Let's say NBA commissioner Adam Silver approaches Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks on a subway platform, challenges him to a children's game and then hands him a business card.
On it is nothing but an NBA logo and a phone number.
Marks is told to call the number if he wishes to partake in high-stakes games that award salary cap relief -- an NBA version of the hit series "Squid Game." Outlast fellow front office executives in a series of rather intense challenges (to say the least) and the victor can remove one contract from his or her roster.
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Win, and earn a get-out-of-debt-free card to create financial flexibility, pave the way for a trade or simply eliminate a headache. Lose, and, well...
No, in this version of the game, the GMs simply return to their front office still saddled with the contract they were hoping to rid themselves of.
Which general manager would be victorious? How far would he go to be victorious? And which contract might he choose?
Let the NBA Squid Game Begin
Marks dials the number to confirm his place in the game. He considers the contract of Kyrie Irving, who’s set to make $35 million but currently is being kept away from the team due to his COVID vaccination status.
All is quiet when Marks is picked up at the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues by a man who looks like NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum in a gas mask.
He arrives at an unidentified location surrounded by a front office representative from all but one of the league’s 29 other teams. Gregg Popovich, with the highest-paid player on this season’s unusually young San Antonio Spurs team being Derrick White at $15.7 million, had no interest in such shenanigans.
The remaining representatives, far removed from their customary hardwood playing field, look around curiously.
"If you do not wish to play," a masked guard tells them, "please let us know now."
Not knowing what awaits, some use this opt-out opportunity to do just that.
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who only came to inquire about available draft picks, doesn't have an active player making eight figures this season. With the team's highest paid being Derrick Favors at $9.7 million, Presti departs.
With a net worth approaching $100 billion, Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is more the type to be running the games than participating in them. The three years and roughly $41 million remaining on Luke Kennard's contract isn't worth battling over.
The Indiana Pacers' core members all are on reasonable contracts, led by Malcolm Brogdon's roughly $22 million a year salary, so general manager Kevin Pritchard leaves.
As long as Jamal Murray returns to form over the next four years while owed about $130 million and Michael Porter Jr. lives up to his recent $207 million extension, the Denver Nuggets and general manager Calvin Booth won't be in need of a bailout.
With the Detroit Pistons owing their highest-paid player Jerami Grant only about $40 million over two years, and with little else around No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, general manager Troy Weaver exits.
If the Portland Trail Blazers were looking to move on from CJ McCollum and the three years and nearly $100 million he's owed, trading him would be the better option given their cap situation. General manager Neil Olshey knows this.
New York Knicks president Leon Rose made the trip over concerns of a quick onset of buyer's remorse on Evan Fournier's four-year, $73 million deal. He decides he's happy with the team's roster as is for now.
The Miami Heat's Pat Riley, always playing chess not checkers, only came to gather intel should he have to return in four years when a 36-year-old Jimmy Butler is set to make $52 million during the 2025-2026 NBA season.
All others stay put. It’s time for the first contest.
Red Light, Green Light
The classic stop-and-go running game becomes more pressure-packed when the slightest movement could be the difference between owing John Wall $90 million over the next two seasons.
The thought of unloading that contract leaves Houston Rockets GM Rafael Stone overeager as he loses his balance and is first to be eliminated.
Next to go was Cleveland Cavaliers GM Koby Altman, whose inability to stop means two more years of Kevin Love at roughly $30 million per.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is imagining who he'll pair with Luka Doncic once out from under the remaining $100 million owed to Kristaps Porzingis over the next three years when he shuffles his feet on red light.
Others with less pressing financial obligations play too lackadaisical and suffer early exits. That includes James Jones, GM of the defending Western Conference-champion Phoenix Suns, who can easily manage the roughly $18 million owed Dario Saric over two years. Also eliminated are Jeff Weltman of the Orlando Magic, who should be able to trade Gary Harris and the $20 million he's owed in the final year of his deal; and Jeanie Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers, who gave the well-traveled Russell Westbrook and the $47 million he's due next season a second guess.
