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Posted: Tuesday February 17, 2009 2:07PM; Updated: Tuesday February 17, 2009 6:19PM
Steve Aschburner Steve Aschburner >
INSIDE THE NBA

The shelf life of expiring contracts (cont.)

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Raef LaFrentz has played sparingly since 2006, but he's suddenly valuable because of his expiring contract.
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-- Contracts typically increase, while skills typically decrease.

This explains the disconnect with most of the veterans you'll hear cited for their lapsing deals. A guy in his prime simply is heading into free agency. It's the player whose game has gone south, however slightly, as his salary heads north who ends up with the surgically attached appendage "expiring contract.''

For example, when Allen Iverson, at age 29, was an All-NBA first-team selection in 2004-05, averaging 30.7 points and 7.9 assists, you never heard much about his $14.6 million salary, except maybe for the money still to be paid on the back end of his long-term deal. But when Iverson is 33, averaging 18.2 points and 5.1 assists and pulling down $21.9 million -- never mind the pound-for-pound or inch-for-inch accolades anymore -- he is an expiring contract.

This also explains why players who seemed to drop off the radar a while back -- Raef LaFrentz, Rasho Nesterovic, Eric Snow, Malik Rose -- come roaring back into the spotlight of trade reports. It's less a matter of, "Oh, is he still in the league?'' than "Oh, is he still getting paid?''

-- Players react to their expiring contracts. For better or worse.

The guys who sit there in suits have it the worst. They're getting paid, of course, with lavish salaries that folks sitting a few feet away can only dream about. But they're plopped there in street clothes, their athletic careers possibly over or at least slipping away. And unless they fuss or otherwise behave unprofessionally enough to leverage a buyout (the failed Stephon Marbury strategy), they still have to show up. Still have to do their work behind the closed doors of the practice gym. Still hear their names bandied about for reasons that have little to do with basketball.

It's got to affect a fella, doesn't it?

"Of course it does. Of course it does,'' Hammond said. "I always felt there were many things the average Joe could relate to, and that's one of them. Most people don't even have a contract in their jobs. When I was coaching in this league, I had expiring contracts. I always wanted to do the best job I could do, I always wanted to do my very best for the team. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking about myself: 'What about me, what about my family?' I can't believe it's any different for players.''

That explains the dark clouds that can gather over the players whose salaries trump their skills. It can become awkward for all involved.

"You get in protection mode,'' Hammond said. "It's human nature. Just like any of us, when you're backed into a corner, you come out and fight a little harder.''

Or not. Sometimes you start to think of yourself, as a player, the way your team and the others think of you. Sometimes you focus only on the future, mentally moving on from the present.

"If your name is being thrown around a lot,'' Nelson said, "you can't tell me that player goes to work every day with the same type of passion, and throwing himself into it fully, and that not having an effect.''

-- You might trade for a contract but wind up with a player.

The "expiring contract'' phenomenon generally attaches to a player too old, broken down or specifically injured to have much upside anymore. But when one of them occasionally rises from the grave of salary-capology, it can seem like a resurrection.

Consider Theo Ratliff, who was known as "Theo Ratliff's expiring contract'' for so long that it was a real pinch-me moment when he appeared in each of his 16 games over the final six weeks of last season for Detroit. Or the 24 he has played, at age 35, this season with Philadelphia.

The combined 40 is more than Ratliff logged across two years, from spring 2006 to March 2008. He already had been traded twice at least partly for the $11.6 million that would come off the cap of the team paying him at the end of 2007-08. Portland sent him to Boston in June 2006, the Celtics sent him to Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett package in July 2007. It would have been three times, except that the Timberwolves wanted cap relief more than they wanted contributing players with longer-term deals. Minnesota used the 6-10 center in 10 games before a knee injury sidelined him, then waived him after last year's trading deadline.

"When we got Theo, we expected him to come in and play,'' Minnesota assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg said. "Unfortunately for us, he got hurt. By the time he got back, we were looking at different things. If you look at that preseason, though, he and Al [Jefferson] played very well together.

"You have to monitor every situation differently. If a team has a guy who it feels isn't part of its future, you still want to see what he has and whether he can be a part of your future.''

-- "Expiring contract'' is a little bit of truth in advertising.

Look, there are enough bull feathers tossed around the NBA on so many other fronts. Refs don't make superstar calls. Guaranteed contracts don't sap motivation. And so on. At least when a player is known for his expiring contract, no one is trying to fool anyone into thinking he's valued as the contributor he once was. No one has to pretend that Portland's LaFrentz is that key pick-and-pop guy who averaged double figures through his first four seasons in the league; he is $12.7 million of pending cap relief, period. Same with New York's Rose, long past his days as a "glue'' guy for the championship-caliber Spurs but still pulling down $7.6 million.

Not to pick on those guys, by the way. There are a lot of "expiring contract'' examples like that and I could go on, but my godmother is on the phone again, calling with a question about Monta Ellis' base-year compensation.

Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.

 
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