Why Damian Lillard is proof the NBA salary cap must change

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Damian Lillard will reportedly request a contract extension which could see him paid up to $55 million in one season alone. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard will reportedly request a contract extension which could see him paid up to $55 million in one season alone. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

It might seem obvious, but the NBA's salary cap is a necessary evil.

The league's rules governing how much a player is paid and for how long are important to keep the league relatively competitively balanced - but they can be all but impossible to parse for a casual fan.

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Negotiated between the league and the NBA Players Association, the cap in its current iterations poses some serious flaws.

One of those flaws is the maximum contract clause - which has become downright terrible for the NBA.

When the only choice an All-Star level player has when they a free agent is whether they get four years or five years (with slightly different raises), the player will make choices based on market and location a lot more than if a team can offer $30 million versus another offering $55 million. 

Players may be willing to sacrifice $4 million a year, but would they cast off $20 million a year to be in a big market?

I've been considering this issue thanks to the revelation that Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard will seek a contract extension that would see him paid $55 million in the 2026-27 season alone.

Obviously, a player of Lillard's calibre should pursue such a payday - but realistic observers will no doubt feel that despite Lillard being a top 10 player in the league for the better part of the last five seasons, no team is going to want to pay him that much in his age 36 season.

How do we get this? Well, the salary cap rules limit how much a player can be paid based on experience in the league. 

You can only get to the 35% of the salary cap maximum after you have played 10 years in the league or met some other qualifiers based on performance. The fact that players in their prime ages of 26-29 cannot get paid the most that they are worth threatens to create issues.

If Lillard was being paid $55 million a year when he was 27, you might be okay with it, given he is in his prime and playing like a top-five NBA player. 

But, as we have seen, players get limited when they are at their best, so feel an obligation to get the maximum they can when they are well past their primes and teams are paying for past performance, rather than future value.

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We have seen the issues that giant contracts for John Wall and Russell Westbrook have created as they get older. 

Pay them that much at age 27 and no one cares. 

Lillard’s teammate, CJ McCollum, is going to suffer the same issue. People are going to hate his deal (which has two years and roughly $70m left owed after this season) and view him negatively in the next year or so because of the rules.

If Lillard can’t get this contract from Blazers, he might feel disrespected after what he gave to the franchise, so a franchise legend may end up at another team for the twilight years of his career. 

Players rarely end their career with the team they started with and the pay scale is a big reason for that. 

If Lillard was allowed to sign a $250 million deal at age 26 for four years, then maybe he would consider taking a pay cut once that bigger contract has ended and his career begins to decline. 

Damian Lillard has repeatedly said he wants to end his career with the Portland Trailblazers, but increasing contract demands could see him switch teams. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard has repeatedly said he wants to end his career with the Portland Trailblazers, but increasing contract demands could see him switch teams. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Getting paid a higher amount in their prime, higher than what is currently allowed, might make it more palatable for a player like Lillard to accept a smaller contract as their career begins to wind down.

This, in turn, would make it substantially easier for teams to retain fan favourite players and extend their careers, using the salary cap space to build around them more effectively.

But, because based on Lillard's play, he, like other stars, has been greatly underpaid in his career and the end of of it is going to be tied to an ugly contract that happens because of the rules.

Enabling teams to pay their players 35% of the cap at any point after the rookie contract will enable teams to get more creative and pay players at the time when they are providing the value, and hopefully mitigate the salary based angst fans get with ageing stars in their waning season.

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