LeBron James and Stephen Curry might be the only players truly worth the NBA supermax

Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo became the sixth NBA player to sign the NBA “supermax,” a special contract for the game’s elite.
  • One NBA GM told Insider that LeBron James and Stephen Curry might be the only two players who are worth it, saying the total number might be 3-4.
  • The GM said the supermax should be reserved for transcendent players who ensure championship contention, not just All-Stars.
  • Others may disagree with that assessment.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Giannis Antetokounmpo last week became the sixth player to sign the NBA “supermax” contract, in the form of a five-year, $US228 million extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The supermax, formally known as the Designated Veteran Player Extension, was designed to give teams a way to offer their stars significantly more money than other teams. The supermax allows players entering their seventh, eighth, or ninth seasons to sign new contracts or extensions worth 35% of the salary cap, with 8% annual raises each season. To be eligible, they have to have recently won MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or made an All-NBA team. It can only be offered by the team to which that player was drafted.

Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden, and Damian Lillard have also signed the “supermax.”

Through three years, the supermax hasn’t been a flawless option, as it hasn’t always led to successful, long-term relationships between star players and franchises. Some players have turned down the money to play elsewhere, while other times, the large salary numbers have been crippling in team-building.

Who is truly worth the supermax?

To one NBA GM, the list of players who deserve the supermax is small.

“There really aren’t many guys … It’s in the range of three, probably,” the GM, whose identity is known to Insider but asked to remain anonymous to comment on the supermax, told Insider.

The GM said there is only one player who is clearly deserving of the supermax.

“LeBron James by himself has already proven he makes you a contender,” the GM said. “So, there’s literally no number you can pay him that’s too much. But LeBron’s really the only guy in the NBA that I think you can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s true of. Steph Curry, I think, is one who you could probably say that’s true of.”

The GM said that the supermax should be reserved for players who ensure deep playoff contention and can also be the “focal point” of the league.

“When Michael Jordan came to town, you sold every ticket for whatever you could charge. Anything you tried to charge, you could get it for Bulls tickets. So, they treated him differently because he was the focal point of the league.

“To me, that’s what supermax should have been. All we’ve done now is make it something where it’s an absurd amount of money you pay an All-Star.”

While Curry signed a supermax with the Warriors in 2017, James is not eligible because he has changed teams.

Curry’s place on the list could be put to the test this season. The Warriors got shellacked by the Brooklyn Nets in their first game of the season on Tuesday, sparking fears that their 15-50 campaign last season (of which Curry missed all but five games) was not an aberration. Though Curry is arguably one of the most popular, famous athletes in the world and a draw to audiences, he may struggle to lift a mediocre Warriors squad to the playoffs, let alone championship contention.

Others do not agree with the GM’s assessment

An agent who spoke to Insider on the matter guessed there were 15-20 players worth the supermax — any player who could be a franchise centrepiece worth building around.

The debate is fluid, of course. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the best regular-season player for two years now, winning MVP in back-to-back seasons while leading the Bucks to the best record. They have come up short of the Finals each season, however. The Bucks gave him the supermax extension as soon as he was eligible.

Kawhi Leonard has been arguably the best two-way player in the NBA when healthy. He led the San Antonio Spurs to the Western Conference Finals in 2017, the Toronto Raptors to the championship in 2019, and had the LA Clippers on the verge of the conference finals last season before the team blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets. It should be noted that Leonard lost the opportunity to sign a supermax with the Spurs in 2018 by requesting a trade.

Kevin Durant is another player deserving of the supermax, though he, too, doesn’t qualify, as he left the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016.

Playoff contention alone might not be enough

The line may be a bit blurry for players who have ensured solid playoff contention, but not championship contention. Harden has not missed the playoffs since joining the Houston Rockets in 2012. They have advanced beyond the first round in five of those eight seasons. Lillard has led the Blazers to the playoffs seven years in a row.

“I think Dame is great,” the GM said. “He’s an incredible leader. His teams have always won. But they’re not a championship contender just by his presence alone. They’re a playoff team by his presence alone.”

The GM added: “Supermax isn’t supposed to be paying you to be a playoff team. Supermax is meant to be rewarding the guys that are on the final four teams every year, that are truly transcendent in winning and losing. And there’s just not many of those dudes.”