There have been some amazing contracts signed in NBA history, perhaps none more so than when Michael Jordan was given permission by the Chicago Bulls to play basketball literally anytime, anywhere. The famous “For The Love of the Game” clause was handed to the consensus best player in the NBA because he was so dedicated to the sport he wanted to be able to take it to the rim at any moment. And the team was so grateful to have had MJ on their side, they gave him carte blanc to put himself at injury risk in any way he saw fit, an unheard of leniency.
Of course not every player can be in the short conversation for “greatest of all time”, most don’t even come close to being the greatest on their team in a single game. More often than not, notable salary numbers are backed up with stories of twists and turns, injuries and criminal acts, that make you look back and wonder just what the team, or player, was thinking when they signed on the dotted line.
With that in mind, here are… 15 Crazy NBA Contracts You Won't Believe Were Signed.
15 Shawn Kemp: 7 years, $107 Million
The “Reign Man” was coming off five straight All-Star appearances and seemingly, at 27, in the prime of his career when he was traded to and signed an extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers in September of 1997. That’s right, twelve-year-old LeBron was probably amongst those that thought his hometown team was destined for greatness twenty years too soon. There were signs of cracks in the marble though; Kemp’s coach at the time of the trade for instance, George Karl, remarked “'I think in a lot of ways our mental health got better today.” Kemp was clearly disgruntled with the Seattle Supersonics organization, whom he felt had leaked to the media that he had a drinking problem.
The Cavs though hoped Kemp would put some butts in seats and bring some drive to an offense that had averaged a league low 87.5 points per game the year previous. But after a sixth All-Star appearance led Cleveland to a five win improvement and a playoff berth, Kemp showed up badly overweight to camp in 1998-99. He was unloaded on Portland after two straight years without sniffing the postseason, and was soon thereafter in rehab for cocaine abuse.
14 Jim McIlvaine: 7 Years, $33.6 Million
There would be no Shawn Kemp on this list if it weren’t for Jim McIlvaine. Just a year prior to getting rid of their star forward, the Seattle Supersonics were coming off a 1996 NBA Finals appearance with Kemp and Gary Payton leading the way. The team was convinced that to get over the top they needed to fill the gap at the one rotation position for which they lacked talent and depth: a big man up front at center. Their unfortunate solution to the problem however, was to lock up a former second-round-pick coming off a season in which he started in just six of the 80 games he played and averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds.
McIlvaine got seven years. Kemp, who wanted an extension, got nothing, and soon was at odds with the front office, and spiraling his career down the toilet. Seattle would make the playoffs just four times in the next 11 years before moving the franchise to Oklahoma City, and McIlvaine would be traded just two seasons into his deal, and it would subsequently be bought out before it could reach its end, forcing him into retirement in 2001.
13 Allan Houston: 6 years, $100 Million
Let’s be honest: Allan Houston’s contract is on this list not because it was unbelievable for him to ink such an offer at the time of his signing in 2001, though it was the first nine-figure-deal in team history (“more productive than [Houston] could have ever imagined,” the New York Daily News raved at the time.) He was actually a consistent and consistently healthy player coming off two straight All-Star appearances and even continued to play some of his best ball for two seasons more. But he was forced to retire just four years into his new deal due to injuries, in turn forcing his team, the New York Knicks, to build a roster around the remaining $40 million owed him in 2005-06 and 2006-07, without him playing a game.
And that’s what makes the contract noteworthy and unbelievable, because it took this situation for the NBA to create a “Allan Houston Rule”, where teams could choose to waive one player whose contract would impact the salary cap by counting against the luxury tax. The unlucky Knicks immediately fell ten games in the standings so that others could benefit in the future.
12 Tony Parker: 4 years, $50 Million
What if we told you that the best player on a team that made the Western Conference Finals, NBA Finals, WON the NBA Finals and averaged 58 wins over the course of his contract, made just $50 million dollars in the modern era? AND he effectively squashed a dynasty in the making with a 5-game dismantling of LeBron and the Miami Heat in 2013-14, before “The Chosen One” decided maybe it was best to return home to Cleveland.
Tony Parker, never a superstar, nevertheless finally got the recognition he was due during the length of this deal, making three of the six All-Star teams he would get selected to. He was the primary scorer for the San Antonio Spurs those three years, rising past Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili as the undisputed leader of the team, before ushering in the Kawhi Leonard era in his final season of the deal, 2014-15.
