By Matt Citak
When Blake Griffin signed his five-year, $171 million contract with the Clippers during the offseason, it wasn’t hard to predict that it wouldn’t take long for the Clippers to regret the deal. There is no doubt that Griffin is a good player- the 28-year-old is averaging 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game this season. However the power forward had missed at least 15 games in each of the previous three seasons, and was coming off his second consecutive year not being named an All-Star. Yet despite all of the injury concerns that came with Griffin, the Clippers still decided to sign the former No. 1 overall pick to a five-year contract that would pay him around $35 million per season- and almost $39 million in the final year.
The thing is, Los Angeles didn’t really have much of a choice but to offer their superstar free agent the max contract last summer.
Griffin had just finished his eighth season in the league, meaning he was eligible to sign a max contract worth 30 percent of the salary cap. The forward had meetings planned with other teams, who surely would have offered him a four-year max deal, while the Clippers had just dealt Chris Paul to the Rockets. Los Angeles simply could not afford to lose their other superstar for nothing and risk its fans storming the Staples Center. So in theory, the deal made sense for both sides- the Clippers didn’t have to lose one of their superstars for nothing, while Griffin got the best possible deal.
But from a pure basketball perspective, this contract NEVER made sense for the Clippers.
As good as Griffin has been throughout his career, it would be very difficult to argue that the production he provides is worth 30 percent of a team’s salary cap. This is especially true when you consider the yearly 5-8 percent raises that kick in after each season, all while the 6-foot-10 forward gets older and his performance on the court declines. Even before receiving the max contract, it seemed as if his play was getting worse. Griffin’s last All-Star Game appearance came in 2015, which also served as the last time he earned All-NBA honors (Third Team). But if the Clippers had not offered him the max contract last summer, another team definitely would have.
And that is where the issue lies.
Despite numerous players receiving max deals each offseason, there are actually just a handful of players around the NBA that provide their team with enough production on the court to truly deserve to make that much money. This problem gets magnified even more once you add in the “supermax” deals, where players make 35 percent of the salary cap with the same yearly 5-8 percent raises. And while almost all of these players sign the max (or supermax) deals while still in their prime, by the time we get to the final year or two of these deals, most of these players are worth no where near the $35-40 million salary they are owed.
But that is what the current market dictates for the league’s stars, and as long as the NBA is making as much money as it is, that is not likely to change. NBA contracts are as inflated as ever. Add in the fact that there are at least five teams looking to make a huge splash in free agency every offseason, and it’s no wonder that the stars have leverage to demand more money than ever before.
The increasing salaries of players at every tier have made it difficult for teams to overcome the bad contracts they dish out. As we saw over the summer with the Lakers, Los Angeles had to trade away one of their best young talents (D’Angelo Russell) just to shed themselves of Timofey Mozgov’s atrocious contract. Now don’t get me wrong, Blake Griffin is light years better than Mozgov. But in return for a player that the Clippers front office believed would eventually have his number retired in the rafters of the Staples Center, the Clippers received only Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and two draft picks.
Harris and the two picks were the main pieces that led to Los Angeles completing this trade with the Detroit Pistons (the Clippers are already looking to flip Bradley). That doesn’t sound like a lot in return for a five-time All-Star, and that’s because it isn’t.
But for a five-time All-Star with some health concerns on a whopping five-year, $173 million contract? You better believe that’s the best deal Los Angeles was getting.
There is no real solution to this issue. As long as the league continues to make a ton of money, player salaries will continue to rise. Teams will continue to overpay for free agents, both stars and rotation players, just to eventually regret handing out those contracts. The reality is, this is where the league is at right now. And unless teams can find ways to spend money more wisely, this is how the NBA is going to function for years to come.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.