How Glenn Robinson Changed the NBA

Nothing is ever as clear as it seems.

When people heard some college kid was floating the sacred $100 million figure out there for his first NBA contract, people took notice, especially business savvy NBA owners.  Sure, Glenn Robinson was a rare college player, averaging over 30 points per game at Purdue, but holding out for $100 million?  As a rookie?

In Black Planet, David Shields book about the 1994-95 Seattle Sonics, there is a quote from Bucks owner Herb Kohl on the Glenn Robinson contract matter, “I was thinking of telling Mr. Robinson, ‘I’ll tell you what: I’ll take your contract and you can have my franchise.’”

People saw the big figure in front of the word million and emotions poured out.  Some laughed at the thought that an athlete could be so ignorant as to expect a contract that big.  Others were outraged that contracts had spiraled so out of control.  Eventually the call came for a cap on rookie salaries.  Too much too soon would surely ruin the NBA.

After Robinson’s alleged outrageous demands the rookie scale was instituted in 1995.  The way the system is currently set up teams sign two year contracts with their first round picks and hold team options for the third and fourth years.  After he is chosen with the first pick this year, Blake Griffin will receive in the ballpark of $4,152,900 million.  His actual figure can be 80 percent of that or 120 percent of that, with it usually falling on the high end of the scale.  So basically, Griffin will be playing for what amounts to a mid-level exception for his first four years in the league.

Well, that sounds terrific.  He has to prove himself to get his money.  And on top of that, if rookies aren’t coming in at these horrific prices then more money will be available for veteran players.  So the rookies are getting the shaft in the deal and owners and veterans clean up.

Not exactly.

If the idea was to actually cut down on player salary, then it was a failure.  With Robinson’s proposed $100 million contract over 13 years he would have stood at (roughly) $76,923,076 ten years into his deal.  As a comparison, after six years in the league LeBron James has made(roughly) $46,241,001.  Even estimating a very low $15 million a year in LeBron’s next four years puts him more than $30 million past Robinson at the ten-year point in their respective careers.  I know revenues have gone up and inflation has impacted numbers too, but basically the NBA owners gave up steady payments that sounded like big numbers for nice sounding payments that end up costing them far more.

For the trouble of giving up more money in the long term owners did get rewarded with less control of their players though.  So that’s a plus.

Suddenly first round picks had a lot more freedom.  No longer were they locked into their team for 25 years like Magic Johnson.  If the going got tough, they could get going or use their power to make sure the team got tough.  When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all declined to sign extensions for more than three years after their rookie deals expired they were letting their teams know they expected to see title contenders by that time.  There would be no wasting of any of their primes with losing teams.  And that is why Toronto find themselves in such a tough spot with Chris Bosh.  If Chris Bosh was drafted in 1993 instead of 2003, Toronto could have locked him up for 15 years assuming both parties kept their sanity (see Webber, Chris and Nelson, Don).  Superagent David Falk expressed his confusion with the NBA’s insistence on changing the structure in his book The Bald Truth.

“Prior to the rookie wage scale . . . Milwaukee locked up No. 1 pick, Glenn Robinson, for ten years with no out.  Why on earth would you ever want to change that system?
(Renegotiating the rookie wages) was a cosmetic victory and neither side understood the future result of their actions.”

If teams are feeling pressure that players are going to bolt then they have to react.  And once players know teams are going to react they use that against them.  That’s how we end up with situations like Vince Carter in Toronto or Baron Davis in New Orleans, all talented players that saw their team was going nowhere and decided they wanted out sooner rather than later.  They knew the teams would cave.

And if you’re a team like Milwaukee or Minnesota or Memphis anywhere else where the market is small and the weather isn’t great you can’t really recoup your losses in free agency.  The biggest splash any of those teams made on the free agent market was probably Milwaukee’s signing of Bobby Simmons.  An overpaid role player was the big signing!  Trading can be an affective way to restore your team’s talent, but usually it just ends up being crap for crap. So the draft becomes that much more important.  If you’re lucky, you end up like San Antonio.  They got a superstar that is committed to the coach and the team and did an admirable job of drafting around him.  His commitment made it much easier though.

Given the general ineptitude of most teams with regard to the draft, hope is a dicey proposition.

Usually teams like the Bucks know their time is running out the second their guy shakes David Stern’s hand.  They no longer have the luxury of building a group together, piece by piece.  And they can thank Glenn Robinson and some overreacting owners for that.

Categories: Draft Talk


  1. yes its nice to have a great player for ten years, but its not great to have a crappy player for ten years. can you tell me out of this draft class who you want on your team for ten years? this change was about teams getting locked into overpaying some number one pick stiff (see olowokandi). and the vince and baron situations have nothing to do with rookie contracts, which neither of them were on when they got grumpy. they were being paid well and were locked in for multipul years like you wanted. just like when kobe got grumpy. and as the team drafting a great player, no matter how short of a contract they take, like wade or bosh, you still have the upper hand at keeping them because yu can pay them more than anyone else. what kind of sweet deal would it have been if glen came into the league, blew out his knee in his rookie year and was never the same scorer. in the system now, you could drop the guy after his second year. in the old on you would be on the books for eight more.

  2. It’s a gamble either way. You’re absolutely right, if a guy gets hurt or simply isn’t what you thought he’d be, then you’re kind of screwed.

    With Vince or Davis I was trying to make the point that were they under contracts for a longer period of time, they may have felt differently about going into shutdown mode. They were both on their second contracts and essentially went into shutdown mode right after they knew they were getting paid and the team wasn’t going to get any better in the near future. Ideally you’d like them to be leaders in that situation and rally the troops. Perhaps if they knew other guys would be around a while they would.

    Players generally don’t last past six or seven years on one team in the current system, which is kind of a bummer in my opinion. There are definitely pluses and minuses.