We're watching the rubber band snap on LeBron free agency coverage. We waited all year to see what would happen, and now that it's happening, there's... rather a lot of coverage, isn't there? But remember, whatever hysterics into which teams and Twitter and ESPN have been thrown were created by the owners' best attempts to avoid exactly this.
A number of people have chimed in recently about how dumb the max salary is—Tom Haberstroh today at ESPN Insider and Zach Lowe at Grantland, off the top of my head—and we ran some basic numbers ourselves recently, which you can read in full below. But in short, based only on his on-court performance, and thereby leaving out all the peripheral merchandise and other revenue he generates, LeBron is worth about $45 million per year in basketball value—nearly double what he's expected to be eligible to earn at 30 percent of this year's salary cap.
Haberstroh sources one GM who figured that in a true open-bid system without a salary cap, LeBron would make nine figures per year. This might be a stretch, or it might not, given the James Dolans and Mikhail Prokhorovs of the league. But certainly, for all the "Jordan and Bird would have never teamed up" hardliners out there, the removal of this entirely arbitrary max salary would go a very long way toward encouraging the very best players to play on different teams. Remember, in his final two seasons in Chicago, Michael Jordan made salaries of $31 and $33 million; roughly adjusted for inflation, that comes to $46 and $48 million in 2014 dollars—remarkably similar to the projected numbers for LeBron without a max salary but retaining a salary cap. Yes, Scottie remained underpaid, but MJ didn't team up with others because the dollars didn't make sense.
The max salary wouldn't just force free agents to consider options beyond teaming up to rule the world, it would force the league to pin down a rational market for its stars based on production rather than a social hierarchy based on whether or not a guy is a "max" player, which is what gives birth to contracts like Joe Johnson's or Rashard Lewis's. (Neither of those is as disastrous as they're often taken to be, given that Johnson comes close to producing at a level commensurate with his pay and Lewis's Magic went to the Finals and wouldn't have without him, but outliers at the high extreme will always be more noticeable than Stan Van Gundy losing his mind and spending $19.5 million on Jodie Meeks.)
Maybe letting the Nets sign LeBron for 95 percent of its cap and then go into the luxury tax for the rest of its roster would rule out a bunch of teams from competing for his services. But as it stands now, those teams aren't just ruled out from LeBron, they're ruled out for all the other talented players LeBron's team can afford while he remains so comically underpaid.