster, but he will not transform the team into a box office hit. To be clear, he’s a sensational player, and very few are superior (two) in terms of talent and production, but Leonard does not drive ratings and jersey sales.

Thus, I have his termination amount landing right between Harden and Curry.

Leonard is a better player than both and can be a lead guy on a championship team, but he does not sell out arenas as ESPN.com’s attendance figures demonstrate. San Antonio was just about league average on this front last season.

Make it $300 million for his services.

Should the Milwaukee Bucks potentially land itself in debt to snatch Leonard as rumors keep popping up that LeBron could be headed West?

Kawhi and a 22-year-old Giannis probably end up owning the East for the next seven years considering their respective ages.

 Kevin Durant, Warriors

Kevin Durant

Golden State Warriors franchise valuation: $2.6 billion

Current contract value: two years, $51,3 million

Credentials: eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA first team, 2012 All-Star Game MVP, 2013-14 NBA MVP, 2016-17 Finals MVP

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 29

Kevin Durant is the ultimate trump card for the Warriors.

On a team that stacked, there is literally nothing any team can do as the league is presently constructed to thwart this iteration of the Dubs, and all of it is a product of what Durant brings to the table.

Teammate Steph Curry is an impeccable player who continuously creates horrific defensive matchups for opponents, but Durant is the cheat code. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will take Durant in any matchup imaginable – yes, he’d call his number even if Michael or Scottie Pippen were guarding him.

Listed at 6’9’’, Durant plays small forward, but can just as well navigate the power forward and center positions. His length allows him to get his shot off everybody and much like his splashy teammates; he is a lethal long-range threat.

Where Curry creates frightening matchups, KD defended by anyone in the history of the sport is a deafening cry for help.

What’s more, when locked in as a defender, he protects the rim and gives him team an opportunity to downsize and play with great pace.

He’s a force to be reckoned with as Warriors players can attest. Two players tormented the 2015-16 Warriors team that won an NBA-record 73 games: LeBron and KD.

After losing to LeBron in the Finals, Golden State knew it needed Durant and got him to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder via free agency. After going the distance in the 2016 Western Conference and losing the Finals in seven games, the Warriors reloaded with the Slim Reaper and lost once on their postseason march to the title.

On the flip side, the Thunder fell in the first round this past season.

That’s the power of Durant.

What’s the dollar figure Houston, Portland or San Antonio would be willing to pay to topple the Dubs?

There wouldn’t be many buyers if Golden State puts the number at $400 million, and that likely guarantees no one attempts to exercise the Towns clause with Durant. However, if one franchise were to do so and coughed up that amount for KD, is there any doubt that, with Golden State’s infrastructure, management use that money to create a big competitive advantage like their sleep chambers?

That’s the Golden State way now; even when it loses, the team still wins.

LeBron James, Cavaliers

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers franchise valuation: $1.2 billion

Current contract value: three years, $99.9 million

Credentials: 13-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA first team, five-time Defensive first team, four-time NBA MVP, three-time Finals MVP, two-time All-Star Game MVP

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 32

LeBron James is the best player in the world, and his relocation to pretty much any roster suffices to create a conference finals berth at the very least.

James’ 2010 defection to the Miami Heat – at the expense of the Cleveland Cavaliers – resulted in four straight Finals trips and two rings, while the Cavaliers missed the playoffs during that run. LeBron returned home to Cleveland in 2014 and maintained his personal consecutive Finals streak (seven), whereas Miami has only made the playoffs once in that timespan.

Sensing a trend?

LeBron is a culture and paradigm changer even as his exits his prime. He continues to reinvent himself as a player to maintain his dominance from an individual and team success standpoint.

James has been credited with raising the profiles of numerous teammates, even though it has rubbed some the wrong way. Nonetheless, he remains the top league topic and continues to drive ratings by delivering one compelling season after another.

The target may have moved from LeBron’s back to be squarely placed on the Warriors, but make no mistake about it, there isn’t a more valuable player in the association when considering his production, the impact on wins and losses and fan interest.

