Wednesday, October 26, 2011

SPORTS: Solving The NBA CBA Conundrum

They are back negotiating in New York as I write this. And some optimism, pushed mainly by Chris Sheridan, is in the air. The optimism is based on some unassailable logic. These fools are losing money by the minute, even if they haven't actually lost any games, permanently. The owners HAVE lost their exhibition cherry on the top of their payday Sundays.

Given my oft-told antipathy towards unions, it might be surprising that I think the players should get the 53 percent of BRI (basketball related income) that marks a four percent reduction from the just expired pact. I do think 50-50 is fair, but the monies are so huge, that haggling over getting to 50-50 by ownership and potentially punting the season, is not worth it. At 53-47, there is evidence that the 22 or so NBA teams that supposedly lost money, can get back to even. Might not guarantee multi millions in profit for all, but breaking even becomes realistic for all.

For giving in at 53 percent, I want (and so do the team owners) the owners to win the systemic part of the contract. There HAS to be change there to change the game and give the smaller markets a chance to compete with the bigger markets on the basis of management and a little luck, rather than with big bucks.

I've seen many, many articles that say parity is impossible in the NBA and that the raising popularity of the game is proof that the public loves having super-teams dominate the game. It has been ever thus. Celtics vs. Lakers seemingly every other year, with super-star driven temporary upstarts like the Jordan-led Bulls, the Olajuwon-led Rockets and the Robinson/Duncan-led Spurs providing the intermissions between Boston and L.A. playing for it all. The Rose-led Bulls, the Durant-led Thunder and the Miami Amigos are the new intermission acts. I fear the Mavs are a one-year wonder. But I'd be happy to be wrong.

Welllll, I think the arguments are built on a foundation of quicksand. The ABSENCE of proof is NOT the PROOF of absence. Because league conditions have never been good for parity, there is NO PROOF that parity isn't possible. And if possible, wouldn't parity be MORE POPULAR than the current 'super-team as target' model. The NBA SHOULD strive for the NFL model, not a modified NHL model. Or god forbid, that bleepin' MLB model, where the Jays have to hope for off-years from the Yankees AND the Red Sox, or lose for a generation, to build up a talent base similar to that of the Rays. And even the Rays are looking at the expiration of that talent pipeline, meaning they'll have to retrench to rebuilding mode by the end of this decade.

The Bob Costas plan is a good start for systemic changes. Costas points out that every sports game that generates revenue requires TWO teams. The Knicks don't draw thousands of on-site fans and millions in TV and radio revenue (plus merchandising) for intra-squad games. Nope. Logically, the two teams should then share the proceeds of conducting their business in public. While James Dolan and Jerry Buss might sputter and bluster, they can't argue with Costas' logic. But they have to do what ever team will have to do. They will have to throw half of what they get for each game, minus well-audited expenses, over and above the NBA Head-Office distributed money, into a pot that gets shared equally by all teams at the end of the year. While the biggest part of what they get back will be their own money, it will be their FAIR SHARE of the money.

This sharing HAS to be part of the new CBA. It means the teams can punt the BRI split agreement and take the onus of returning profitability to the small markets off the players and put it on the owner's partners in the NBA, their fellow owners. If you bargain collectively, you ARE a collective.

Now, Dolan and Buss et al are going to be loathe to put bucks into other owners' pockets and have them then go and spend that on bling for their beloveds. They'll want some NBA ties to the money so that it gets put back into the following year's pot. So the owners are going to have to institute a floor payroll-wise. This will prevent teams from dunkirking a year (or in the Knicks' case, YEARS) to get some hoped-for saviour in the draft or on the free agent market. So, while there can be a soft cap, there has to be a floor to protect the fans of truly futzed-up franchises from ownership rolling the dice.

And, despite the sharing, there has to be a cap that is real in more than hope, which is more of the case these days. There can't be a 2/1 spread between teams. The floor will help with that. But there has to be some damage to the ability for some teams to outspend their mistakes. Note, I didn't say other teams. Mistakes. The San Antonio Spurs, a very well franchise, have lost money the last two years. Peter Holt, the owner, seems a pretty reasonable guy. His team has excelled over the last decade, won more than their little town's share of NBA crowns. But he says all of that only postponed the moment they lost money, which they have for two years in a row. To that, I say two words. Richard Jefferson. A mistake.

