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Steve Aschburner

Joe Johnson of the Hawks is the face of the NBA's new "max guys."
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA's 'max' players just aren't what they used to be

Posted Jul 20 2010 6:15AM

Ah, life was so much simpler back in the day ... about two weeks ago ... when it was a good thing to be known around the NBA as a "max guy."

Now? It's not as onerous as some other labels associated with the association, like "'tweener," "project" or "coach killer." But being known as a "max guy" -- a player whose contract pays him the maximum salary allowed by the collective bargaining agreement for his years of service -- has a new whiff about it after the initial flurry of free-agent signings in the Summer of 2010.

Used to be, everyone wanted to be a max guy. Max guys were considered to be essential to the construction of a championship contender, and the term was synonymous with "cornerstone," "franchise face," "marquee player" and even "superstar." Oh, there were random exceptions, occasionally glaring ones, undeserving players who snuck into the elite club without proper credentials, then lurked in the corner while the true max guys went about their business of dominating games, leading teams, entertaining fans and sometimes even winning.

But by and large, the best got the most and "max guy" became a shorthand way of counting the type of talent needed on a roster for any team to be taken seriously in its pursuit of a Finals appearance. As in: One max guy isn't enough. You've got to have two max guys. Or at least one max guy and one near-max guy. Now, three max guys might be difficult ...

I remember having a discussion similar to that with the folks running the Minnesota Timberwolves 11 years ago. The whole concept of max guys was in its infancy, born in the nasty 1998-99 lockout that wiped out hundreds of games and millions of dollars for folks on all sides of that NBA labor dispute. You might not recall it now -- commissioner David Stern's lockout beard and some silly quotes attributed to Patrick Ewing and Kenny Anderson seem to be the most indelible images of that owners vs. union schism -- but the Wolves were in the middle of the lockout, both before and after.

It was Minnesota owner Glen Taylor who agreed in October 1997 to a staggering $126 million contract extension for Kevin Garnett, a second-year player, signing at the time the richest multi-year contract in pro sports history. That was a last-straw move to management, who battened down in 1997-98 for what suddenly looked inevitable: No NBA business until a new world order was imposed. It took nearly seven months and a curtailment of the 1998-99 season to 50 games -- Phil Jackson's "asterisk" version -- to get there.

After the lockout, fans were introduced to the concept of maximum salaries, the tippy-top of new pay scales. Players who were already earning more than the new limits -- such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard and, of course, Garnett -- were "grandfathered" in, but for those who would sign new contracts from that point on, the best they could hope for was to "max out."

The Wolves felt the impact of that immediately -- and in some ways still are feeling it. The new salary scale shoved a glass ceiling between Garnett and his presumed sidekick, Stephon Marbury, the brash Coney Island point guard who was drafted one year after the 7-foot power forward. Uh-oh: Marbury's next contract could not exceed $86 million, a huge gap from what Garnett would be paid, creating an untenable situation for the proud and headstrong Marbury. He demanded and (because Minnesota believed the kid truly would walk away from a budding Malone-Stockton situation) got, 18 games into the truncated season, a trade to the New Jersey Nets.

But wait, there was more: Forward Tom Gugliotta, the Wolves' first All-Star, was offered a "max" deal to stick around as a versatile frontcourt option and big brother to the two young stars. But Gugliotta had tired of Marbury's act and, after being shuttled from Washington to Golden State to Minnesota in trades, wanted some say over his whereabouts. So he signed with Phoenix for about $67 million, the "max" at that time for players who changed teams.

The Wolves, in a scramble to replace Gugliotta, signed Joe Smith. And we all know how that worked out for them (salary-cap circumvention = irate Stern = loss of three first-round Draft picks = irrelevancy ever since).

Other teams, though, had better luck with their max guys, as fellows such as O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson and others led their clubs to titles, Finals appearances or deep into the playoffs. Others at least got the turnstiles spinning and planted flags of hope. There were duds -- Steve Francis, Keith Van Horn, Antoine Walker -- but they only slightly tarnished the cachet of "max guys." Most teams wanted them, everyone wanted to be one.

But now? Not so much.

Think about it: Rashard Lewis is a max guy. LeBron James is not. Joe Johnson is a max guy. Dirk Nowitzki is not. Andrei Kirilenko is a max guy. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are not. Neither are Dwyane Wade nor Chris Bosh, famously signing contracts with James two weeks ago for less than maximum dollars to join forces with the Miami Heat.

Pardon me if I'm only marginally impressed with superstars who have significant off-court earning potential, and still are working under deals in the nine-figure stratosphere, leaving a few million dollars on the table. I'll save my "Wow!" for Udonis Haslem, who is so eager to be a part of the Miami Astound Machine that he re-signed with the Heat for $14 million less than he could have earned elsewhere. (That's a 41 percent sacrifice compared to the Big Three's 12-14 percent, and their career earnings will lap Haslem's eight or nine times over).

Still, James and Bosh (at about $110 million each) and Wade ($107 million) will be paid considerably less over the next six seasons than, to cite the most glaring new example, Atlanta's Johnson. By 2015-16, the Hawks' talented but wallpaper-like shooting guard will be out-earning those rivals by nearly $4 million. He'll be 34 years old, likely will be in need of a championship ring (unless he's traded to a contender to be a supporting player) and still won't have sold one ticket on the road.

In that context, getting labeled a "max guy" now has a new connotation: Overpaid. Overrated. Under-productive. In a league in which Wade, James, Bosh, Nowitzki, Pierce and others with greater portfolios can be paid less -- and in fact, willingly sign for less to play on stronger teams -- being a "max guy" could wind up having a taint that didn't exist before this summer. The owners are going to love that, if they can scale lesser players below some of the deals accepted by "salary sacrificers."

OK, that doesn't have the same ring to it that "max guys" has. But it might, in time, have several rings to it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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