A Rookie Pay Scale?
Big money. Small performances. That sums up the feeling of team executives about most of this year's rookie class.
The Hawks, for example, are paying guard Rumeal Robinson, the 10th pick in the 1990 draft, about $4.29 million over four years, even though there are serious doubts that he ever will be a productive NBA player. The Clippers are giving guard Bo Kimble, the eighth pick, about $7.25 million over five years and front-courtman Loy Vaught, the 13th pick, about $4.1 million over four years; the jury is still out on both. One has to go all the way to the 15th pick—Rocket guard Dave Jamerson, whose contract is worth about $3.75 million over four years—to find a rookie who is not making at least $1 million a year; Jamerson, who was drafted by the Heat and traded to Houston, is your basic noncontributor.
Even those teams satisfied with their picks are worried about the possibility of soaring rookie salaries ruining team salary structures for years to come. Because of salary-cap restrictions, the Nets' ability to get a strong supporting cast for forward Derrick Coleman, the No. 1 pick in the draft, who will probably be named Rookie of the Year, will be severely hampered by the $3 million or so they will be paying him in each of the next five seasons.
"I'm one who believes you reward players who have gotten it done year after year," says Nugget general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. "I definitely think there should be some kind of control over what we pay rookies."
If that sounds as if club executives are thinking about trying to negotiate a rookie pay scale into the next collective bargaining agreement, which will begin with the '94-95 season, well.... "It may be the only way to pay the veteran players under the cap," says Hawk president Stan Kasten. Adds a general manager, who requested anonymity, "A pay scale is necessary. It's upsetting the salary scale for everybody. It's a destructive path."
So what does Charles Grantham, the executive director of the players' union, think? "Forget it!" he said. "The idea is just another example of teams trying to put restrictions on themselves by putting restrictions on players. I hate to come off sounding like I don't appreciate their problems. I do. But, ultimately, it is their problem, not ours."
And in all likelihood it will continue to be the clubs' problem, because even NBA negotiators are not inclined to push for a rookie pay scale in the new agreement.
"While a rational case could be made for a rookie pay scale, it has always been a firm tenet of the players' association that all negotiations must be individual ones," says Gary Bettman, the league's general counsel. "Therefore, I don't see it becoming a reality." Translation: The NBA would not mind a rookie pay scale, but it is unlikely to fight the players on that issue. Grantham has lately been talking about abolishing the salary cap altogether, and the league will gear up to battle that idea.
At any rate, many observers believe that rookies in the 1991 draft class will be the last to receive megabuck contracts. The movement to limit rookie salaries is strong, and so is the reality of huge, long-term veteran salaries that will eat up increasingly large percentages of teams' salary caps. "I don't think lower rookie salaries is something that has to be legislated," said one general manager. "Something's got to give soon, and I think it will be the big money for unproven first-year players."