As the NBA lockout creeps past 90 days and counting, the league has already experienced the loss of the start of training camp and at minimum half the preseason. As the shades on the window of hope draw ever more to a close, many have resigned themselves to the misery of a winter without NBA basketball.
But perhaps not all hope is lost just yet. For fans who were unwilling to sacrifice one winter in exchange for a system of parity and equality, hope was renewed Tuesday in negotiations between the owners and the NBA Players Association.
According to Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA owners have budged from their stance of stern insistence on a hard cap system. Instead, they made a proposal that would keep the current soft cap in place, with some modifications aimed at replicating the effects of a hard cap.
So what exactly does that mean? ESPN’s Ric Bucher says not a whole lot. In that article on ESPN.com, Bucher lays out the details of the owners’ new proposal to the NBAPA:
Sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Ric Bucher that the owners did not offer players a finite annual team limit on salaries but as of Tuesday night were willing to relax the cap only if the following conditions are met:
The “Larry Bird exception,” which allows teams to exceed the cap to retain their own free agents regardless of their other committed salaries, is limited to one player per team per season.
The mid-level exception, which the league valued at $7.4 million last season and could be extended by as many as five years, is reduced in length and size.
The current luxury tax, the $1-for-$1 penalty a team must pay to the league for the amount it exceeds the salary cap, is to be severely increased.
The article goes on to say that NBA agents scoff at the notion of this being a concession. In their eyes, this is just another way of saying the same thing. Of course, for the agents, this whole thing has never been about the system as much as it is a power play for them to overthrow the Players Union. So a little salt is required when considering their opinion on this, because for many agents, the Union coming up with an outside the box compromise would be a defeat to their cause.
But maybe the agents are right, here. After all, how much does this proposal change things? Lets look at them one at a time.
The changes to the Bird Exception are the most interesting, in my opinion. Essentially, the owners are proposing making it more like a franchise tag. Not exactly like the NFL’s franchise tag, but similar. By limiting them to one per team, it would theoretically limit what the Miami Heat have done. But that’s only on the surface. Without knowing the particulars of the proposal, it’s easy to see that by doing a sign and trade, the quantifiable restrictions are irrelevant. The Hornets could use their Exception on Chris Paul, then do a sign and trade with the Knicks, and the Knicks would still have their own Exception to use.
Unless this proposal is saying that a team can only have one player with an exception applied at any given time, whether that exception was their own or not. If that’s the case, then this might be the most conglomerate-adverse restriction yet. A league where there could only be 30 “Bird Rights” players would be a dramatic change from the current system, and would almost certainly impose a hard cap style thinking on the league, without actually being a hard cap.
Of course, this could all get mired in semantics anyway. You’d just see more superstars without the Bird Rights exceptions attached to them. So in that regard this actually wouldn’t be a hard cap replication, but more of a change in semantics only, while practical application would go on unchanged. In other words, the Knicks would still be able to have Amare, Carmelo, and Chris Paul, but only one of them would technically be tagged with Bird Rights. The team would just have to either be cap conscious in building around them, or else just careful not to acquire a Bird Rights player in a trade. Anyone else would be fair game in the trade market, and hey, there would only be 30 Bird Rights players anyway.
So there’s really too much grey area here to really say how much of a change this would be. The devil’s in the details, and right now, we don’t have the details.
The reduction or elimination of the mid-level exception (MLE) is interesting. If any of these proposed changes seem like a shot at the Miami Heat style of doing business, this one is it. The Heat’s one saving grace in trying to build a Championship team around their unholy triumvirate is the MLE. This exception will allow them to be competitive in bidding for quality, solid NBA role players.
By reducing it or eliminating it all together, it would essentially mean the Heat would have only two ways of adding players. Either sign undrafted free agents or other similar low salary players, or else by trading. A severe enough reduction in the MLE could actually entice the Heat to consider possibly trading, say, Chris Bosh in an attempt to add more quality role players around LeBron and Wade.
Finally, we have the “severely increased” luxury tax. I don’t view this one as quite as big of a change. If anything, increasing the penalty for exceeding the cap would only further drive a wedge between the big and small markets. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, etc may not like paying up to double the previous tax amounts, but they will still pay it. Meanwhile, the smaller markets will find it that much more daunting to compete with the big market teams for high priced players.
So that’s the proposal. Most pundits tend to feel that the revenue split will eventually be agreed upon around a 52-48 level in favor of the players (down from the current 57-43 split). This proposal from the owners offered the players 48% of the basketball related income (BRI), but the real deal to be made is around the 52% mark.
So this will eventually come down to the details of the type of system the players and owners can agree upon. On a personal level, as a fan of the Cavaliers and a fan of parity in general, I’m disappointed the owners gave up the true hard cap. Sure, it’s just a proposal, but once you take the hard cap off the table, it’s never coming back.
I don’t want to lose a season. I love the NBA and I cannot imagine going a whole winter without out it. But quite frankly, I’m tired of the Lakers and Celtics winning all the Championships. Furthermore, I’m appalled by the writing on the wall. NBA superstars are gravitating toward these mega unions and they are only interested in the type of market they are going to.
The one thing we learned first hand from the LeBron James free agency is that a small market in a cold weather city has no chance to be competitive in this environment. Dwyane Wade’s comments about how he “wasn’t going to Cleveland” only further drive home this point. LeBron James wanted to play with other superstars. Other superstars were not going to come to Cleveland. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about team success, it was about market. The money and success would follow. Those are the constants. The variable is market.
So it’s funny that as the agents disregard the owners’ proposal as just more of the same, I find myself feeling despair. I never thought I would possibly be sad about positive momentum towards an NBA season, but I would give up short term gratification for long term parity in a league that has the most pathetic parity levels of all sports.
This shouldn’t be that hard. You make the split 52-48 for the players, but you implement a hard cap. You increase both the ceiling and, more importantly, the cap floor. You guarantee rookie contracts and contracts that are below league average. For above average contracts, you can use tiered system to limit the guaranteed contracts from 1-3 years. You set a tiered buyout level (based on factors such as age, production, and/or salary) to give flexibility to both owners and players. You leave the revenue growth levels for players uncapped, so as the league makes more money, that profit is filtered into player contracts.
Under that system, the players will still have protection for players who need it (rookies, young players, minor role players, etc), while still receiving more than 50% of the BRI. The owners will get more guaranteed revenues, thus fulfilling the financial side of it, while the cap will give the league a new level of parity, thus satisfying the owners who want the hard cap for the competition side of things.
But it sounds like a pipe dream now. With the start of the NBA season drawing near, on November 1, the two sides are facing crunch time. The fact that the owners withdrew the hard cap means that they want to move toward a resolution to minimize the loss of regular season games. This means we’ll probably see an agreement in a few weeks with a reduced revenue split and a modified soft cap system that will actually be the true “more of the same” issue.
As a fan of the NBA, I’m excited about the thought of there being a season after all. As a Cavs fan, though, I’m just sad. It was probably inevitable, but the hard line talk made it easy to get our hopes up. But make no mistake, the hard cap system is gone for good now