July 3, 2005

New guidelines receive thumbs up
Liberalization of free agency could mean more movement, increase in trades.

By Mark Montieth

The NBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement has yet to become official, and its details remain vague even to general managers and agents.

One thing is certain, however. The changes will bring about a bustling marketplace this offseason, perhaps the most bullish in league history.

With rules regarding trades and free agency liberalized, teams and players will have unprecedented opportunities to make changes and, in most cases, earn more money. While neither the league nor the union got all it wanted out of the deal, both sides should benefit.

"They want to encourage movement," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said of the league. "That's good for the players, too."

The agreement won't be put into place until July 22, and its complexities are such that some people within the league won't be surprised if a brief extension is required beyond that date.

The most compelling change is the one that allows teams with roster payrolls that exceed the luxury tax threshold the ability to waive a highly paid player who isn't earning his salary. While still obligated to pay that player's salary, teams won't be liable for the luxury tax penalty.

The opportunity will offer substantial savings for some teams. It also will offer some veteran players the opportunity to become free agents without losing their current contract, while offering other teams the chance to sign a proven player for a bargain price.

"A lot of teams are stuck where they are (with high payrolls) and can't get out of the tax, and it's getting burdensome," Walsh said.

For example, New York, with a payroll close to $100 million, can waive Allan Houston and save $40 million in luxury tax penalties over the next two seasons. Houston, who played in just 20 games last season because of a knee injury, could then sign with a contending team -- such as Detroit, where he played the first three seasons of his career and still has ties -- and receive another contract on top of his Knicks deal. The Pistons, meanwhile, would get an established player at a low salary, assuming Houston is healthy enough to contribute.

Michael Finley (Dallas), Jalen Rose (Toronto), Brian Grant (Los Angeles Lakers), Eddie Jones (Miami) and Austin Croshere (Pacers) are among the other players who could fall into this unique category.

"That was a wonderful thing," veteran agent Steve Kauffman said. "The union and the league looked at that as a win-win. I have no idea who initiated that dialogue, but it's a great opportunity for some players."

The amnesty program has been presented as a one-time-only opportunity, although it could be offered again in subsequent years if it works well for both sides. What remains unclear are details such as whether a team can sign more than one player released under this guideline and how much of the second contract, if any, would be offset against the first one.

Walsh expects most teams to wait until near the Oct. 1 deadline to release and sign players in this category. Some players, however, might offer a buyout to their current team if a more favorable team offers a contract.

Pacers president Larry Bird is anxious to see what opportunities develop.

"We have to look at our team and see what's out there," he said. "Some teams are going to cut high-salary players. Somebody might be out there who could really help us."

Trades will become more available because the rules regarding matching salaries have been relaxed. Previously, the contracts of traded players had to match within 115 percent of one another, plus $100,000. Now they must match within 125 percent.

"It will allow more trades to happen," Kauffman said. "There have been trades that didn't happen because they barely missed (matching within 115 percent)."

Another change that should encourage roster movement, at least internally, permits teams to send players who are within the first two years of their contracts to the NBA's minor league, the National Basketball Development League (NBDL).

It is uncertain, however, if there will be a limit on how many times a player can be sent down.

The league also has eliminated the injured list, which most teams used to shelve players who didn't fit into their 12-man active rosters. It is believed teams will be able to declare an inactive list from game to game, as is done in the NFL. Previously, players put on the injured list had to remain inactive for at least five games.

Another change that should strike a chord with Pacers fans allows players the right to an arbitrator's review for all suspensions of more than 12 games related to on-court actions.