Imagine a scenario with me.
Please God, don't let them see me for the fraud that I am.
An NBA player is entering the last year of a multi-year deal. He plays as hard as he can and busts his hump harder than he ever has before. He's practically salivating at the prospect of all the money he's going to earn next year. He's averaging career highs in almost all of the major statistical categories and makes sure to play even harder when his team is playing on national television. He knows that once he earns that massive contract during the summer, he can go back to putting up an 80-percent effort for the remainder of his contract until another contract year comes up. Life is sweet.
As free agents are being snapped up by the dozens, several of which have likely duped their respective teams by a stellar contract year, it makes the mind wander into scenarios that would curb such situations. Now, I am absolutely acknowledging that the NBA Players Association would never, ever, ever approve of ideas like these, but for the sake of argument and interest, we'll map out two potential solutions.
Have teams provide more incentive bonuses and less guaranteed money
Instead of just guaranteeing every chunk of a contract to players, make their performance reflect the due they earn. Every player could still be paid a base salary which would still provide a substantial portion of a player's salary. But if 1/4 of a player's salary was determined by how many games he was able to play in a season (punishing oft-injured players and pansies), an expected minimum PER or other expected statistics such as rebounds, blocks or field-goal percentage (punishing lazy or suddenly inefficient players) or team wins earned (rewarding the team as a whole for success), you could keep players honest and focused toward a common goal of succeeding throughout the season. With clearly established individual and team goals, you can help keep players from "shutting themselves down" and reward them for continuing to produce a professional effort.
Have a team option of voiding one contract per year
At the end of the season, if a player has shown himself to be completely unworthy of the contract bestowed upon him, the team could feasibly void his contract completely, making him an unrestricted free agent. The catch is the team could only void one contract at the end of each season, so you would really just need to play better than another overpaid weak link. There is one facet of this possibility that would have to be worked out before it was implemented.
Some teams would inevitably sign a player for far more money than the market dictates. Because some teams would have the shady vision of cutting the player at the end of the season so they don't have to pay his salary, in essence renting him for one season, penalty provisions would have to be put into place to discourage teams from making unethical decisions, knowing they can just void their way out of it. So, as a penalty for voiding a lazy player's contract, the team would have to pay a quarter of the salary remaining on the players contract to the player, and a quarter of the remaining salary to the league as a penalty.
So, when Vince Carter is loafing his way through the middle of his enormous deal with the Toronto Raptors, the Raptors could simply cut him to go wherever he wishes, and only end up paying half of what they still owed him. It would free up salary cap space immediately, and allow them to possibly lure in a more honest player who won't laze up the final three years of his contract and demand a trade because he's bored. It would also encourage Carter to continue to play as hard as possible, and would kill some of his leverage to force a trade elsewhere. It's a sticky situation that would have several pitfalls, but the current system certainly has plenty of pitfalls as well.
In reality, for this problem to be solved, owners would have to start exercising contract responsibility, something of which they have obviously shown themselves to be incapable. So, as long as the Vince Carters, Erick Dampiers, Tim Thomases and Mike Jameses of the world continue to bust their hump for one year, idiot owners will continue to throw salary-cap destroying amounts of money at them for all eternity.
This year's candidates? Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Gerald Wallace and Mikki Moore. If I'm a betting man, I'm betting this year's production from these guys will pale in comparison to last year's. Happy signing!