For fans of the other 28 teams, time to start looking to next year. As talks wrapped up in Dallas last week between NBA owners and players, it’s looking more and more likely that we will end up with some type of work stoppage next month. Because of the timing of their respective labor disputes, there will be the inevitable comparisons between the situation in the NFL and the NBA. While there are certainly similarities between them, the NFL situation is a lot simpler. They just need to figure out how to split up the huge pile of money they are making. Whichever side comes out on top in the courtroom will end up with the leverage in the final negotiations. Basically the work stoppage will end when the courts pick a winner.
The NBA is in a more difficult situation. In the NFL, the owners are claiming poverty, while taking a Nixonian approach to sharing their financial data (from the players perspective, would you concede hundreds of millions of dollars based on the “word” of guys like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder?). In the NBA, the players all but admit that some teams are hemorrhaging money (the league says 22 of 30 are in the red), while disagreeing about the scope of the problem, they acknowledge the NBA needs to make some serious changes to its structure. Do they go to an NHL-style hard cap (for a cautionary tale of the NHL’s hard salary cap, please see Nylander, Michael)? If they do that, do they lower the overall salary cap and prorate lower salaries going forward on contracts already signed (Amare Stoudemire just broke out in a cold sweat) or do they let teams relieve themselves of one contract (the Arenas Rule)? Do they adopt the NFL’s franchise player tag system? Do they even contract a team or two (if you follow the U.S. Senate that is the equivalent of the Nuclear Option)?
Below are some suggestions for a new system, they aren’t a prediction of what will happen, just some suggestions for making the game better. Two things that drove my thinking:
l The NBA (and all other major sports leagues for that matter) is not a free market, so owners should stop arguing they are trying to run their team like a business and players should stop saying they should get paid what the market will bear. Malcolm Gladwell loves to pontificate on rationality and free markets as they relate to sports. But sports leagues are neither rational nor free; if you don’t like what Ted Leonsis is doing with the Wizards you can’t go out and start your own Wizards franchise to compete against him. Sports teams are geographic monopolies (just ask Peter Angelos). As far as rationality is concerned, short of committing a felony, owners can do as they please.
l You’d be hard pressed to find an owner who thinks Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Amare Stoudemire are not earning their salary. When they complain about excessive player salaries they are talking about players who aren’t playing up to their salary value (Vince Carter’s veteran leadership is not worth $17 million).
Salary cap suggestions
Separate the salary cap into two parts...
} Base salary cap: This portion will have a floor and a hard cap for player salaries regardless of their performance, similar to how contracts are structured now. Obviously the better players will make more in base salary, but where the big money will be is on the bonus side.
} Bonus salary: This portion would have a floor, a soft cap and a hard cap. If a team goes over the soft cap they would have to start forfeiting draft picks. A luxury tax is more damaging to teams with less revenue flowing in, draft picks are revenue neutral. The bonuses would be built into player contracts and they could include everything from team win totals and attendance to individual player statistics and awards. With all of the advances in statistics and performance measurement, a team should be able to tell free agent A, “over the course of your four-year contract this is what we expect from you individually and as part of the team.”
} Limit contracts to four years
} Lottery picks: Rookie wage scale for their first four years, years five and six are determined by an arbitrator. If a player leaves after that the team gets a first-round draft pick.
} First-round non-lottery picks: Rookie wage scale for their first two years, years three and four go to arbitration.
} Second-round picks and rookie free agent picks: Rookie wage scale for their first year and arbitration in their second.
} Teams can trade first-round picks in consecutive years.
} Players have up until one week before the draft to decide to go back to school.
} Teams should play two games per year in a nearby geographic area (Wizards play in Baltimore or Richmond; Celtics play in Hartford; Grizzlies play in Nashville, etc.).
} Create a real minor league. The NBDL is barely serviceable as it is. Each NBA team should have its own NBDL affiliate that they can fill with their top prospects. The NBA team could pick the coaches and put in a similar system so players that are called up can fit in seamlessly. The player salaries don’t count against the cap.
} Don’t change the age requirement for the draft, but once you turn 18 you can play in the new minor league and get paid a salary (say $300,000). Have one NBDL team that is made up of 18 year olds and coached by some veterans who can teach them how to be professionals. After that players are free to enter the draft.
} Never, under any circumstances put Isiah Thomas in charge of the NBDL.