11 Jerome James: 5 years, $30 Million
Oh, the New York Knicks again. What have your fans done to deserve this? When center Jerome James basically tripled his season stats over the course of 11 playoff games for the 2004-05 incarnation of the Seattle Supersonics, the team decided he was worth a five-year-investment. Seemingly now good for 12.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game all of a sudden, James would actually go on to never average more than 3.0 points for his new squad. He was frequently out-of-shape and perhaps as a result frequently injured (he earned the unfortunate nickname, “Big Snacks”, standing at 7-feet and 300 pounds), making it on court only four times in 2007-08 and 2008-09. James would make $787,000 per minute during that period, more money than most of us will certainly make in a lifetime. Read that sentence again if you feel like cursing your parents for not being taller.
10 Chris Webber: 15 Years, $94 Million
A future Hall-of-Fame finalist locked into a 15-year-contract that would have run the whole course of his career? A reflection on a time just before the NBA instituted a cap on rookie salaries, Chris Webber in part bolted from the “Fab Five” and the University of Michigan after his sophomore season to be able to get what was seen as a player-friendly deal at the time. His gamble paid off when he was drafted #1 overall in 1993 by the Orlando Magic before being traded to the Golden State Warriors.
The only problem with what would have ended up a great deal for the Dubs? Webber was given an opt-out after just one season and did not get along with old-school coach Don Nelson. He forced a sign-and-trade and ended up with The Washington Bullets, leaving a Rookie of the Year trophy on the mantle behind him as he left.
9 Chris Webber: 7 Years, $122.7 Million
C-Webb clearly made the right choice to opt out of his original rookie deal, and that was never more clear than when he was coming off a career-high 27.1 points per game for the 2000-01 Sacramento Kings. He then led the team to an NBA-best 61-21 record in the first year of his new deal, before they fell in a controversial NBA Western Conference Finals in which there have been notable accusations of the refs purposely throwing Game Six and thus the series to allow the popular Los Angeles Lakers to win. He made the All-Star team that season and again the following year, but what would turn out to be Webber’s final NBA deal would result in him playing for four different franchises as his numbers steadily declined, including a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers from the Kings in 2005.
8 Austin Croshere: 7 years, $51 Million
In what is beginning to feel like a familiar story, Austin Croshere emerged seemingly from nowhere to take the league by storm in the 2000 NBA Finals, averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds including a breakout 24 point performance in Game Two, as his Indiana Pacers pushed but ultimately fell to Shaq and Kobe and the LA Lakers. He was also coming off his best regular season, rising to a solid bench role with the team, but nothing that screamed long-term-asset in the making until that series. He would provide 10.1 points in a similarly capable bench role in the first year of his deal, and then would never reach double digits again. He would only start 72 games over the course of the entire deal. He was finally traded to the Dallas Mavericks to play out the last year of his contract, averaging 3.7 points per game to end his ignominious era. The Pacers have never since returned to the Finals.
7 Timofey Mozgov: 4 years, $64 Million
The Washington Post’s headline after learning of Timofey Mozgov’s 4-year, $64 million deal this past offseason? “[Mozgov’s] insane Lakers contract inspires incredulous reaction.” And yet, somehow, LA was eager enough to ink the deal just hours after the clock struck midnight ushering in the official start of the trade season. This for a man who had just played a total of 25 minutes in the NBA Finals to “help” the Cavs clinch the title, averaged just 6.9 points and 5.0 rebounds on his career, and was about to be on the wrong side of 30.
Mozgov made his critics eat their words by… playing exactly the way he always had, ending the season with nearly exactly the numbers he had put up in his first five before that, and only made it on the court for 52 games, the first time he had played less than 76 since 2013. Its gonna be a long three more years in Los Angeles.
6 Joe Smith: 1 Year, $1.75 Million
It is perhaps just a touch ironic that the guy whose name sounds like an alias was the subject of a Minnesota Timberwolves front office ploy to sign him to a secret long-term contract in direct violation of NBA league policy. Of course, Joe Smith was probably not the first in this sneaky era; Bulls starter Horace Grant had left $20 million on the table to sign with the Orlando Magic for two years at $2 million in 1995 only to just happen to ink a 5-year, $50 million deal with the club when that contract expired in 1997.
