Big bucks for players like Towns, Walker, Beal hinge on postseason awards

Super-max deals -- which often come after big seasons -- can alter team plans

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Apr 5, 2019 2:21 PM ET

Karl-Anthony Towns and other franchise stars can earn extra millions based on postseason awards.

Imagine holding $32 million in the palm of your hand. Now imagine not dropping it out of sheer anxiety and nervousness over the experience.

The best approach would be squeeze that cash tightly in your fist and run like a thief. But that’s not an option, because it’s not your money. It belongs to NBA players or their teams, to be paid out -- or not -- in “supermax” contracts that will swing on the votes of media members for the league’s annual postseason awards.

Players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and others could land or miss out on massive sums of money based on balloting for All-NBA teams or other honors such as Kia NBA MVP or Kia Defensive Player of the Year.

 
Sekou Smith discusses this season's Kia NBA MVP favorites.

What I hold in my hand is in fact my wireless mouse, with which I will cast votes by the middle of next week that theoretically could cost a player -- and his agent, his wife, his kids, his grandkids, his charities and yeah, the IRS and state Department of Revenue -- the sort of money that lasts and transforms generations. Or a single vote for this guy rather than that guy could limit a team’s ability to compete in free agency, send a franchise into the luxury tax or otherwise impact the competition I cover in a way that is far from ideal.

Voting in a national election is way more significant and can have a far greater impact in blood and treasure. But you have lots more cover there -- 130 million or so fellow voters -- than the 100 media peeps who annually determine the NBA’s winners, losers, ranked and unranked.

 
Karl-Anthony Towns was at his All-Star best in a February loss to the Pacers.

Consider Towns, who signed a super-max extension right before training camp in September. His deal to stick with the Minnesota Timberwolves through the 2023-24 season, on paper, is worth $158 million, starting at $27.2 million in 2019-20 and ending at $36 million in its final season.

But Towns’ deal could balloon by that extra $32 million if he qualifies for 30 percent of Minnesota’s salary cap. That’s a provision of what came to be known as the “Rose rule," written into the Collective Bargaining Agreement to accommodate players such as Derrick Rose. In 2010-11, he won Kia MVP honors while still playing on his rookie contract, becoming the youngest player in league history to get the award. 

Having the sort of dominant season that earns a fellow the MVP is one thing. But being picked as the NBA’s third-best center or sixth-best guard? That’s a relative trifle, swinging on a vote cast in the relative shadows.

 
Bradley Beal burned the Hornets for 46 points in a Feb. 22 victory.

Not to go all nefarious here, but the math is indisputable: Towns could send every one of the 100 media voters a $100,000 check for, you know, their “consideration.” And he’d still net an extra $22 million if their votes pushed him across the line, triggering the bigger bucks.

But we’re not even talking about bribery or integrity. Media voters historically have demonstrated plenty of the latter, even when broadcasters paid by the 30 teams participated. You’d see occasional “homer” votes cast, but those typically canceled each other out.

No, what makes the current system, linked to contract amounts, so potentially irksome is that people whose job descriptions require they have a zero rooting interest in teams wind up smack in the middle of a team’s finances. And this is while risking professional relationships with the people involved from both sides.

 
Kemba Walker had a career-best night vs. the Sixers in mid-November.

The players, their reps, their families and their friends eventually find out, via the NBA’s commitment to transparency in posting voters’ selections. So do the general managers, team presidents, coaches and owners. And still, the worst of it is people with little or no expertise in sports management or even basketball (as we’re often reminded) are air-dropped into the middle of a franchise’s business.

A professional arbitrator? An academician hired for a moonlighting gig in his or her spare time? Some former GM agreed to by both sides to render judgment on such an enormous bonus? Any of those would be preferable to flipping the keys to a global group of busy and highly fallible scribblers and yakkers.

Media folks generally have shown themselves to be reliable in selecting NBA honors and awards, at least in a “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” way. Voting by players, coaches, executives and fans is far more blatant in its partisanship and rooting interests. But we aren’t qualified to negotiate contracts. Or, at least, we are positioned specifically not to do such a thing. That’s why a number of veteran NBA writers and broadcasters have opted out of the process altogether -- or had their bosses prohibit them from participating.

Those of us who do, by filling out the fringe parts of our ballots, in effect will be deciding whether Towns’ gaudy second-half stats, Beal’s post-John Wall performances or Walker’s surge toward a playoff berth merit big monetary rewards. Compared to deserving, excellent players whose All-NBA fates -- but not fortunes -- similarly are in our hands.

The momentary sense of power and influence – $32 million, whoa – may provide a tiny rush. But it’s an awkward way to vote and it’s a silly way to conduct business.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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