Brad Stevens quickly learns that trying to carve a Boston Celtics logo from a honeycomb candy with a needle is much more difficult than trading Kemba Walker.
The coach-turned-president quickly unloaded Walker before the NBA playoffs even concluded, getting back Al Horford. Stevens had thoughts of clearing the $27 million owed to the 35-year-old center until he got dismissed from Squid Game for breaking the Celtics logo while carving.
Some representatives with the more complex team logos also go down, like Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk, looking to unload Danilo Gallinari's remaining $42 million, and the Milwaukee Bucks' Jon Horst, who can tolerate paying Brook Lopez the $27 million he's owed over the next two seasons during the NBA championship grace period.
Tug of War
The 12 remaining reps are asked to select teams for the third game. The math, with six teams from each conference, made it an easy decision: East vs. West.
Nothing brings out a front office executive's strength quite like financial freedom. With high-priced players on the East Coast, it’s an easy victory against an overmatched Western squad.
That means Bob Myers and the Golden State Warriors are stuck with Andrew Wiggins (two years, $65 million), Zach Kleiman and the Memphis Grizzlies are keeping Steven Adams (two years, $35 million), Alex Rodriguez and the Minnesota Timberwolves are still paying D'Angelo Russell (two years, $61 million), David Griffin and the New Orleans Pelicans are committed to Tomas Satoransky (one year, $10 million), Monte McNair and the Sacramento Kings are going to continue paying Harrison Barnes (two years, $39 million) and the Utah Jazz are locked into their valuable but pricey franchise center Rudy Gobert (five years, $205 million).
Told to pick their teammate for the fourth game, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan pairs up with his former team, the Chicago Bulls.
Jordan and Bulls general manager Arturas Karnisovas soon find out teaming up means becoming direct opponents in a game of marbles, with only one moving on. The uber-competitive Jordan responds with a shoulder-shrugging performance to eliminate the Bulls, who are then locked into paying the nearly $10 million owed Derrick Jones Jr. this season.
Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey cruises to victory over Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who quietly contemplated whether Pascal Siakam has already hit his ceiling with three years and $105 million still left on his contract.
Marks, starting to feel that victory is within reach, edges Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard, which means Davis Bertans will be getting every penny he was owed on his five-year, $80 million deal.
Three teams are left standing.
When forced to jump along a bridge made of glass panels, half of which will shatter on contact, who better to have in front of you than Air Jordan himself?
Jordan, even at age 58, soars through the air with grace. He jumps from panel to panel, correctly guessing the correct glass, while giving a free pass to Morey and Marks as they trailed behind. But even the GOAT has the occasional glass-shattering misstep, which comes just two panels short of safe crossing and ensures that Jordan will be signing Gordon Hayward's checks for the next three years at $30 million per.
Morey then uses some "Moreyball" analytics to compare the final glass panel and determine the correct path. Marks follows, setting the stage for a Nets-Sixers battle in the final game.
The Nets and Sixers might be expected to square off on the court in the Eastern Conference finals, but in a squid-like diagram drawn in a sandy field? That’s where the top decision-makers for each team meet.
Squid Game comes down to a simple matchup of offense versus defense. Morey, offensive mastermind that he is, out-strategizes and overpowers Marks, whose Nets never have been known for their defensive resistance. Morey manages to tap the squid’s head with his foot, ending the battle and one of his player’s tenure in Philadelphia.
“The Brooklyn Nets have been eliminated,” a voice on the loudspeaker says.
Morey considers his two options. There’s Tobias Harris, set to be the 14th-highest-paid player in the league this season at nearly $36 million and is owed nearly $113 million over the next three seasons. And there’s Ben Simmons, owed nearly $147 million over the next four years while having lost confidence in his offensive ability and enduring what could still prove to be irreconcilable differences with an organization competing for a championship.
Morey walks off the playing field, informs those in charge of his decision, and departs.
The games – and Simmons’ days in Philadelphia – are over.