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Posted: Friday March 13, 2009 12:29PM; Updated: Friday March 20, 2009 9:16AM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >

Weekly Countdown: Sour economy ushers sweeping changes to NBA

Story Highlights

NBA has projected decline in salary cap, which could alter many teams' plans

Carlos Boozer could be a free agent if he gives up $12.7m salary next season

More topics: D-Wade for MVP? Shaq's future; Gooden's impact on Spurs

5 ways of talking about the economy without talking about the economy

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Despite missing more than half the season with knee and ankle injuries, Carlos Boozer will be the NBA's most wanted man should he become a free agent this summer.
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Because who wants to talk about the economy?

5. Free agency. Earlier this season Carlos Boozer declared his intention to become a free agent this summer, and then promised to say nothing more of it. Much has changed amid his silence.

The league has projected the salary cap will decline by $1.4 million to a total of $57.3 million this summer, which will cut into the nest egg developed by teams to spend on free agents. Of the eight franchises with cap space this summer -- Atlanta, Detroit, Memphis, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Portland, Sacramento and Toronto -- only the Pistons, Trail Blazers and Thunder are expected to have enough space and ambition to be aggressive in taking on long-term commitments to improve their teams.

Should Boozer walk away from a salary guaranteed at $12.7 million next season in order to become a free agent this summer? His answer is burdened by the injuries that have sidelined him for 45 games this season, though mid-February, and the fact Boozer is shooting just 42.5 percent and averaging 10.4 ppg in eight games since he returned last month.

Boozer is clearly playing his way back into shape from the left knee injury that sidelined him in November, as well as a recently sprained right ankle. In the meantime the surging Jazz are contending for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, giving Boozer the opportunity to prove his health over an extended playoff run.

Say Boozer decides to remain with Utah through next season; say also that neither Mehmet Okur (owed $9 million next season) or Kyle Korver ($5.2 million) decline to opt out of their deals. Altogether that would put the Jazz into the luxury tax before they've paid their draft picks or -- more important -- Paul Millsap, a restricted free agent and most-improved player candidate who has averaged 16.0 points and 10.3 rebounds when starting in place of Boozer.

Alternatively, the Jazz could inherit $10 million in cap space if Boozer, Okur and Korver opt out. Boozer's decision is an example of the risk/reward facing players and teams in the declining NBA economy.

With such unpredictability, the answer for Boozer is he should go free only if he is confident of negotiating a sign-and-trade or of cultivating an offer from the Pistons, Blazers (who already have LaMarcus Aldridge) or Thunder. His best hope may come from the Pistons. "I think if Boozer doesn't opt out, Detroit will go after Millsap," predicts a rival personnel executive. "If he does opt out, they'll go after Boozer. Either way they'll try to get one of those guys.''

Prevailing wisdom holds that Utah can't afford to keep both Boozer and Millsap. But the Jazz may be able to retain both pending the decisions of Okur and Korver, or by making a trade to unload salary elsewhere. Maybe they would dare to enter the season as a short-term tax team with the capability of unloading salary at midseason if they aren't in contention.

Another complication for Boozer will be the mystery surrounding the market. While this isn't a celebrated class of free agents -- Allen Iverson will be the only current All-Star seeking a new deal this summer -- the Pistons, Blazers and Thunder may be able to trade for stars on the cheap. If an ailing franchise needs to dump a big contract, they could simply trade it into the Pistons' cap space -- a salary dump for a player with three or four years on his deal, which Detroit may find more tempting than a new five-year deal for Boozer.

There is no predicting how it will play out. "A lot of us don't even know what our owners will let us spend," says another exec of the market this summer.

4. The cost of a ticket. Three NBA teams are reportedly planning to increase ticket prices next season. The only franchise to announce the increase is the Trail Blazers, who say they are raising season tickets by 6.7 percent in order to bring their pricing into line with the rest of the league.

Even so, is it worth the risk? Two injuries or one unfortunate off-the-court incident could change attitudes toward the franchise. That's true in any NBA city -- but a disappointing 2009-10 season, combined with a ticket hike, could especially aggravate customers in Portland at a time when so many are under pressure to keep their jobs or make ends meet.

3. An Obama-esque approach. The new U.S. president is viewing the recession as an opportunity to to fix a number of longstanding problems (health care, alternative energy, etc.) that went unheeded in better times. I imagine this will be the same approach commissioner David Stern takes in his negotiations with the players union for a new collective bargaining agreement.

If it isn't, it should be. The last time the NBA was in such trouble, Stern invented the salary cap to provide a new means for owners and players to share revenues. The salary cap doesn't work any longer because the issues have changed -- the value of franchises aren't escalating exponentially, and revenues are suddenly in decline. The way forward now is to develop a model that deals with these new realities, based on projected incomesm, while accounting for the inequities between small-market and large-market teams.

This can happen in two ways. The owners can try to shove demands down the union's gullet and eventually get their way -- likely after an extended lockout that sets back the promise of this emerging generation of team-first stars led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. In this recessed economy, fans will hate everything about the NBA if the owners and players spend a '11-12 lockout bickering over how to divide billions in gross income.

The alternative is to strive for a bipartisan approach with the union to come up with an entirely new means of accounting and forecasting to deal with issues that didn't exist 20 years ago. In this relationship, Billy Hunter's union cannot be obstructionist, and Stern cannot be dictatorial. The question is whether each side is wise enough to partner with the other, even when faced with so devastating an alternative.

2. Europe. One year ago the talk was that European clubs would outbid the NBA for talent. I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now.

Just the opposite is true: The smart NBA teams should go overseas this summer to hire ready-made role players from the top clubs in Europe. Remember when the Raptors signed European veterans Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker to leapfrog into the '06-07 playoffs? More NBA teams will be seeking to make similar investments for internationals and expat Americans in their mid-to-late 20s who know how to play. With salaries dropping in Europe, there has never been a better time for NBA teams to have a reliable scouting presence overseas.

1. Local coverage. Chris Tomasson and Aaron Lopez were among the best newswriters covering the NBA, and both are off the beat now that the Rocky Mountain News has gone out of business. As a result the surviving Denver Post -- no longer in a newspaper war -- will be under less pressure to come up with every last bit of news about the hometown Nuggets. In all kinds of ways there has been an erosion in coverage of the teams in Denver and other cities, and that will ultimately hurt the NBA.

NBA owners who may question the value of newspaper coverage are going to begin seeing negative trends. The effects will be felt as newspapers cut back on coverage or go out of business altogether. Layers of media interest in the NBA -- from bloggers, from talk radio -- is built on daily information gathered from local beat writers at newspapers. What happens when those writers stop traveling with the team or vanish altogether?

Some franchises may try to provide news coverage via their own franchise Web sites. But how many of them will tell you what you really want to know? If the star player disagrees with the coach or the team is preparing to make a major trade, is the franchise going to release this information? Less interesting coverage of the NBA will lead to less interest.

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