This will be hailed as unselfishness and a team-friendly move, but it’s actually neither of those things: Russell Westbrook, in order to facilitate his trade to the Houston Rockets, agreed to restructure his supermax contract and shift the payment of some of his salary into the future.
The first thing to know about this move is it very likely will not help the Rockets put a more competitive team on the court. The way the current collective bargaining agreement works, at every payroll level—beneath the salary cap; above the cap but below the luxury tax; above the luxury tax but below the tax apron; above the apron—there is a limited range of contract types available to a team looking to fill out its roster. Teams below the cap have the advantage of, well, cap space; teams below the tax have a chunkier mid-level exception; teams below the apron have the bi-annual exception; and so forth. The Rockets already have 14 players under contract for next season; their total team payroll, at just over $131 million, is about $1.2 million beneath the luxury tax threshold. They’ve got the bi-annual exception available to fill that 15th roster spot, and beyond that it’s veteran minimum contracts. Restructuring Westbrook’s deal does not suddenly give the Rockets new roster-building tools. Unless this moves $25 million off of the next year of Westbrook’s deal (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), the money that Westbrook shifts away from those “massive up-front payments” will not be used by Daryl Morey to bolster Houston’s depth. One hundred percent of what it does is stay in the pockets of Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta.
This is not insignificant. Fertitta is a billionaire, and the Rockets can obviously afford to pay Westbrook on the schedule of his original supermax contract. Fertitta presumably wants to delay the payments for non-basketball reasons—because cash-in-hand is valuable for his personal finances, because it can be invested and earn interest, because it can provide a safety net against calamities or the erosion of other investments. Those, incidentally, are the same reasons why those front-loaded payments would have more value to Westbrook—along with inflation, this is why front-loaded contracts are worth more than back-loaded ones. A million bucks today is worth more than a million bucks 18 months from now. When Westbrook agrees to de-front-load his contract, in the absence of competitive advantages, he is shifting some of the value of his wealth to a person who already has vastly more wealth. When Marc Stein says this was done in order “to facilitate his recent trade to Houston,” that means Fertitta imposed a tax on a player’s wealth as a condition of making his own team more competitive.
Put that together with the Rockets’ Tilman-era hesitation to pay the luxury tax, and you’ve got a picture of an owner who is determined to maintain his own wealth, and is relying on Daryl Morey’s creativity to do what is done by other, better owners with cash. It speaks to Westbrook’s flexibility and determination to get onto the Rockets that he was willing to take this particular kind of haircut, but it’s not unselfish in the way we normally use the word to refer to things that benefit the team over the individual. This type of restructuring might seem like a simple and generally positive way to grease trades of expensive contracts—after all, it got Russell Westbrook’s huge deal moved to a contender—but what it is is an owner leveraging a player’s interest in competing as a way to skim some of the value off of the player’s contract and slide it into his own pocket. It sucks, and it sucks even more if it was the only way for Westbrook to get to the Rockets, where the general manager and the best player wanted him and where he wanted to be. Remember this shit the next time Fertitta talks about doing “whatever it takes” to build a championship contender.