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The problem with NBA guaranteed contracts

Really, you need look no further than what’s happening with John Wall and Ben Simmons

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Houston Rockets’ John Wall controls the ball during game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, against Indiana in Houston.

Houston Rockets’ John Wall controls the ball during game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, against Indiana in Houston.

Carmen Mandato/Pool Photo via AP

John Wall and Ben Simmons are Exhibits A and B for what is wrong with the NBA’s guaranteed contracts and the crushing effect they have on the competitive balance of the NBA, or lack thereof.

Wall, the Houston Rockets’ guard (on the rare occasions he actually, you know, plays) is demanding a trade even though he is not only under contract, but under a contract that will pay him $44.3 million next season, with a one-year option that would pay him $47.4 million. That’s $91.7 million for two years.

His annual salary makes him the second-highest paid player in the league.

He must be a good player then, right? Well, no. Wall does not play much, but at least when he does play he’s not very good. He hasn’t been a good player for several years. Doesn’t shoot well, doesn’t pass well, doesn’t win. The former overall No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft has never played deeper into the playoffs than the second round.

Wall has played in only 113 of a possible 308 games during the last four seasons.

John Wall gets injured. A lot.

Wall is certainly not productive enough to command the bloated salary in the first place, but then he has the cheek to demand a trade, putting the team in an untenable position. He did the same thing the previous year to the Wizards, his previous team, demanding a trade three years after they awarded him a $207 million contract through 2023.

During the last two seasons Wall has committed almost four turnovers per game. He averaged 20 points a game last season. That sounds good until you realize he attempted 18 field goals a game. His shooting percentage was 40%, which ranked him 121st in the league. He’s not a good jump shooter.

If you’re willing to take a deep dive into the esoteric world of advanced stats, you’ll find he’s much worse than these traditional stats reveal.

The Rockets ultimately agreed to try to trade Wall and have said the guard will remain with the team but will not play while they search for a trade partner. Meanwhile, he’ll draw a salary for breathing.

Then there’s Ben Simmons. He’s such a terrible offensive player that even he doesn’t want to shoot the ball. His reluctance to shoot in the Eastern Conference semifinals was a huge story last spring. He averaged six shots and a mere 8.6 points during the seven-game series, which the favored 76ers lost.

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons plays during Game 5 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Washington Wizards, in Philadelphia on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Somehow he got this far without having a jump shot. For that matter, he even famously passed up a wide-open dunk in the semifinals. He’s a terrific defensive player, but this isn’t football and the Sixers can’t sub him out on offense.

Simmons also owns one of the richest deals in the league. He has four years remaining on a five-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $177 million.

He must be grateful for the 76ers’ investment in him, right? Well, no, not at all. Simmons refuses to play another minute for the team. He is demanding a trade, just one year after signing the 76ers’ generous offer.

Simmons’ contract calls for the Sixers to pay him more than $16 million — about half of his salary — before the season starts. He doesn’t have to play a minute to receive that money. He was paid $8.25 million in July, with the other payment due this month. The Sixers reportedly have placed that second payment in an escrow account and will deduct fines from it for his failure to perform.

This is a recurring problem in the NBA: Players are awarded fully guaranteed, wildly rich extensions — often from their rookie contracts — and then a short time later demand, pout and complain their way to a new team, one that is either loaded with their pals wanting to form a super team or one that is located in a big market (usually both). With fully guaranteed contracts, players hold all the cards.

It’s enough to make you wish that the league’s other teams would simply agree not to trade for players who refuse to play for a team with which they have a contract; yes, collude. But general managers are willing to throw lots of money at a player — guaranteed money — because they must win now, never mind the long-term risks.

In the world under NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the game is stacked entirely in favor of the players. As Belly Up Sports explained it, “NFL contracts offer only a partial guarantee of money. When players sign deals, only a portion of the contracts are for guaranteed wages. This fact prevents player apathy, continually putting pressure on the players to produce. It also guards the team against injury, poor performance and, wait for it, player empowerment.”

Here’s how overempowered the players are: Anthony Davis, three years after signing a five-year $145 million extension, forced his way out of New Orleans to join his pal LeBron James in L.A. James Harden, three years after signing a guaranteed $228 million contract through the 2023 season, did the same to force his way out of Houston in 2020 to join his pals in New Jersey (Harden sleep-walked through a few games until the Rockets got the message and let him go). Kawhai Leonard, three years after signing a five-year, $90 million extension, forced his way out of San Antonio. Russell Westbrook demanded that the Rockets trade him last year — and they traded him to the Wizards for a first-round pick and none other than Wall at the start of last season. And now it’s Wall who wants out.

Teams pay the price for reluctantly agreeing to trade away a superstar who wants out. The Rockets had won their division three straight years but faded to fifth after agreeing to let Harden go to New Jersey. The Spurs were perennial division champs when Leonard was injured during the 2017-18 season and then demanded a trade. The Spurs have never been the same and Leonard was rewarded with a championship ring elsewhere. The Pelicans went from sixth in their conference to 13th after giving in to Davis’ demands to be traded to the Lakers, where he won a championship. The Pelicans still haven’t recovered.

Teams could simply wait it out and refuse to trade such players, but they get nothing for their huge investment, nor do they have cap space to sign a comparable player. They are forced to pay a player who eats up a huge chunk of their salary cap, whether he’s hurt, underperforms, holds out or demands a trade. Some, like Wall, are difficult to unload, not only because of their high salary but because they have underperformed. The Sixers reportedly are trying to trade Simmons, but how can they get a player of equal value in return for a three-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive selection? It’s not likely.

The bottom line is that guaranteed max contracts hurt the ability of all but a handful of rich teams to be competitive. And the lack of competitiveness — or parity — is the biggest flaw in the very flawed NBA.