Seventeen NBA players were paid under maximum salary contracts last season. There will be 14 next season, including the likes of Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson and Michael Redd. With the salary cap going down next season and likely to keep falling for another year or two, look for teams to be more judicious about offering max money, considering those players will consume so much cap room. Sure, the true superstars in their primes will get it, but what about the rising stars, the fading stars, the secondary stars and the not-quite-great-enoughs? FOXSports.com NBA editor John Galinsky evaluates 15 players and makes the call: Who's max-worthy?
Yes: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
If you were starting an NBA franchise, who would be your first pick? Probably not Kobe ... a little too old. Probably not Dwight Howard ... still a little raw. LeBron is the obvious choice, based on his age (24), talent, upside and leadership. Yes, his image has taken a hit recently over his poor sportsmanship after losing to the Magic and the weird cover-up after he got dunked on at his summer camp. And yes, he won't officially live up to the hype until he wins a title or seven. But max money? Given LeBron's ability to dominate games and sell tickets, he'll hit the salary ceiling for at least the next decade. The only question: Who will be paying him?
Yes: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
He'll make $23,034,375 next season, then $24,806,250 the year after. I know what you're thinking: The man's underpaid! OK, maybe not. But if anyone earns his money in the NBA, it's Kobe Bryant. Supremely talented and voraciously competitive, he's fighting for his place among the all-time greats in the sport. Now 30, he won his first MVP award in 2008, then his first Finals MVP honor last month. And he's far from done. With his drive and fitness level, Kobe should have at least three more brilliant seasons left in the tank. He deserves the max because he gives max effort and produces max results.
Yes: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
He still has a long way to go as a player, as the Lakers showed by frustrating him in the Finals. But in an era of weak and unathletic centers, Howard is in a category all his own. A 7-footer who's built like Adonis and jumps like Jordan, his sheer physical superiority makes him a max cinch when his contract runs out in three years. ('Til then, he'll have to get by on nearly $50 million.) At 23, he's already the best rebounder and shot-blocker in the league. If he keeps developing his offensive game and basketball IQ, even the sky won't be the limit for this Superman.
Yes: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
A few years ago, Wade seemed like a guy who might be destined for a spectacular but short career. He suffered a series of injuries, with critics saying his physical style was prematurely breaking down his body. They're not saying that now. Starting with the 2008 Olympics, Wade has been as fit, explosive and durable as any player on the planet. He led the league in scoring last season and was second in steals, carrying the Heat to the playoffs nearly single-handedly. As a free agent next year, he'll get the max from Miami (or sign elsewhere, if he thinks the Heat can't contend) and be worth every penny.
Yes: Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
So who's worth a maximum contract? Let's start with KG, whose arrival in Boston two summers ago sparked a 44-game turnaround, the team's first title in 22 years and the restoration of Celtic pride. The 2008 NBA defensive player of the year isn't a go-to guy in the clutch, but his all-around skills, ferocious intensity and leadership are exactly what you want from a franchise player. Knee surgery ended his 2009 season prematurely, and if he doesn't completely recover, then you can lump him in with Tim Duncan as 33-year-old power forwards past their prime. But if he returns at full force, Garnett should make the Celtics a serious contender for at least the next two years. And he accepted far less than max money in order to help Boston keep a championship roster around him.
No: Deron Williams and Chris Paul
They're the two best point guards in the NBA. And if the cap was expanding, they'd clearly be worth top dollar. But now? A point guard can't win a title by himself. So if you give one a max deal and surround him with a mediocre roster, you won't get very far. Indeed, the Jazz and Hornets proved that last season, falling in the first round despite superb seasons by Williams and Paul. Both teams also have severe cap issues already, partly because of their PGs' fat salaries but, to be fair, more because of terrible contracts elsewhere on their rosters. (Peja Stojakovic in New Orleans, Andrei Kirilenko in Utah.)
No: Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh
With a decreasing salary cap, teams will have to ask themselves this question before shelling out maximum money: Is this guy capable of leading us to a title? If the answer is no, then it doesn't make sense to commit a huge percentage of the payroll to that player. Bosh and Anthony currently make the max, but neither is a true franchise player ... yet. Bosh couldn't keep Toronto out of the lottery, while Carmelo remains a notch behind classmates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But there's time. Each is 25 and entering his prime, and now they have a season or two to prove their worth. Bosh comes up for free agency next year, with Carmelo to follow in 2011.
No: Pau Gasol and Paul Pierce
No way the Lakers and Celtics win the last two titles without Gasol and Pierce, respectively. Gasol averaged 18.3 points and 10.8 rebounds in the 2009 playoffs, while Pierce earned the 2008 Finals MVP award. But they're also the second-best players on their teams. Kevin Garnett's defense and force of will drove Boston's championship season. Kobe, of course, is the king of L.A.. For now, great teams can afford to have two players making max money. But as the cap comes down, that'll be much harder to pull off. And if only one Laker or Celtic deserves the max, it's not either of these two.
No: Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki
Both players have been handsomely compensated for years, and rightfully so. Dirk signed his first maximum contract in 2001 and re-upped for the max in 2006. Duncan will make $22.2 million next season, ranking him fourth in the league (behind Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, ludicrously). Dirk was the 2007 MVP and Duncan's won four titles, so it's fair to say they earned their dough. But are they worth it now? That's debatable. Nowitzki hasn't led the Mavs past the second round for three years, while Duncan's 33-year-old knees are wearing down. But credit Duncan for knowing he needs help in order to get a fifth ring. He accepted a paycut the next two seasons so the Spurs can re-sign Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
No: Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy
For now, they're too young and unproven. But the 2007 (Roy) and 2008 (Durant) rookies of the year may be worthy of maximum money some day. Roy, a wonderful all-around talent, took a big step toward stardom last season by leading the Blazers to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Durant, meanwhile, averaged 25.8 points (sixth in the league) and had better shooting percentages on FGs, FTs and 3-pointers than Kobe Bryant. Just 20, he may be all but unstoppable once he puts muscle on his slender frame. Derrick Rose, the top rook in '09, flashed his potential in the playoffs but is a long way from getting in the max discussion.