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Rich contracts didn’t pay off for NBA teams in 2022 | Opinion

What can you buy for $41 million? Not much if you’re an NBA owner hoping to buy a championship.

Nine of the 10 highest paid players in the NBA this season are out of the playoffs with the conference finals and the league finals remaining. Six of them didn’t advance to the playoffs at all — this in a league that sends 16 of its 30 teams to the postseason — and another one lost in the first round in four games.

That’s their average salary in the first sentence. In all, NBA owners spent a combined total of $373 million for these nine players, and they won a total of 13 playoff games.

And you thought your tech stock was a bad investment.

James Harden (salary: $44.3 million) and his latest team, the 76ers — his third employer in two seasons — made it to the conference semifinals, where they lost to the Heat in six games. Harden has fallen hard and fast. In 2018 he was the league MVP; now his MVP form is going, going, gone. There has been much discussion about the sudden decline of his game.

John Wall (salary: $44.3 million). Compared to Wall, Harden is a bargain. Wall has played a total of 40 games the last three years. He sat out the 2021-22 season trying to force the Rockets to trade him. He has been a colossal waste of money. He was awarded a contract extension worth more than $171 million in 2017 that runs through the 2022-23 season, and because of the insanity of guaranteed contracts he will be paid, even while sitting at home. This is what it means to be laughing all the way to the bank.

Russell Westbrook (salary: $44.2 million). LeBron James, the part-time back-room general manager, and his minions pushed Westbrook on the Lakers and it proved to be a disaster. The Lakers won just 33 games and finished 11th in the Western Conference standings while paying about $200 million in player salaries (including approximately $45 million in luxury taxes). Westbrook was a poor fit for the Lakers and everyone knew it — except LeBron James.

LeBron James (salary: $41 million). See previous graph. He really is The King — of backroom meddling.

Kevin Durant (salary: $42 million). His Nets team flamed out early, failing to win a single game in their first-round series with the Boston Celtics. Durant hoped that forming a super team with Kyrie Irving and, at the time, Harden, would reap championships. It has flopped and Harden is gone.

Paul George (salary: $39.3 million). The Clippers, who have the highest team salary in the league, did not qualify for the playoffs even with the supposed super duo of George and Kawhi Leonard. They finished ninth in the Western Conference.

Kawhi Leonard (salary: $39.3 million). See previous graph. He missed the entire 2021-22 season due to injury and only played in 52 and 57 games the previous two years. In the 2017-18 season, he played in nine games.

Damian Lillard (salary: $39.3 million). His Portland Trail Blazers did not qualify for the playoffs; they finished 13th in the Western Conference.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (salary: $39.3 million). His Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Celtics 4-3 in the conference semifinals. But they did win the title a year ago, so there is that. 

The exception to all of this is Steph Curry, the NBA’s highest paid player (at nearly $46M). He has led the Golden State Warriors to the conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks, and they look like the team to beat. The Warriors, who have played in five of the last seven NBA Finals, have thrived with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and more recently Jordan Poole.

Maybe the real lesson is that it’s better to invest in a complete team. Or maybe championships are irrelevant and it’s all about revenue streams. NBA teams make a lot of money whether they win championships or not. And buying name players is a way to attract ticket sales and TV ratings. But as far as championships go, awarding huge, guaranteed contracts to star players doesn’t seem to help much. Not this season anyway.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant reacts as his team trails during Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Monday, April 25, 2022, in New York. The Celtics swept the Nets out of the playoffs.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

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