The NBA was open about its goal of restricting the ability of superstars to move between teams, even if neither side in the lockout negotiations seriously considered the kind of dramatic changes that would accomplish that goal — an NFL-style franchise tag (a non-starter for the union), unlimited maximum salaries for individual players and a true hard salary cap. What resulted instead was a compromise atop a compromise: an adjustment to the old Larry Bird Rights system, which allowed teams to offer their own free agents more money, bigger raises and longer contracts than rival suitors.
Those tweaks matter, and they’ll matter more in 2013-14, when some of the harsher provisions of the new CBA go into effect. The league made Carmelo Anthony-style extend-and-trade deals more awkward mechanically for the teams involved and less lucrative for the star seeking a new home. The league did the same with sign-and-trade transactions, and it generally increased the gap between what incumbent teams can offer free agents and what the other 29 teams can offer. The general goal is to force star players into a choice: Stay with your own team or forfeit some money, possibly something like $10 million over a five-year period. Possibly more.
And yet, Chris Paul’s agent has informed New Orleans that he will not re-sign there, that he will decline his player option at the end of next summer, and that he would like the Hornets in the meantime to trade him to the Knicks, according to Yahoo! Sports. The Knicks do not have valuable trade assets, unless you are high on cap relief (Chauncey Billups’ expiring deal) and a rookie who has not played one NBA game (Iman Shumpert). Even so, if the Hornets feel backed into a corner, they could work an extend-and-trade in which Paul would take a financial haircut. And if Paul is still a Hornet when he enters free agency, the Knicks will not have the money to sign him to a maximum-level contract – either the five-year, $100 million he could receive with New Orleans, or the four-year, $74 million deal he could get from another team with room for a max deal.But Paul could still force his way to New York and secure that five-year, $100 million contract, according to a draft of the league’s new CBA and a few cap experts I consulted. How? The steps:
• Force the Hornets to trade him to the Knicks without signing a contract extension in the process. This is the tricky part. The Hornets don’t have to trade Paul, and if they decide to, they don’t have to trade him to New York. Other teams have better assets, and Paul will be counting on those teams to bow out of the bidding if they think he will not re-sign there. Does this sound familiar?
• If the Hornets eventually surrender and deal him to New York, Paul’s Bird Rights go with him. He must then become a free agent, either by declining his player option for 2012-13, or accepting that option, playing that season and becoming a free agent in the summer of 2013. By entering free agency as a Knick, Paul would escape the limitations in years and money that would come with engaging in a Carmelo-type extend-and-trade deal under this new collective bargaining agreement.
• The last step is easy: Sign a five-year, $100 million extension with New York. The Knicks would have his Bird Rights, so they could exceed the cap as much as they wish to retain Paul.
This is the superstar-movement loophole the league could not close. In theory, this series of steps is difficult to pull, because teams would be hesitant to acquire a superstar and then watch that superstar enter into free agency; this is why teams prefer the certainty of extend-and-trades, and why the league threw some obstacles onto that path. But the uncertainty of free agency vanishes if Paul tells the Knicks, “Don’t worry, I guarantee I will re-sign with you if you trade for me, keep Melo and Amar’e and allow me to slip into free agency for a token minute.”
And even there, some tiny potential for uncertainty exists. Once a player is a true blue free agent, a team with cap room can theoretically make a pitch. Perhaps the superstar will grow unhappy with the new team, or one key teammate will get injured, or another superstar will get traded in the interim to a city Chris Paul really loves — and a team that has maximum-level cap room.
All unlikely, which is why the smart money is on Paul ending up where he wants. You cannot legislate market appeal out of the NBA — or friendships, or free will, or smart cap management, or beaches or whatever else. Not without a dramatic rule change that would really restrict superstar movement.
People will judge Paul for this, and if the Yahoo! report is true, it’s certainly disingenuous for him to put on the “my heart is in New Orleans” public face one day and have his agent tell the Hornets goodbye the next. But the Hornets got six prime seasons out of Paul, just as the Cavaliers got seven out of LeBron James, and the Magic seven (and counting) from Dwight Howard. The combination of the draft, rookie contracts and extension rules for young players gives the teams lucky enough to draft a superstar plenty of time to win and convince that player to stay forever. The Spurs managed it with Tim Duncan, and the Thunder appear to have done so with Kevin Durant.
How much more can you ask above a half-dozen prime seasons and a chance to build something? Building the best team around a superstar involves skill in free agency and an insane amount of luck in the draft, where you’re unlikely to get a top-five pick ever again once you land that foundational superstar. If those breaks don’t go your way, you are at risk of losing your star; he has no obligation to play his entire career on one team, just as you have no obligation to hold the same job for 15 years. Six or seven years is a lot, really, and an NBA player’s career is brief. Paul has the right to move.
The NBA tried to restrict that movement to the degree that it could, and it will be successful in some cases; the new rules for post-rookie maximums and “designated players” make it even less likely Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin will wear a new uniform over the next half-dozen years. The extend-and-trade and sign-and-trade tweaks will quash a potential transaction or two at some point.
But Paul and Howard — and Deron Williams, too — are proving you cannot defeat the leverage of superstars with tweaks.