But that seems to be the only mistake the Spurs have made. Compare that to the series of mistakes the always-profitable Knicks have made over the same period. It's a systemic advantage based on the Knicks being located in New York and the problem with saying, well, at least they'll never be a threat to win it all with Dolan in charge, is that the rest of the league PAYS for the Knicks' mistakes too.

Because salaries are compared, what the Knicks over-pay becomes an argument in the contract negotiations for other teams with other players. Ideally it shouldn't. But it does. Agents have to earn their three percent. Plus, the Knicks' willingness to over-pay willy nilly means players want to get the end of that particular rainbow. Thus, bleepin' mental midgets like Anthony orchestrate their move to the Big Apple. Ariston's Miami operation and Buss' Lakers all become alternative locales for re-location. L.A.'s not nearly as badly run as the Knicks, but Hollywood beckons the Dwight Howard's of the world, doing half of the recruiting work. That Howard apparently thinks he's underexposed toiling in Orland and wants to move to the Left Coast a year hence, diminishes him. Mind you, if the Magic ownership, already spending in luxury tax territory, can UP the spending and put a REAL championship contender around him, Howard might deign to stay. Might.

So, yes, there has to be other changes to limit the players' ability to form super-teams (Miami), or issue not-so-private trade me now, cuz I'm leaving in a year demands. And, as for guys with existing long-term contracts who issue trade demands and stop trying too hard while waiting, I suggest the CBA include the ability to trade players to the CBA, the Chinese Basketball Association. I truly and completely hate the players who do this crap. But onto my solutions.

No limit to individual salaries. Pay Dwayne Wade $50M and the odds the Heat will have the tucker to add the other Amigos diminishes drastically. There ARE studies that show the very best of the super-stars really are worth $30M a year AND UPWARDS! There might only be fifteen or so true super-stars, but if each gets paid what they are worth, they'll be spread around 15 teams, rather than ganged up on four or five. If some of the stars decide to take drastic pay haircuts to go for the title, I guarantee it will be on one-year contracts, two years at the most. And, as the Heat have shown, it might take two years to get their acts completely integrated. And then the pact will be over.

Put an aggressive sliding scale luxury tax plan in place. Because of the Costas plan, they ability to go completely crazy will be limited to any business-like team owner. For the owners who treat their teams as hobby toys, there's NO cap possible. But it should HURT to go crazy. So start the luxury tax at $1.25 for every dollar for the first million over the soft cap number. And double it for 1-5 Million over the cap. And double it again after that to 10 million. And DOUBLE that again after 10 million. The luxury tax goes into the non-luxury teams pot to be distributed to them. And that's over-and-above the other shared revenue pot.

Establish a salary floor. The floor should be 75-80 percent of the soft cap. And, here's the dunkirk season kicker. The team should have a minimum salary going forward at the end of the season too. No more having two minimum salary players on the payroll before heading into the off-season to raid other teams of their best free agents. What should that floor be? I'm guessing 25 percent might be about right.

Increase trade options. Right now, the difference in deals when calculating total salary exchanged is a million dollars or 125 percent. Make the percentage 150 percent. And I wouldn't cry in my soup if it was 175 percent. This will get rid of a lot or throw-in players, some of whom have local followings and some of whom have deal-killing abilities (Devean George comes to mind). This will largely create principal for principal trades. Or at least more of them. As an aside, no sign and trades. If you think the player is headed elsewhere in the off-season, trade him at the deadline. Oh, and no trade exceptions. These are mostly mythical paperwork to mollify the team losing the star anyways. And yes, I know Colangelo made decent use of portions of exceptions in the past. It's still mostly P.R. fluffery.

Exceptions need to be culled back. Establish mid-level exception contracts that increase in value as some percentage of overall BRI. That protects the players' ability to enjoy the fruits of their increased revenue generating. But no bloody yearly raises. It's an EXCEPTION. If the player doesn't want an exception contract, don't sign one. There are  other teams in the league. As for the number and substance of exceptions, I would offer something like the mid-level exception that currently exists (say four times the league minimum) and a second one to be used one at a time that represents double the league minimum salary for a player with at least eight years experience in the league. These are the kind of roster fillers that any team can use and these old pros shouldn't have to play for the league minimum like some second-round draft choice.

