Carmelo Anthony should rest easy. Lowering maximum-salary contracts and limiting free agency does not figure to be high on David Stern?s agenda during negotiations with the players union. Here?s why the current rules governing max contracts and the freedom of player movement are likely to carry over into the new collective bargaining agreement:
10. Re-visiting the Summer of LeBron.
Look again at that ?public relations nightmare? the NBA suffered when three of this summer?s free agents decided to join forces with the Miami Heat. It certainly wasn?t a study in melodious media orchestration. But the only noise filling the commissioner?s ears throughout the whole spectacle was the sound of his cash resister ringing.
With all of its arenas dark, the NBA dominated headlines and reached millions of new customers, as LeBron James? decision became an event that permeated popular culture. Self-involved and clumsy? Absolutely. Bad for business? Definitely not. Trades and free agency keep fans glued to coverage all year round and continually churn interest in the game. This has always been a sizable part of the league?s off-the-court success. The Summer of LeBron just heightened the effect.
9. There were 14 years between Shaq leaving Orlando and LeBron leaving Cleveland.
Marquee free agents jumping ship is far from an epidemic in the NBA. LeBron and Chris Bosh changing addresses does not threaten league stability or demand emergency intervention. Stern and his executives are nothing if not clear-eyed realists. They play the percentages, then rationally take stock of the bottom line.
The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of premier free agents have stayed put. The NBA has no reason to hit the panic button and scrap the CBA pillars that have served the league well over a sustained period of prosperity.
8. Even LeBron and Bosh each played seven years with the teams that drafted them.
And if Melo plays out the season and signs elsewhere next summer, he will have spent eight years in Denver. Also lost in the LeBron hysteria was Kevin Durant signing a five-year extension off his rookie contract with Oklahoma City.
One of the reasons they all signed extensions is the principle of restricted free agency, which gives the home team the right to match any offer sheet the player receives. After the four-year rookie contract and restricted free agency have run their course, home teams have a pair of modest advantages over clubs holding maximum-salary cap room: slightly larger yearly raises on the next contract (10.5% compared to 8%) and one additional season. The clear intent is to leave the home team with some small edge but no longer a commanding upper hand. Each aspect of the system is precisely designed and performing as expected.
7. Modifying the CBA to shrink max contracts would throw the NBA?s salary scale into turmoil.
For five years after such a new CBA was put in place, Melo would earn significantly less than Durant, who didn?t come into the league until four years after Melo. Over four years, Melo might make less than Brandon Roy, who didn?t come into the league until three years after Melo. Over five years, Melo would earn substantially less than his fellow 2003 draftees ? LeBron, Bosh and Wade ? whose new deals with Miami each average about $18 million annually. And this result would essentially punish Melo for signing a longer-term extension back in 2006, while rewarding the Heat?s new Big Three for signing shorter extensions so that they could all become free agents at the same time.
Just one summer later, Melo would have to sign a considerably smaller contract than Joe Johnson, Amar?e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki ? players with a similar impact but to whom most would say Melo is superior ? and he might even be farther down the salary food chain than Rudy Gay and Carlos Boozer ? neither of whom is close to Melo?s level or half as important to the league?s future.
Logic tells you that the NBA will not let any of this happen. Forcing such a flawed and imbalanced salary structure on the top players would be a short-sighted move, one that will just cause more serious labor pains shortly thereafter.
6. Hurt feelings and business don?t mix.
The latest chatter is that some owners are eager to cut off the ability of free agents to form any other Big Three alliances. A team like Denver sees the writing on the wall and hopes the new CBA throws them a lifeline. But this is individual owner bias rather than a legitimate subject for collective bargaining with the players union. Isn?t there another group of owners who stand to gain from superstars leaving their current teams?
It?s very unlikely that Stern will choose to take sides on this question, particularly when unintended consequences could follow. A rule to freeze players on their current teams could make matters worse, rather than address unfairness. Case in point: One of the owners who will be glad to stick up for the rights of teams to keep their players is Micky Arison. Now that Miami has its Big Three, Arison would not hesitate to support a new CBA that eliminates the ability of teams to sign away elite free agents and compete on an even playing field with the Heat.
5. The NBA will try to shorten contracts.
One of the NBA?s priorities will be to reduce the maximum contract years from the current six (with full Bird rights) and five (without full Bird rights) to five and four, respectively. But maximizing the annual salary in any given season is the chief consideration for the league?s top earners. Total years under contract is a less important factor for max players, who typically prefer the flexibility of early outs, confident they can ink another max deal down the line. In fact, the extension on the table for Melo now ? which he would sign if it was with a team whose future prospects he was confident in ? offers the highest possible annual salary but is only three years in length.
4. The bargaining power of max-salary players.
There are only a couple dozen max players in the NBA (which comes out to about 6% of the over 400 contracts), a select group and a very small one to single out for worse treatment under a new CBA. If the league decides to subject a tiny class of players to what would amount to punitive action, the max-salary players would be a strange choice. NBA superstars drive the league?s popularity and are responsible for its economic growth ? consequently they occupy a dominant position in the collective bargaining process. It?s been this way since Michael Jordan and David Falk provided a strong counterweight to the league office in the 90s.
And nobody understands the importance of the world?s best basketball players to the health of the NBA better than the commissioner. Stern made his reputation by building a marketing platform around the league?s superstars, rejuvenating a sport that had been mired in financial woes for years.
3. Melo, CP3 and Deron could be ?grandfathered in? to avoid the kind of inequitable results outlined above.
A sudden change in the rules on how much max players can be paid, or how much free will they can exercise, would seem like a direct attempt to target Melo, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Over the next two years, they are the only NBA superstars in their primes who would stand to take a pay cut if max salaries are slashed. The league has used grandfather clauses in the past in order to ease the transition to a new CBA and exempt a small group of players who would otherwise be disproportionately harmed by a change in the rules. This would be just such a situation.
2. Max-salary contracts give teams their best return on investment.
Max salaries account for only 20% of the total salary amounts paid by owners to players, but teams with at least one max player are far more likely to secure one of the high seeds and advance deep into the playoffs. Your roster has little chance of winning a championship without a max player.
An annual max salary is about three times larger than the full mid-level exception, which is the league?s average salary, but the gap in basketball value between them is much wider. Is there a single general manager of the 30 who would have to think about whether to choose one max contract over three MLE signings? If there is, tell me quickly because that GM may not have his job for long.
1. It doesn?t benefit the league for superstars to remain on mediocre teams.
How does it serve the NBA?s interests for a player the caliber of Melo to be tied down to a team that is in decline? The league wants its precious-few superstars chasing a ring each season on center stage, not toiling away in obscurity.
The league also understands that if the new CBA changes the rules to slow player movement, it could be harder to muster credible competition to battle the Heat. The more compelling scenario is to see one or two ?superteams? challenge Miami?s Big Three year in and year out. If Melo, and perhaps Paul, team up with Stoudemire in New York, a renewal of hostilities between the Knicks and Heat would be front-page news. As anybody who watched the Magic Johnson - Larry Bird Era knows, a legendary rivalry with the league?s marquee talent going toe to toe makes for historically great basketball and a surge of interest in the NBA worldwide.