The NBA is looking to help small-market teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers retain star free agents such as LeBron James. (Heinz Kluetmeier/SI)
In the spring and summer, before it became clear that lockout negotiations were going to slip into a depressing stalemate, there was a lot of interest in the NBA’s possibly adopting an NFL-style franchise tag. The rule allows football teams to use the franchise tag to keep one core player off the free-agent market for one year. Such a rule could give small-market teams an extra year to persuade their star free agents — ahem, LeBron James — to stick around long term.
In May, the NBA proposed a less restrictive version of the franchise tag, one that would not allow teams to unilaterally prohibit a player from entering free agency. Instead, teams could label one guy a “designated player,” and offer him more years and money than any rival could. The old system already did this with Larry Bird Rights, but the idea was to increase the gap between offers so that the incumbent team had an even greater advantage–and to craft a rule the union, concerned about freedom of player movement, would accept.
It got very little press amid the drama over the players’ decision to dissolve their union, but the “designated player” concept remained in the league’s final offer, which was rejected on Nov. 14. It would apply only to a player eligible for an extension to his rookie contract, and it would allow teams to offer that player a five-year extension instead of a four-year extension. The deal would come with 6.5 percent annual raises — the maximum raise available only to players with full Bird Rights.
All other players, including those who lose Bird Rights by switching teams via free agency, would be eligible for only 3.5 percent annual raises and four-year deals. That gap of three percentage points is a hair larger than the gap of 2.5 percentage points — 10.5 percent raises for Bird guys, 8 percent maximum for everyone else — in the old collective bargaining agreement.
Recent history suggests that an extra year and a few million dollars isn’t enough to stop stars from bolting if they really want to, and increasing the available raise totals by half a percentage point amounts to about $200,000 more in missed money over two years for a player making $20 million per year. That’s nothing, which is why the league has proposed other ways to give incumbent teams a meaningful advantage. Chief among them:
1. A ban on sign-and-trade transactions for teams in the luxury tax. Under the owners’ proposal, tax teams could not use sign-and-trades after the 2012-13 season–a key system issue the union opposes, and one linked to the “franchise player” discussion.
2. Restrictions on extend-and-trades. These are the Carmelo Anthony-style deals in which the player’s old team signs its star to the maximum-level extension he couldn’t get anywhere else and then deals him to the place he really wants to be. The NBA’s proposal wouldn’t outlaw such transactions, but it would make them difficult on both sides. Teams would have to wait six months to trade a player after signing him to an extension, and any team that trades for a player could not sign that player to an extension until six months after the trade. The trade deadline is in mid-February, meaning a team could not extend any player it acquires around that time until mid-August — six weeks into free agency. That creates obvious problems if the acquired player is a free agent you’d like to keep.