Stale contracts provide new ammunition in this NBA labor battle


The stale contracts of players like former Wizard Gilbert Arenas are a point of contention in the lockout. (Johnathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist August 24, 2011

Before Game 4 of the NBA Finals in early June, almost a dozen players and about 10 owners met to frankly discuss their economic differences and how they could avoid a lockout before their current labor agreement expired less than a month later. If there was ever a moment to crystallize why there very well may not be an NBA season and what this is about, it came when Mark Cuban spoke freely about a recurring frustration among his peers: stale contracts.

“When we had Tariq Abdul-Wahad, he didn’t seem to want to train, didn’t really want to practice — he really was interested in a lot of things besides basketball,” the Dallas owner said, according to three participants who attended the meeting, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Cuban added Abdul-Wahad, the former player whose physical ailments sidelined him for a full two seasons while with the Mavericks, had a guaranteed contract of six years, $40 million. “And I’m stuck with that,” he said, the participants remembered.

A lawyer for the players’ union then shot back that J.J. Barea, an emerging spark off the bench for the Mavericks en route to their first NBA championship, was making a pittance of $1 million for his considerable talent. “How about that? You’re getting a bargain in a guy like J.J. Barea.”

Finally, NBA Commissioner David Stern could not take it anymore.

“All right, you want to go tit for tat, I’ll go tit for tat,” Stern said, according to the participants. “I’ll see you J.J. Barea and raise you Eddy Curry.”

A shot to the gut, just like that.

Curry had played just 10 games over three seasons for the Knicks and made more than $30 million. When he wasn’t hurt, he often ballooned in weight and never fulfilled his promise.

If Kevin Garnett’s contract was the flashpoint of the 1999 lockout — his $126 million dwarfed the $85 million paid years earlier for the entire Minnesota franchise, thus making it hard for a small-market team like the Timberwolves to put enough help around a star to contend — the salary of a player believed to be a dud is at the heart of this dispute.

Owners are sick of paying premiums for damaged goods. Players are putting the onus on the people who signed them to those deals, irrespective of who turned out to be a lousy employee.

Nowhere was the impetus for a long labor stoppage more obvious than here in Washington, where what was once thought to be a blockbuster deal — Gilbert Arenas for Rashard Lewis this past December — was in reality one franchise’s lemon traded for another.

Only in the NBA can a town be excited by moving a player with three years and $60 million left (Arenas) for another with more than two years remaining on a $118 million deal. Why were the Wizards ecstatic? Because as bad as Lewis’s $19 million-plus deal per year was for a player with declining numbers the past three seasons, at least they only had to have his contract around for two years instead of three. That’s sadly called success before the trading deadline.

Beyond finding a more equitable split of income, stale contracts are why the union and the league may not come to terms this fall and perhaps beyond.

It’s why Deron Williams has already signed with a team in Turkey, and Kevin Durant might not be far behind.

“We’re still negotiating and exchanging proposals back and forth,” said Durant’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, after he took in the best game featuring NBA players anyone might see for a while, the Goodman-Drew league pro-am challenge at Trinity University in Northeast Washington last Saturday.

Goodwin later mentioned Russia, Spain, France and Italy as possibilities if a deal with the Turkish team could not be worked out. “We’re definitely looking to have an option if the lockout continues, either [Turkey] or another country. Most [agents] are taking the position that players are going to miss games and we need to look at other alternatives.”

Some of the biggest names could be bluffing about going overseas. And, really, will the league miss Jordan Farmar while he’s moonlighting for Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Israel or rookie Kyle Singler, who just signed with a Spanish team? No. Not yet. Most players, in fact, have out clauses to return to their respective NBA teams after a new agreement is signed.

But players are more proactive than they were in 1999, realizing the owners want to fix the system for the long haul, that if real progress isn’t made by the first two weeks in September they will most likely miss paychecks, and their earning potential needs to be tapped elsewhere. If China doesn’t want them, some nation will.

It’s why Saturday night in Northeast had such genuine appeal.

There was Durant, slithering and spotting up for a game-high 44 points, taking the District’s team home in the final quarter over the Drew League from Los Angeles.

And there was Brandon Jennings and John Wall, moving at warp speed, too fast for even the basketball sometimes, fearlessly going to the rim, their bodies healthy, their games in rhythm.

And DeMarcus Cousins, nearly laying out James Harden with a pick, freeing up Durant from his Oklahoma City teammate riding him with a forearm. Harden, it should be said, threw down a nasty dunk and made a couple of deep three-pointers he appeared to have released from Silver Spring.

The whole evening, replete with $2 burgers, and bottles of relish and mustard on a folding table, and JaVale McGee pouting he was replaced too early, had this barnstorming feel to it, as if some of the best players in the world — in lieu of a real season — had been asked to entertain the masses during wartime.

Seeing Durant at Trinity was like seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony, Bono in a Dublin watering hole.

It was pure, authentic. Only about the game, nothing about the dollars. Best of all, it was played by young men who were worth every penny of their NBA contracts.

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