David Stern though, commissioner of the NBA at the time, imposed the harshest penalty in the history of the league when it was revealed that the T-Wolves and Smith had actually inked a 7-year, $86 million deal in January of 1999 behind closed doors which would follow the 1-year, $1.75 Million deal as a way to circumvent salary cap rules. The team was stripped of first round picks for five years to follow, and the inability to bring in new talent to their club as a result can probably be directly traced to Kevin Garnett’s decision to leave the team in 2007.
5 Gilbert Arenas: 6 years, $111 Million
When TMZ asked Gilbert Arenas in 2013 if his $111 million deal was the worst in NBA history, he replied “I’m probably up there.” He also noted, “I'm still getting paid until 2016.”
Yes, that’s right. 2016. This from a contract Arenas originally signed in 2008, after appearing in only 13 games in the season prior because of a knee injury. He awarded the club’s risk with only 2 games played in the first year due to continued health issues and was 32 into his second when he was suspended for bringing some unloaded fire-arms into a locker room, then mocking the controversy by making pistol gestures during pre-game introductions. After he was traded to Orlando mid-way through the following season, he fell to averaging under 10 points a season for the first time in his career. The Magic chose to amnesty Arenas, deferring some paychecks that allowed Agent Zero to collect long after playing his final game in 2011.
4 Wilt Chamberlain: 5 years, $250,000
Notable for two reasons, Wilt Chamberlain’s five-year, $250,000 deal showcases how little the greatest athletes in the history of sports made before the modern era took root in the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. But also, at the time, it actually broke the record for largest contract every handed out in the NBA. The 32-year-old Chamberlain’s signing with the Los Angeles Lakers would end up being his last contract, and would lead to certainly the weakest basketball he ever played, though he still managed to make All-Star teams in four of the five seasons. He also took the team to the NBA Finals four times, and was named MVP of the franchise’s first championship since moving out west in 1972, elevating his performance by about five points and five rebounds over his regular season totals, to the tune of 19.4 points and 23.2 rebounds a game.
3 Bill Russell: 1 year, $100,001
Its in the “1” at the end of Bill Russell’s $100,001 deal that makes it such an unbelievable footnote in NBA history. It highlights how competitive Boston’s all-time great wise, and how deep his rivalry with fellow center Wilt Chamberlain went. “Wilt The Stilt” had just inked a $100,000 deal to re-sign with the Philadelphia 76ers, who had succumbed to Russell’s Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals on their way to Boston capturing their seventh straight championship with their big man. So as a gesture of just how much he needed to one-up his competition, the Celts inked Russell for $1 more shortly thereafter, and he went on to average 19.1 points and 25.2 rebounds in the playoffs, blowing past Wilt and company once again in five games before dispatching the Lakers in seven in the Finals.
2 Steph Curry: 4 Years, $44 Million
Here is perhaps the most shocking sentence of this whole article: Steph Curry makes less money than 81 other NBA players. This season. Right now. He is only the fourth highest paid on his OWN TEAM.
But when Curry first signed the 4 year, $44 million extension in 2012, he was coming off two ankle surgeries already since he broke into the league in 2009. Grantland’s Zach Lowe called it a “huge bet” at the time because “nobody has any idea if he can stay on the floor.” Two league MVPs and a championship ring later, it could be easily argued that we are currently witnessing the greatest steal financially by a franchise in NBA history. Yet Steph is remarkably zen about it all. “One thing my pops always told me is you never count another man’s money," he recently said. "It’s what you’ve got and how you take care of it. And if I’m complaining about $44 million over four years, then I’ve got other issues in my life.”
1 Magic Johnson: 25 years, $25 Million
There is so much about this deal that makes it remarkable. The symmetry of the numbers, guaranteeing exactly enough to make Magic a millionaire every year from 1984-2009. The fact that the deal was signed years earlier, in 1981, showcasing just how sure team and player were that this was the perfect fit for both. And, of course, the fact that Magic Johnson would end up retiring from the NBA from an illness that nobody even could name yet in 1981 and would end up changing the world as we know it. Indeed, almost to the day that MJ inked his deal, the first case in America of what would be later identified as HIV was being diagnosed. Where? In Los Angeles, of course.
The contract wouldn’t last, as soon the Lakers knew they needed to compensate their star and franchise icon far greater if they wanted to keep him happy. But the faith franchise and player showed in each other from early on can be directly tied to the five championship rings they would go on to earn together.
And that’s what all this money, in the end, is all about, isn’t it?
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