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Across the NBA, Players Unwilling to Bet on Themselves

Despite a skyrocketing salary cap, players around the Association seem to prefer to take guaranteed money today in the form of longer contracts, rather than re-enter free agency in a year or two.

Kevin Love is just one of many stars who may have left big money on the free agency table.
Kevin Love is just one of many stars who may have left big money on the free agency table.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Well so much for the most unpredictable, wacky free agency period of 2015.

Don't get me wrong: watching under-appreciated studs like Khris Middleton (5 years and $70 million) and DeMarre Carroll (4 years and $60 million) finally get their due was rewarding. And of course, watching "Huh?" deals handed to guys like Thaddeus Young (4 years, $50 million) certainly qualified as wacky. And with DeAndre Jordan lurking out there, stay tuned.

But one trend has consistently surprised the NBA world one day into free agency: no players seem willing to bet on themselves on a one or two year deal.

If you poll the entirety of NBA free agents throughout history, you likely won't find many eager to play the lottery with their contract. After all, folks want security in case of injury and stability at home. And for those of us who aren't multi-millionaires, it feels wrong to blame a guy for passing on a guaranteed $10 million or more over the course of four or more years.

But NBA stars don't live by normal rules, and these aren't normal times. Their value is limited by the collective bargaining agreement, itself negotiated by a player's union which represents the rank-and-file athletes who make up the vast majority of the league. In other words, the majority got the few to take less than they're objectively worth for the greater good: hence the NBA's "maximum salary." The max is set at 25, 30 or 35% of the year's team salary cap, depending on how many years said player has been active in the league. For a player like LeBron James, who could certainly claim to deserve more than 35% of the cap in any given year, this represents a reduction in "deserved" lifetime earnings.

Which brings us to today. For any star who can earn the max on the open market (or any player important enough to be a priority), signing a long term deal today means agreeing to a share of next season's projected $67.1 million dollar salary cap (whether it's a maximum deal or not). But NBA salaries carry a maximum 7.5% annual pay raise -- which we know won't be able to keep up with the salary cap jump in each of the next two seasons. A year from now, the cap will increase by about 34%, and after that, another 20%.

The salary cap is not expected to continue rising after that point: it should increase from $67.1M (next season) to $90M the year after that, and $108 give or take a few percent for each year after that. The reason for the cap plateau is the league's new television contract, which will take effect at this time.

Logically, given the 7.5% maximum raise, and the two years of cap increases, the cost-effective thing to do is take two consecutive one-year contracts, followed by a long term contract in 2017-2018. Hypothetically, a player who signs a 3+ year maximum deal now will expect to make just over $54M in those three years. A player who takes three one-year deals, however, will make $66.275M in that same time. Even players who take a two year deal followed by a long term deal will make substantially more than the player who signs long term this off season, assuming consistent production.

So why haven't we seen young unrestricted free agents like Tristan Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler take advantage of this?

Your guess is as good as mine. While fans can be quick to point out that the players are already mega-rich, remember that they're negotiating with billionaires who have no equivalent profit cap on merchandise or franchise sales profit. The players are not obligated to save their bosses even more money, nor are they required to. They have a right to everything that they earn, and possibly more, depending on your point of view.

It's too early to know if this trend will continue, but there's still plenty of time left. With just one day down, we still have some big names to clear: DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and of course, LeBron James. How they value themselves could very well decide the balance of power in the NBA for...oh...about the next two years.

*For more detail on the NBA salary cap, see this essential piece from Larry Coon.

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