Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Downs are on a mission to earn record-setting paydays. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Who’s Next in Line for a Supermax Contract?

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is at the front of the line to earn the NBA’s next Designated Veteran Player Extension, but he could be

So many NBA stars got paid over the course of the offseason that it’s easier to keep track of who didn’t earn a gigantic bag. From established future Hall of Famers like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard to young franchise cornerstones like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, there has been a bevy of gigantic contracts handed out since July.

But this summer, only one player scored the ultimate prize permitted under the NBA’s current collective bargaining agreement: Joel Embiid. The 76ers center signed a Designated Veteran Player Extension, better known as the supermax, which entitles him to a full 35% of the league’s salary cap each season. He added four years and $196 million onto his current deal, which was to run through 2022-23, retroactively making the grand total six years and $261 million.

Now, with the NBA preseason now underway and the start of the 2021-22 regular season approaching, there are additional All-Star names with designs on a potentially record-setting payday of their own.

Let’s identify a trio of players who have never earned a max or supermax and could get basketball’s biggest check over the next season.

Nikola Jokic
Denver Nuggets

The Joker was inarguably the NBA’s most valuable player last year, and was voted as such after averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game on 38.8% shooting from three. The 26-year-old would have had a great shot at leading his team to the Finals if not for teammate Jamal Murray suffering a torn ACL in April.

While the Serbian has two years and $63 million left on his current deal, he’ll be eligible for a supermax as soon as next offseason when he reaches seven years of service time.

That particular supermax, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, would become the biggest contract in NBA history at five years and approximately $242 million. (And we know Jokic is gonna do that Sombor Shuffle both on and off the court when he inks that deal.)

After Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie max extension last week, Denver is now one of three teams, along with the Nets and Lakers, to have three max players on their rosters. The most dominant among them has every intention of raising his own max threshold even higher, and it’s very clearly only a matter of time.

Karl-Anthony Towns
Minnesota Timberwolves

Amid a turbulent season that saw KAT miss some time due to COVID-19 a year after his mother died from the virus, the 25-year-old All-Star center still managed to average 24.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Over 50 games for Minnesota, he shot 38.7% from three on more than six attempts per contest.

It’s been a year of change for the Wolves, who are transitioning into new ownership over the next couple of years to Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez. They also hired a new coach midseason in Chris Finch and ousted head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas in favor of Sachin Gupta in a move that literally made KAT go “WTF.”

Ideally, new management and a promising lineup featuring guards Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley figures to help Towns to a season that makes him supermax-eligible. But due to the fine print of the CBA, he’ll need to either win MVP, win Defensive Player of the Year, or make All-NBA to seal the deal — accolades decided by the media that could have KAT missing out on tens of millions.

Like Jokic, the top pick of the 2015 draft will have seven years of service time beginning next summer, clearing the way for him to earn 35% of the cap if he meets the remaining criteria — which include staying in Minneosota despite the organizational turmoil there.

No matter what, next year will go a long way in determining not just how much KAT will make, but potentially who he’ll play for long-term.

Zach LaVine
Chicago Bulls

For years, critics and detractors nicked Zach LaVine for his defense, playmaking, and shooting. Then, the 26-year-old silenced all of them with the first All-Star season of his career, where he put up a career-best 27.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game on 50.7% shooting overall and 41.9% from three. His efforts were good enough for an All-NBA vote.

Coincidentally, the UCLA product’s four-year, $78 million contract expires at the end of next season.

Zach LaVine’s estimated career earnings through 2020-21, via Spotrac

If LaVine can take his game to an even higher level than he did last year and makes All-NBA, he’d be supermax-eligible just in time to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. That would be a blessing and a curse for a Chicago Bulls team that reloaded in a major way in an effort to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season, acquiring Lonzo Ball from New Orleans, DeMar DeRozan from San Antonio, and signing Alex Caruso via free agency from the Lakers.

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Devin Booker
Phoenix Suns

He already had a 70-point game to his name, but 2020-21 was truly the season in which Devin Booker made the leap into legit NBA stardom.

Rounding out his game alongside the veteran influence of Chris Paul and the up-and-coming talents of big man DeAndre Ayton, D-Book played a massive role in carrying the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals and the doorstep of what would have been their first-ever NBA championship. They fell just short against Giannis and the Bucks, but what’s undeniable is that the Kentucky product had officially announced himself to any remaining doubters who had long insisted he was a “good numbers, bad team” guy.

Like Towns and LaVine, Booker either needs an MVP, DPOY, or an All-NBA nod in 2021-22, his seventh season as a pro in order to transform the $158.3 million rookie extension he signed two years ago into a true supermax. That’s a tall order given the incredible guard depth around the Association, but if there’s anything we learned from the past season, it’s that dismissing Booker is a generally terrible idea.