By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 10 2009 5:36PM
We will soon find out if the Portland Trail Blazers' legal bite matches its bark.
A source told TNT's David Aldridge late Friday evening that the Memphis Grizzlies plan to sign free agent forward Darius Miles to a 10-day contract on Saturday. The Grizzlies confirmed the move to the Associated Press on Saturday.
Miles became the center of a leaguewide firestorm late Thursday after the Blazers sent out an e-mail threatening possible legal action against any team that signed Miles, whom Portland waived last April, claiming he had a career-ending knee injury, to a contract. Portland's threat centers on the fact that if Miles appears in two more games this season, the remaining terms of his old contract with the Blazers -- two years and $18 million -- revert back to Portland's team salary.
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Currently, excluding possible bonuses and other incentives that the Blazers may have to pay their players, the team is at $70,060,316 in team salary this season, which is just below the league's luxury tax threshold of $71.15 million. Teams that exceed the threshold have to pay a dollar for dollar tax for every dollar they exceed the threshhold. If Miles's $9 million is restored to Portland's team salary, and the Blazers finished the season at that amount in team salary, the Blazers would be above the tax threshold by $7,910,316, and have to write a check for that amount to the league. The league then distributes that amount to some of the teams that have finished the season below the threshold, using a formula to determine the most needy teams.
In addition, putting Miles' salary back on Portland's books would eliminate much of what could be more than $18 million in potential cap room next summer, when the Blazers were expected to aggressively persue free agency -- most likely a point guard.
The Grizzlies apparantly were impressed with Miles, whom they signed last month, even though he only played in two games for them. But in the last game, against Minnesota last Tuesday, Miles had a couple of blocked shots and played good post defense against the Timberwolves burly forward Al Jefferson. The Grizzlies opted to bring Miles back rather than bring a player up from the Developmental League or sign other free agents that hadn't played for them.
After losing in Toronto on Friday, Memphis doesn't play again until it hosts Cleveland next Tuesday. The Grizzlies' next game after that is at home against Utah next Friday. If Miles appears in both games, the trigger kicks in and his salary goes back to Portland.
In a conference call with reporters Friday evening, Portland president Larry Miller said the team "would cross that bridge when we get to it" if another team signed Miles to a contract.
Miller stressed that the Blazers heard "rumors and rumblings" that there were several teams looking to sign Miles -- not to take a look at the 28-year-old, but with the express purpose of putting Portland over the luxury tax and siphoning off a large chunk of its potential cap space. The decision to issue the e-mail was a joint one, Miller said, between owner Paul Allen; Tod Leiweke, the CEO of Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, which oversees both the Blazers and the NFL's Seattle Seahawks for Allen; Miller and general manager Kevin Pritchard.
"The thought process was we did this with the sole purpose of protecting our organization," Miller said. He did not specify which teams Portland suspected would sign Miles only to put the Blazers over the tax, or how the Blazers could interpret any future signing of Miles as specifically done to hurt them.
"Our purpose was not in any way to keep Darius from being able to play," Miller said. "If he can come back to a team and play in a way that can help a team win...then we have no problem with that at all. Our problem is if some team does something malicious to hurt us."
The Blazers' memo, disclosed by SI.com Friday, read in part, "The Portland Trail Blazers are aware that certain teams may be contemplating signing Darius Miles to a contract for the purpose of adversely impacting the Portland Trail Blazers Salary Cap and tax positions. Such conduct from a team would violate its fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer...Please be aware that if a team engages in such conduct, the Portland Trail Blazers will take all necessary steps to safeguard all its rights, including, without limitation, litigation."
The memo was the talk of the league Friday.
"I can't believe Portland sent that out," a Western Conference team president said Friday. "I don't know how you threaten legal action against your partners."
Said an Eastern Conference team president: "I've never seen anything like this before."
The National Basketball Players Association said Friday afternoon it would prepare a grievance on Miles' behalf to file against Portland.
Late Friday afternoon, the league took the unusual step of assuring teams that it would approve a contract with Miles if a team signed him.
The league's memo read: "This is to inform you that Darius Miles has cleared waivers as of 10 a.m, EST, Friday, January 9, 2009. He is now a free agent.
"The NBA has received the email sent last night by Portland to all teams. Under league rules, teams are free to sign Darius Miles to a Uniform Player Contract if they wish to secure his services as a player, and any such contract would be approved by the NBA."
Asked for his reaction to the Blazers' memo Friday afternoon, Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said, "My reaction is somewhat hostile. They've kind of gone overboard. They've overstepped. And we intend to aggressively represent Darius Miles and exercise whatever options we've got."
Hunter said he planned to discuss Miles's case with Stern on Friday afternoon during a previously arranged meeting.
"This e-mail, to me, is just beyond the pale," Hunter said. "I was completely caught off guard and surprised. Either they know something I don't know or it's pretty arrogant and stupid to release something like that."
On the surface, it's hard to see how Portland's e-mail did anything but ask that teams prohibit someone eligible to play and not under contract to anyone from plying his trade.
However, an attorney with extensive past dealings with NBA teams said that while he expects the league to take action against the Trail Blazers, Portland may have a point.
"There's at least some argument to be made that you just can't sign a guy that you don't want just to hurt another team," the attorney said. "But I don't know if that's been tested ... it's not fair that ... one of my competitors should be able to sign a player to a totally phony deal just to screw me up (financially) for the next two years."
But the attorney allowed that it would be very difficult for Portland to prove that a team signed Miles with the sole intent of harming the Trail Blazers.
Both the Celtics and Grizzlies told me independently -- and before the Blazers' e-mail came to light -- that Miles, while still working to get in shape, didn't have any physical limitations brought on by the microfracture surgery he underwent on his right knee in 2006.
A source said the Celtics waived Miles for a couple of reasons: the strong camp of forward Brian Scalabrine and because it would be cheaper for Boston to keep a rookie like second-round pick Bill Walker as its 12th man than a veteran like Miles, who would make a minimum $1.14 million this season as an eighth-year player.
This all began last April when the Blazers waived Miles, claiming that an independent physician appointed by both the league and Players' Association to be used in such matters deemed Miles's knee injury to be career-ending. By waiving Miles, the remaining two years and $18 million that Portland owed Miles came off the team's cap, and the Trail Blazers fell below this season's luxury-tax threshold of $71.15 million. Teams above the tax threshold have to pay $2 for every $1 that they are over the tax, and teams below the tax threshold receive the money.
But under league rules, once a player plays in 10 games of a season, a team cannot make a season-ending claim on him because of injury. So, if Miles were to play 10 games this season for anyone, the terms of his old contract would kick in; that is, the Blazers would get $9 million (Miles's old salary for this season) put back on their cap. And that $9 million would put Portland over the luxury tax threshold, unless the Blazers could make a deal before the end of the season to get back under.
Miles signed with Boston last summer as a free agent, but was released before the start of the regular season. Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday, however, that the league has decided six preseason games in which Miles played for the Celtics count toward the 10-game limit.
The Grizzlies signed Miles last month, and he played two games for Memphis before being released this week, leaving him at eight games and leaving Portland just two games from having its cap blown sky high.
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