I encourage you to bookmark these David Stern quotes for future use, whether in 2017, when the owners can opt out of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, or over the next few months, when the Dwight Howard trade rumors resurface along with the hand-wringing over stars choosing a new team (via Ken Berger of CBS Sports).
First, here’s Stern on Sunday addressing a question about an NFL-style franchise tag that could (in theory) bind a star player to his team for at least one season:
Stern pointed to a new measure in the CBA that allows a team to extend a star player by paying him 30 percent of the salary cap, as the Bulls recently did to retain reigning MVP Derrick Rose.
“After that, when a player has played a number of years in the league — seven or eight — and says, ‘I don’t want to re-sign in this particular city, I have a different choice,’ it doesn’t concern us at all that he has that option,” Stern said. “This league has embraced free agency … and has for decades. And that’s fine.”
And then later, on the Heat’s move in July 2010 to sign three of the league’s very best free agents:
“I don’t think it’s a slippery slope at all. I think the fact that players are able to move from team to team, having played under their contracts — their rookie extension, whatever it is — and find a team that is managed well enough so they are under the cap and they can acquire more than one player, we think that’s fine. The ultimate for the league will be whether that’s an interesting and fun team, and the Heat are an interesting and fun team.”
The NBA has always sought to give incumbent teams an advantage in re-signing their own free agents, but that advantage drops sharply when a player becomes eligible to enter free agency a second time. The player’s team at that point no longer has the matching rights teams hold when a player hits free agency for the first time, as a restricted free agent upon the expiration of his rookie deal. In unrestricted free agency, an incumbent team can count only on two things:
• The fact that it may go over the cap as much as it pleases in re-signing its own players, an advantage that doesn’t give them a real edge over teams hoarding cap space;
• That it can offer one more year and higher annual raises than other teams may offer.
The new CBA only tweaked this setup. It did not include any drastic changes that would have implemented meaningful change — a franchise tag, a hard salary cap or (perhaps most intriguing) unlimited maximum salaries, which would make it impossible for a team to pay two star players a fair-market salary.
And on Monday, Stern essentially said: “This is good enough.” He said more than that, actually. He said a system that allows players to choose their own destiny after “seven or eight years” of service to the team that drafted them is ethically fair. Players may have to sacrifice money and security to make a new life in another city, but Stern’s message is that the league does not see the need right now to put up any additional barriers.
And as the Chris Paul trade saga showed, players may not even face a hard choice between maximum money and desired city. The new CBA limits sign-and-trade transactions and makes it very awkward for teams to pull the sort of simultaneous extend-and-trade deal that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York last season. But there remains a loophole, and Paul exploited it: Agitate for a trade by refusing to sign an extension, force your way to a city/team you like better, take your Larry Bird rights with you, opt to become a free agent and re-sign with your new team for the maximum years and dollars. Here’s Stern on that scenario:
Stern said the concept of players pushing to be traded to a team of his choice “goes back to Wilt [Chamberlain] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. It’s well-grounded in all sports, actually. And in fact, the NFL hasn’t had to use its franchise player designation a lot. Either the player wants to stay or he doesn’t want to stay, so I don’t think we need it.”
You can bet there are owners who disagree, who want even stricter protections against players bolting in free agency or via trade. And judging by my email in-box and Twitter feed, there are thousands and thousands of fans who feel players have too much power. Perhaps it was just a bit of post-lockout euphoria (though Stern is not a euphoric guy, really), but Stern told those fans pretty clearly on Sunday that the league has heard them but respectfully disagrees.
Teams that draft a star player have a half-decade, perhaps a bit more, to convince that player to stay, a convincing that requires luck in the draft and wise decisions in free agency and trades. Teams will still get seven or eight years of that player’s absolute athletic prime. That, for now, will have to be enough. Will a majority of the league’s 30 owners feel that way in 2017?