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NBA AM: Taking Less Money Guarantees Nothing

It is easy to expect players to take less money, but does taking less really guarantee anything about the future?

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Taking Less Only Means You Get Less

Every player in professional sports has a choice at some point in their career where they can choose where they want to play and for how much. It’s pretty common for fans to suggest that a player should sacrifice “a little” money to stay with a team or to make a great situation work under the salary cap. That’s a great concept, and every so often, a player (typically one that earned crazy money) leaves a little on the table to make something work. Dirk Nowitzki did it. Dwyane Wade did it in Miami, and most recently, Kevin Durant did it in Golden State. It’s not out of the question, it has been done before. But to expect every player to consider it or to suggest that players at the primes of their career are going to consider it is a little far-fetched for a bunch of reasons.

A couple of years ago, then Pacers big man David West left some $12.6 million on the table in a player option to sign with the San Antonio Spurs for the minimum salary of about $1 million. At the time, it seemed crazy that a player not making max level money would do something like that, however West said that the chance to compete for a championship outweighed the money, noting that he’d made a lot of money in his career.

This is the narrative fans love; however, the reality of the decision became all too real for West. Leaving $12.6 million guaranteed dollars doesn’t mean you are guaranteed anything on a new team. West and the Spurs went on to win 67 games that season but lost in the Western Conference Semifinals.

After getting bought out by the Orlando Magic, Jameer Nelson opted to sign for a bargain deal in Dallas for a chance at a playoff run. Shortly thereafter, needing his contract value to make a trade with the Boston Celtics work under the cap, the Mavericks packaged Nelson and dealt him in the Rajon Rondo deal back in 2014. Nelson was later traded to the Denver Nuggets, who were as far away from competing as anyone. In taking less money, Nelson made himself much easier to move and found out the hard way that chasing a playoff team doesn’t mean they will keep you.

Another factor to consider in all of this is the status players attach to their salary, beyond the money. There is swagger value in saying “I am a max player.” There is an implied status on the team when you are one of the highest paid players, and that’s a very real thing to 20-somethings signing big contracts. That’s why it’s rare to see a young player leave money on the table. That typically comes after a player has cashed a full max contract or two.

That brings us to the next point: Warriors guard Klay Thomson is the next major Warriors player to have to answer the free agency question. While Kevin Durant will make another pass through the Warriors money line in July, he’ll get his maximum long-term deal. Thompson has two more years on his deal including this one, meaning his free agency isn’t until 2019.

Thompson was asked recently by Marcus Thompson and Tim Kawakami of The Athletic if he would be open to taking a discount like Durant did to help keep this historic Warriors squad together.

“I probably could, yeah. That much? I don’t know. I don’t make as much as Kevin off the court,” Thompson joked. “If it’s a few million… It’s a blessing whatever contract I sign. I would definitely consider it cause I don’t want to lose anybody.”

That’s music to Warriors fans’ ears, but the reality is, even with the Warriors, taking less than maximum money doesn’t guarantee that the team wouldn’t explore trading you at some point. Thompson’s name comes up anytime teams engage with the Warriors on a big trade. Unless that haircut on the paycheck comes with a no-trade clause, is it smart for a player to consider it?

Also consider that there have been consistent rumors that after his current deal and collecting another championship or two, that Thompson may want the chance to be his own guy and maybe earn a little more off the court like his teammate Durant or Curry.

Think it seems crazy to want out of a championship situation? Ask Kyrie Irving.

The reality in sports is the only thing you are guaranteed is what’s written into your contract. If the contract says less money, that is what you are guaranteed. There are hundreds of variables that must line up just right to win a championship. As much as it seems the postseason is pre-written in the Warriors-Cavaliers era, at some point injury or attrition could easily derail the masterpiece. It happens to every team. Father time and the wear of 82 games catches everyone at some point.

There are hundreds of ways to rationalize taking less.

“After taxes, it’s really half the money.”

“It’s more fun to win.”

“If you win, you’ll get more next time.”

“Players on playoff teams get better shoe deals.”

All of those things may very well be true, but what’s unwavering in all of it is that taking less means you get less, that’s all.

For some players, that is a sacrifice they are willing to make, again generally because they have made major money in previous stops, but it wouldn’t be wise expect that from everyone. To believe that all players care about those thing is misplaced because there is a reality that once you’ve notched your championship belt, what is in the bank will last a lot longer than the championship parade, which, by the way, is not guaranteed to anyone.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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