Pay for play. Injuries are a fact of life. Teams need some protection against long-term injuries. The players should STILL get paid, but the impact an injury has on the teams should be mitigated in some way. That includes cap-hit reductions of an immediate nature once a player has been deemed out for the season. Sure, third-party (League) doctors have to be the arbiter of being out for the season, but a team has to have the ability to use newly-available space to do something right there and then. Might not be possible if the injured player is a star, but for supporting characters, it might get the team back to par. If the injury extends into the next season, there should be provision to put the player on the injured list for say a half-seaon or full season. In the first case, the team gets only cap relief. In the second case, it's cap relief and an extra roster spot. If the player wishes to contest the medical exception, he can be granted his release from the contract, but at the cost of giving up his guaranteed remaining salary.

Contract limits. I think it was Marvin Miller who once observed that the worst thing that could happen to players in baseball was if all contracts were limited to one year and every player became a free agent every winter. It would drive down contracts in a manner what would shock the players. Supply and demand. The effect in basketball, due to the smaller active rosters (eight to nine versus 25), would be chaos, leading to more Miami get-togethers. But, shorter contracts still hews closer to the supply vs. demand ideal sweet spot. Which might be two-year contracts or three-year contracts. But at the very least, the longest contract should only be four years. Even for super-stars. This mitigates the injury problem from above, and the motivation problem, which we'll call the Eddie Curry Rule. For older players who suddenly become less than what they were (Rashard Lewis, Richard Jefferson and Richard Hamilton come immediately to mind), the long-term pain is a lot shorter.

Wink, wink. As much as I hate blackmailing players (Anthony, Carter, et al), I really, really, REALLY hate paying players to play for somebody else. Players angle for buyouts at the end of the season and some of them have mastered the ability to get traded and then re-sign back with their original teams in time for the playoffs. Ilgauskas did that a couple of years ago, getting a late-season month-long vacation to rest up for LeBron James' last playoff run with the Cavaliers. New rule. A player who accepts a buyout is barred from resigning with any team that held his rights, however briefly, during the current season. AND, the player may only sign for the pro-rated minimum salary rate for the remainder of the season. That limits (mostly) double-dipping AND eliminates a rationale for a player to do whatever it takes to get a buyout. And by the way, I would limit ALL buyouts to a ratio of games played versus games left. For example, if a player angles for a buyout for the remainder of the season half-way through it, he gets a maximum of 50 percent of his remaining contracted-for salary. If he waits for the three-quarter mark, he gets 75 percent of the value.

Trade demands should cost the player. He should have some skin in the deal. If he doesn't want to honour his contract, fine. But the team should have the option of cutting the sorry excuse for a jackass at a reduced cost, rather than trading him for  a dime on the dollar of value. Why should the team have to take back salary ballast because the s.o.b. thinks his contract his a one-way street in his favour? So make the trade demand something official. A player has to register a trade demand with the league office. At which point, the clock starts ticking. After 15 days, the team has to have traded the player, OR can release him for a cost system similar to the system outlined above. The cost to the team is a financial function of how much of the contract the trade-demanding player has fulfilled versus what's remaining. And a released player via a trade demand can ONLY sign for the league minimum for the length of the contract he signs in the same season as his release. Thus, the official response to any grousing player is, "Do you want to make that official?" That will shut up MOST of the gripers.

Well, there is my systemic changes. It's not complete. There's a thousand smaller changes that will be implemented in addition to what I've laid out above. But this system WILL go a long ways to achieving parity by limiting super-teams. It will make most NBA franchises profitable and the well-run ones even more profitable because they will get playoff cash. It will close some of the loopholes the lowest of the low from shaming their sport with their idiotic choices on and off the floor. Limit the truly hateful parts of the NBA and it will get even MORE popular.

And you can't prove I'm wrong. Because everything I've written is almost inevitably unlikely to be implemented. See, I can use flawed logic too.

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