NBA Finals 2022: How the Celtics and Warriors are changing the perception of what makes a bad contract



In the summer of 2019, the Houston Rockets tied up two first-round picks and two first-round trades to trade Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, and a number of theories have been offered to explain the disastrous deal since. He and James Harden wouldn’t get along. Paul was aging and prone to injuries. After back-to-back losses to the Golden State Warriors, Houston may not have felt it necessary to try the same thing a third time and expect a different outcome. But ESPN’s Tim MacMahon offered a slightly more direct explanation on an episode of “The Lowe Post.”

“This trade was made because Tilman Fertitta wanted it made – he thought Chris Paul’s contract was the worst he had ever seen in business or sports,” MacMahon said. said. None of this negates other possible explanations for trade, but there is something visceral about this rationale. Fertitta wasn’t just trying to make the right basketball decision. He was trying to get rid of a troubled asset because he considered it toxic. It’s not a particularly unique position in the NBA.

Daryl Morey was Fertitta’s general manager when Paul’s trade was made. A year later, he moved to Philadelphia to take over the 76ers. What was the first move he made? Using a first-round pick to trade Al Horford — and the remaining three years on the $109 million deal Elton Brand signed him a year earlier — to Oklahoma City. Take a look at any list of the NBA’s worst contracts and the first thing you’ll notice is how many of these players have been traded. John Wall. Kristaps Porzingis. Davis Bertans. If Russell Westbrook is moved this offseason, he will have spent the five years of his super-max contract playing for different teams. Once a team identifies one of their own contracts as toxic, they do everything in their power to dump it before it escalates.

And yet, this season has been defined in many ways by players once considered overpaid. Paul’s Suns came within two wins of a championship last season and have won 64 games this season. myself called Jarrett Allen overpaid after signing a $100 million contract this offseason, and I wasn’t alone. He made the all-star game. At one end of the Finals is Horford, who the Thunder banned for the second half of last season to avoid the risk of an injury that would make his contract even less palatable. On the other is Andrew Wiggins, the former No. 1 overall pick included in the D’Angelo Russell trade in part for salary-matching purposes. These players have almost nothing in common. They represent all of the age and position spectra. All that connects them is the disproved notion that their contracts did more harm than good.

There is a certain irony in viewing this as increasing market inefficiency because, in theory, market inefficiency is meant to represent the discovery of value above cost. In this specific case, the value is generated precisely because Cost. The Timberwolves would never have traded Wiggins had he been a $15 million player. Philadelphia has lacked a proper backup center for half a decade, and if that could have justified keeping Horford as a 15-minute reserve, he surely would have. The quality of the player becomes almost irrelevant in these cases. The fact that Horford was earning $30 million spooked teams who might have valued him at $20 million. The fear of carrying such a contract transforms the teams into highly motivated sellers. Boston knows this well. The acquisition of Horford was motivated in part by the desire to get rid of another large and burdensome contract: that of Kemba Walker. The Celtics gave the Thunder the No. 16 pick in last year’s draft for their issues.

There are lessons to be learned here, but they are somewhat circumstantial. Boston knew Horford would fit into their roster as he had already spent several seasons as a Celtic. How many teams are already able to buy back their expensive old veterans? In another world, perhaps Walker regains his health, reproduces his old All-Star form and makes the Celtics look ridiculous. There isn’t exactly a proven formula for identifying desirable undesirables.

There are, however, context clues. Paul’s stats in the minutes he played without Harden in his final season in Houston were on par with his usual averages. Horford struggled to fit into a confined power forward role alongside Joel Embiid, but thrived as a center on the lowly Thunder. Find the right player in the wrong situation and you have lightning in a bottle. There will always be an element of risk, and having an existing salary window of this size mitigates that to some extent. Boston wanted to get rid of Walker’s maximum contract. Horford’s success was in that sense almost a bonus. Golden State’s acquisition of Wiggins followed the same pattern. The Warriors landed Russell in part to trade him for value, but also to keep Kevin Durant’s old salary when he left for Brooklyn. When they traded him to the Timberwolves, they did so largely to land the pick that would become Jonathan Kuminga. Wiggins was the ballast needed to legalize the deal, but where he was truly negative payday for Minnesota, he became a critical player for Golden State.

There are candidates for similar rehabilitation available this offseason, but as easy as it is to lease the Warriors and Celtics now, both acquisitions came with a lot of risk. Gordon Hayward is grossly overpaid due to his durability. He also gave the Hornets two years of near-All-Star caliber basketball and proved as comfortable leading an offense as completing one. Versatile wings fit any roster, and the Hornets, poised to expand Miles Bridges this offseason, will start to feel the luxury tax squeeze soon enough. Mike Conley is the same age as Paul was when Houston treated him, and could easily be the odd man out for an equally bleak situation in Utah. Someone is going to bet Duncan Robinson will rediscover his shot.

In years past, these contracts could have truly been ceiling killers. Is such a concept still possible? NBA Teams continue to avoid ceiling space as a listing mechanism for trades, exceptions and extensions. Salary cap growth often exceeds contract increases, so numbers that seemed gargantuan only a year or two ago suddenly seem much more tolerable. Golden State’s tolerance for taxes certainly helps. The Warriors can afford to treat Wiggins as their fourth-best player because they can afford to pay three top players ahead of him. Not all teams are so lucky. Not all teams need to be, provided they have managed their accounts well and are willing to make sacrifices down the line.

The race for the championship is an arms race, and as the titles are increasingly decided in July, the teams are ready to seek more and more talent. Bad contracts often represent talent available at less than rational prices. The feelings reported by Fertitta were extreme, but not exactly uncommon. Recent history suggests that teams are usually desperate to give up contracts they consider excessive, but as players like Paul, Horford and Wiggins have reminded us, these players were once good enough to earn those contracts by first place. The Suns, Celtics and Warriors understood that and took advantage of it this season. Don’t be surprised if someone else does it next year.