Why no NBA player will ever get a contract like Shohei Ohtani

Why no NBA player will ever get a contract like Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani lined up a 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Other sports have had long-term megadeals as well. Here’s why no NBA player will get a deal quite like this.

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

| Dec 11, 2023, 1:00pm CST

Jon Hamm

By Jon Hamm

Dec 11, 2023, 1:00pm CST

News of Shohei Ohtani’s 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers sent shockwaves across the sports world.

It happens every time a new contract is announced with astronomical terms that we can’t immediately wrap our brains around. It surely happened when the Houston Astros made Nolan Ryan the sports’ first million-dollar player in 1979. Two years later, the Lakers signed Magic Johnson to a 25-year contract worth $25 million, a transaction that was dramatized in the now-canceled HBO series “Winning Time.” Just a few short years later, the upstart LA Express of the United States Football League threw a 43-year, $40 million contract at Steve Young (a deal that ended up paying far less than the reported amount). The latter two contracts were more creative than Banksy graffiti art.

Some pro sports contracts are still lengthy and imaginative to this day. Patrick Mahomes inked a 10-year contract with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020. At least 15 players in MLB have current contracts that were signed to last at least a decade, including a whopping 14-year deal for Fernando Tatis, Jr. In the NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is nearing the end of a 12-year contract he signed in 2012.

But it’s been nearly 30 years since an NBA contract was signed with terms that stretched out over a decade or more. Eventually, the league decided to impose some order and control over the deals its teams handed out.

After Johnson’s brain-breaking Lakers contract, a few massive NBA deals were signed in the 1990s. In 1993, Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson caused a stir when he signed a 12-year deal worth $84 million. At the time, GrandMama was a 23-year-old coming off an All-Star and All-NBA campaign as an NBA sophomore. The Hornets agreed to the deal knowing Johnson had a back injury, betting it wouldn’t affect their franchise player.

Unfortunately, the injury turned out to be career-altering. He made only one other All-Star appearance in 1995. Chronic back problems forced him into retirement with three guaranteed seasons left on that massive contract, and the New York Knicks were left paying the tab.

Just a few weeks after Johnson’s deal was announced in 1993, Chris Webber signed a 15-year, $74 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Webber was the first overall pick in the 1993 draft and the Warriors were anxious to get him on the floor. However, that contract only actually lasted one year. At the time, teams commonly exercised a loophole that allowed long-term contracts to be terminated after one season, allowing the team to re-sign the player for even more money and exceed the salary cap to do so.

Webber clashed with head coach Don Nelson during his rookie season, opted out of his deal after one season, and forced his way to the Washington Bullets. Webber’s next contract was merely for six seasons.

After Glenn Robinson, the number one overall pick in the 1994 draft, held out before landing a 10-year contract with the Bucks, the league knew some changes were needed. The collective bargaining agreement was set to expire after the 1994-95 season and some contractual guardrails were badly needed.

That agreement nearly 30 years ago introduced the concept of a rookie scale contract, which remains in effect to this day despite some tweaking along the way. These entry contracts laid out a scaled compensation system based on where the player was selected in the draft. Today, rookie contracts can be for up to four seasons and give the team a significant amount of control.

Veteran contracts got a makeover as well. New contracts were limited to no more than seven seasons. A few years later, the landmark 1998 CBA introduced maximum salary contracts with a starting salary that maxed out at a percentage of the salary cap, though they could include annual increases. First-year salaries could be no more than 25, 30, or 35 percent of the salary cap depending on the players’ years of service.

The owners and players would reduce the maximum contract length even more over time. Today, the longest contract or extension that can be signed is for five years. No NBA player has hit the $300 million mark on a new deal, though that day is coming. The NBA’s richest contract ever was handed out last offseason to Boston’s Jaylen Brown, a $288 million deal over five years.

Once upon a time, it was the Oklahoma City Thunder that handed out the largest guaranteed contract in NBA history when they agreed to terms with Russell Westbrook on a five-year, $205 million extension in 2017. In a few years, it may be their turn to be the temporary record holder when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander becomes extension-eligible again.

But there will be no single NBA contract signed that gives a player a decade’s worth of security. The league’s maximum salary system also keeps salaries for superstars from skyrocketing, and in turn creates a pool of money to reward role players and key rotation contributors.

It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s largely worked. MLB has no salary cap, which invites all sorts of uncapped spending. The NFL and NHL have hard salary cap systems, which encourage lots of contract creativity. The NBA is somewhere in the middle.

Unless the NBA rules change, you won’t see any Ohtani-like NBA contracts anytime soon.

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