A couple of weeks ago, the Houston Rockets made the rare (possibly unprecedented?) move with James Harden in which they took a player with two years remaining on a max contract signed three years ago, and in the middle of the league's biggest salary boom ever, tore up that deal and replaced it with a brand-new four-year, $118 million deal.
As we've covered here, on many levels, it was a genius move, since it locked Harden in for at least three more seasons (the new deal has a player option for Year 4), and it sent a message to next summer's marquee free agents that Les Alexander is an owner who takes care of his stars.
However, that move also accomplished one other thing (perhaps intentionally, perhaps coincidentally) — it put the Rockets' salary structure for the foreseeable future in a logical order, one in which their best player is their highest-paid player. While James Harden might have handled making $4 million less than Ryan Anderson each of the next two seasons just fine, there's a chance he silently might not have.
So why risk it? If you have the cap space, why not head off any locker room issues at the pass and have your best player paid accordingly? The Rockets did just this.
One unintended consequence of the unprecedented salary boom from the past three weeks, in which a ton of average players nabbed what used to be star-level money, is that there are a handful of locker rooms that now have their collective foot squarely on a banana peel, and their legs could fly out from underneath them at any second.
Just how will some of the league's star or near-star players handle being the third or fourth guy in line at the pay window for the next few seasons? It's a huge question that not enough people are asking. The Rockets don't have to worry about that after the Harden extension, but here are a few teams that might:
The Hornets were fortunate enough to bring back two of their own free agents this past summer, signing Nicolas Batum (and his zero All-Star appearances) to a five-year, $120 million max deal and Marvin Williams to a four-year, $54 million deal. Also, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is starting a four-year, $52 million deal. The problem for the Hornets is that their best player and leading scorer is probably point guard Kemba Walker, who has three years remaining on a $12 million per year deal. In other words, barring a trade or a new deal, Walker will be the fourth-highest-paid Hornet for the next three seasons.
Harrison Barnes, who shot a combined 5 for 32 in the last three games of the NBA Finals, all Warrior losses, inked a four-year, $94 million max deal with the Dallas Mavericks, who (bless their hearts) made it through the free agency period without getting jilted or backstabbed by a free agency target of theirs. The downside for them is that they're now an NBA team who has Harrison Barnes as their highest-paid player, a recipe for a lottery pick.
Somewhere along the way, Mike Conley's five-year, $153 million deal became one of the posters for the ludicrousness of the salary mushroom cloud this past month, as he now has the biggest contract in league history with exactly zero All-Star appearances. Still, Conley is a good player, as is Chandler Parsons, and so is Marc Gasol. Those are the Grizzlies' three highest-paid players at $30 million, $23.5 million and $22.5 million per season. I'm not sure how that sits with Zach Randolph, who's making $10.3 million this coming season. Z-Bo can be a little emotional.
So the Bucks' three best players, arguably (but probably), are forward Jabari Parker, guard Michael Carter-Williams and freak Giannis Antetokounmpo. They're all still on their rookie contracts and will make a combined $11.6 million this season. So it was bad enough when the Bucks signed point guard
LeBron ball washer Matthew Dellavedova to a four-year, $38.4 million deal, or $9.6 million per season. But how about Miles Plumlee making $13 million per season for the next four seasons? This should all work out just fine.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner for a combined $36.5 million annually for the next four years...what could possibly go wrong? (Oh, hey, what's up, C.J. McCollum? How's that $3.2 million treating you this season? You worried at all about staying in Portland with its emptying the coffers for Turner and Crabbe?)
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SHOW ME HOW
Kyle Lowry is the Canadian Kemba Walker, the fourth-highest-paid player at $12 million per year, and the best player on his team. DeMar DeRozan ($28 million per year), Jonas Valanciunas ($16 million) and DeMarr Carroll ($14.5 million) all make more.
My guess is, if you stole the backcourts from all 30 NBA teams and told them that you can pick either John Wall or Bradley Beal to begin replenishment, most of them would take Wall. He's the lead guard, and a more multifaceted player than Beal. Unfortunately, Wall will have to watch Beal make around $6 million more annually than he makes. Too bad he can't pick up some extra cash playing baseball in the summertime...
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.