With many NBA players looking at playing overseas during the lockout, Josh Childress, who played two seasons for the Greek team Olympiacos, poured water on the idea in a conversation with ESPN’s Ric Bucher: “But sometimes you have to look at what you have and treat this as a business … for an American player with a good-sized guaranteed deal here, I can’t see why you’d do it.”

A 28-year-old wing player who played himself out of Phoenix’s rotation by the end of last season, he still has $27 million dollars coming to him over the next four seasons.

It’s an astronomical sum of money that Childress could never replicate on the free agent market, and he’d be a fool to do anything to risk the lottery-sized jackpot coming to him. As a small forward who can’t shoot 3’s coming off a season where he played in only 54 games and averaged five points, Childress would be lucky to get a contract one-fourth that size in free agency this offseason.

His contract is a good example of one of the underlying problems in the NBA’s current economic model: the length of guaranteed contracts. What makes Gilbert Arenas’ contract so onerous isn’t his nearly $20 million annual salary, it’s the $22.3 million he’ll be owed in 2014, seven years after he last made an All-Star team. Joe Johnson is an All-Star caliber player, but the $24.9 million he’ll be owed as a 35-year-old in 2016 looms over the entire Atlanta Hawks franchise.

In the NFL, no money is guaranteed and players have no long-term job security whatsoever. It’s understandable why NBA players would never agree to such a system, but there is a middle ground between that and contracts like Arenas and Johnson’s.

Of course, players would argue that no one forced the Wizards and Hawks owners to guarantee such outrageous sums to either player. And while there are plenty of examples of incompetence in NBA front-offices, the current system is set up in a way that makes contracts like Johnson’s almost unavoidable.

By expanding rapidly over the last decades, the NBA increased the number of bidders in free agency: just because there are 30 franchises doesn’t mean there are 30 franchise-caliber players. Last summer, there were a lot of teams with money to burn after missing out on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. If the Hawks weren’t going to commit $100 million to Johnson, there were multiple other teams that were eagerly prepared to do so.

Atlanta had no way to replace Johnson’s talents either. Teams are only allowed to go over the cap to re-sign their own players, so it was either pay Johnson or try to replace an All-Star with the mid-level exception. Nor could they rebuild without him, not with a young core of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams still in place. The Hawks were trapped in a lose-lose situation: either overpay to keep their team together, or let Johnson walk and fall into the mediocrity treadmill of 45+ win teams.

With Johnson as their franchise player, they had been steadily improving for five consecutive seasons: from winning 26 games in 2006 to 53 in 2010. Letting him walk and taking a step back might have been better for the franchise’s long-term health, but it would have probably cost the Hawks GM (Rick Sund) his job.

Johnson’s agents had all the leverage in the negotiations and they used it. Their client received more money than anyone else in the free agent class of 2010, even though the average sports fan wouldn’t recognize him if they passed him on the street.

And while big-market teams like the Mavericks or the Lakers can swallow such onerous long-term contracts, they are disastrous for a middle-market Atlanta team, much less small-markets like Milwaukee (Michael Redd).

Nor would the average player be hurt by shortening the length of such contracts. The reality of supply and demand in the market for basketball players would still push teams to overpay free agents; the difference is they would be spreading the money around to more players.

In an interview with SI, Lance Allred, a fringe NBA player who spent most his career bouncing between the NBA and Europe, blamed guaranteed contracts for the plight of marginal players: “There have been lots of times in my career where teams have talked to my agent about signing me, but they can’t move this guy or that guy because of his guaranteed deal.” He also voiced the sentiment, common among fans, that long guaranteed deals weaken a player’s motivation to improve and hurt the quality of the game.

Players like Johnson, Childress or Rashard Lewis certainly couldn’t cry poverty if they lost the last two years of their contracts. If anything, lowering the astronomical final figures might make them more realistic about their finances. When the numbers get so large, they don’t seem real anymore, which might be one reason why 60% of NBA players end up in bankruptcy five years into retirement. Antoine Walker, who burned through over $110 million in career earnings, proves that no amount of money will make you secure if you spend it unwisely.

Shortening contract lengths might not appreciably change the amount of basketball-related income the players receive, but it would make it easier for NBA teams to manage their finances and compete on an equal playing field. In a labor situation that seems no closer to being resolved, it’s one thing both sides should be able to agree on.