Since 2010, three teams have consistently ranked in the top five in total attendance: the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and the team James has played for at the time (Heat or Cavs).

He’s been at the top of the food chain for such a prolonged period of time, and he’s proven time again that he isn’t going anywhere yet.

James realistically has two or three more terrific seasons in store before a big decline kicks in. His age makes it a bit of an impediment to set the buyout amount too high, but his talent and impact warrants a high asking price.

At $450 million, it probably dissuades any prospective contract buyer, but L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer thinks long and hard at the idea of paying that sum of money to potentially negotiate a three-year deal with James.

Granted, James would be the unlikeliest player to utilize the Towns clause given that any new team would require a long-term deal to bring him on board. LeBron, for his part, has demonstrated he wants to have decision-making power over his future with player options negotiated in his contract. Teams might be tempted to add him, but ultimately, it just wouldn’t be worth it.

Stephen Curry, Warriors

Stephen Curry

Golden State Warriors franchise valuation: $2.6 billion

Current contract value: five years, $201.1 million

Credentials: two-time league MVP, four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA first team

Age at start of 2017-18 season: 29

Stephen Curry has revolutionized the sport with his incomparable shooting proficiency and range.

One of the long-held beliefs of NBA basketball was winning in the postseason required a bruising interior scorer and, perhaps, an impressive scorer on the wing to compete.

A team of shooters, though, was supposed to be too soft to win.

And then, Steph happened.

His incredulous nightly shooting exhibitions will one day become the stuff of legend. The way the old guard speaks of Larry Bird will soon be reserved for Curry given his exceptional shooting stroke.

With game-winning shots like the one below, it’s becoming quite clear his legend will only continue to grow.

Basketball has recalibrated itself thanks in large part to Curry’s influence, and winning at the highest level now demands the presence of multiple shooting threats. Other than his own teammate (Klay Thompson), Curry has no competition as far as shooting audacity, and that constantly keeps defenders guessing.

Steph is just as comfortable launching from near half court as he is when swarmed by defenders in the pick-and-roll. He requires constant attention and physical play, but the combo rarely fazes him.

Curry is far too adept as a ball-handler and finisher at the rim for anyone or any scheme to limit his production. The sharpshooter is a world conqueror whose rise has led Golden State to three consecutive Finals trips and two rings.

He may not have won a Finals MVP in any of the trips, but his production and presence on the floor put the Dubs in a position to win three in a row.

Prior to the Warriors’ current run, management paired him alongside Monta Ellis in the backcourt, in a decision that now looks questionable at best, when looking back. The decision to jettison Ellis and allow Steph to grow proved to be prophetic as Curry became one of the league’s marquee players in short order following the trade.

Golden State’s regular-season win totals over the past three years (67, 73 and 67) coupled with their playoff showings should convince fans that Steph resides among the best of the elite, no matter what opinions other might share.

Judging from the contract the Warriors’ front office offered to Steph (five years, $201 million) I am incredibly confident they believe and understand how vital his contributions are to the franchise.

What would it take then to pry Curry away from the Warriors?

Before answering the question, consider the information Forbes’ Kurt Badenhausen shared in February:

“The club posted the highest average cable TV rating (9.8) during the 2015-16 season, more than double the previous year. The season ticket wait list is at 32,000 with a renewal rate of 99.5 percent.”

Crazy, right? Wait it gets better:

“But the team is ready to cash in more in other areas. The Warriors broke ground in January on their new privately financed $1 billion arena in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, which is set to open for the 2019-20 season. They’ve already secured a 20-year naming right agreement with Chase worth an estimated $300 million that is the richest ever for a U.S. arena.”

Curry’s play and popularity (top jersey seller in back-to-back seasons) make him a ratings driver and integral part to everything Warriors. His termination fee clocks in at just about $350 million, an amount New York Knicks owner James Dolan might consider spending on a player to reshape the direction of his basketball organization.


 

 

J.M. Poulard

J.M. enjoys all things basketball and spends an inordinate amount of time catching up on NBA games. He’s spent some time writing over at a few ESPN TrueHoop affiliate blogs as well as Bleacher Report.

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