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Steve Aschburner

System issues still at crux of contract conflict

Posted Nov 9 2011 8:53AM's Labor Central | Owners' proposal, at a glance

NEW YORK -- Keyon Dooling, in 11 NBA seasons spent with five different teams, has played in just 29 playoff games. Anthony Parker, whose eight seasons have been split among four teams, has appeared 22 times in the postseason.

So surely these two NBA role players would see the wisdom of restricting free-agent signings by teams so loaded with talent already that they're paying luxury taxes into the league coffers for their exorbitant payrolls. Right?

Not so fast.

"The beautiful thing about being an American is freedom and the ability to choose," said Dooling, a Milwaukee Bucks guard and a vice president on the National Basketball Players Association executive committee. "There are a lot of guys who choose to stay, a la Kevin Durant. It's not about going or staying -- it's about having that ability to either go or stay. The freedom to choose between Milwaukee and Chicago is important to me as a player."

Limiting tax-paying teams in the amount of money they can offer free agents via the mid-level exception -- $2.5 million in starting salary rather than $5 million for non-tax teams -- and prohibiting those clubs from using the exception in consecutive seasons is one of the biggest snags for the union in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the NBA owners.

Players such as Dooling and Parker, who have spent much of their careers with non-contending teams, would have to see the unfairness of permitting the Lakers or Dallas -- already paying rosters full of stars -- to snatch coveted free agents away from teams such as Cleveland, Toronto, Milwaukee or elsewhere that could use the help. Or would they?

"The research shows that payroll really only has, I think the number was 7 percent to do with the wins and losses," said Parker, Cleveland's player-rep. "I don't buy, and a lot of people in the media don't buy, that some of these changes are going to create the competitiveness a lot people believe it will.

"The concern for us is just for guys to have flexibility and not have to be told where they're going to go and have no say at all. We realize there are going to be some restrictions, but it's a very oppressive system that's been put in front of us so far."

That system -- also known as the owners' current proposal -- has been summarily rejected by the union, to the point that the player-reps who met Tuesday in New York never seriously discussed putting it to a vote. That has been the union's stance since NBA commissioner David Stern and the owners dropped it on the players late Saturday night, attached to a Wednesday deadline.

If it truly is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, the players intend to leave it. And the system issues are the source of much of their disdain for it, beyond the proposed 50-50 split of basketball-related income that dominated media attention in this dispute.

Executive director Billy Hunter and union president Derek Fisher went five deep on a list of issues that still need addressing if the sides are going to get a deal done in time to salvage most of December or even some portion of the 2011-12 NBA season. Four of them -- sign-and-trade restrictions, mid-level exceptions, the "repeater" tax and the "cliff" by which teams lose their share of the distribution of tax money for incurring the tax themselves -- pertain to franchises whose payrolls exceed not only the salary cap but the luxury-tax threshold.

The owners are trying to hold back those free-spending teams through restrictions on their ability to sign free agents or otherwise add players. The players consider those teams not only desirable clubs for which to play but their surest path to a fair market for their services. Take the big spenders out of the bidding and the offers from more frugal clubs will sag.

"It sets your value a lot lower," said Dooling, who has made a career out of signing contracts built off biannual or partial mid-level exceptions. He believes that, if those mechanisms had been restricted to some teams rather than all, he would have been working for minimum-scale salaries for 11 years.

"Our luxury-tax payers have always been in the market," Dooling said. "For them not to be there, we should react the way we have."

The owners' deal

The owners' current offer is on the table until 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to Stern. Among its provisions:

• A 49-to-51 percent "band" for the players' share of basketball-related income. It could go up or down based on exceeding or falling short of league growth projections but most likely would center around 50 percent. The players got 57 percent of BRI in the previous labor deal.

• The mid-level exception would begin at $5 million annually for non-taxpaying teams, with a maximum length of four or three seasons (alternating annually). Tax-paying teams, however, would be permitted to offer only $2.5 million in starting pay, with a maximum length of two seasons, and would have it available every other year.

• The biannual exception and sign-and-trade deals would be available only to non-taxpaying teams.

• Extend-and-trade deals would be prohibited. This would prevent the maneuver that enabled Carmelo Anthony to disrupt Denver's season, get his desired trade to New York and still get the lucrative contract extension -- with full "Bird" rights -- from his new team. This season, Orlando's Dwight Howard would be a prime candidate for such a season of distraction and manipulation.

• A 10 percent escrow tax (two percent higher than usual) would be used to adjust for the new BRI split and to allow for salary space needed to accommodate free agents.

• Contract lengths would be limited to five years for "Bird" free agents (re-signing a team's own players) and four years for others. Previously, the limits were six seasons and five.

• Maximum annual raises would be 5.5 percent for "Bird" deals and 3.5 percent for others.

• Opt-out clauses would be prohibited except before the final season of a contract and then only if that season is not guaranteed.

• Luxury taxes would be harsher across the board, and particularly so for teams that venture into cap territory three times in any five-season period. The league's penalties for those teams is pricier than what the union will accept.

From the league's perspective, its offer provides the players with several things they sought when the CBA talks began in earnest in June, most notably no hard salary cap, the continued access to guaranteed contracts and (for most teams) salary-cap exceptions.

The players, meanwhile, want all teams to have equal access to free agents each season, both to allow players to select their preferred market and to keep the bidding high.

But if the union doesn't like some of the provisions of the owners' current offer, it definitely will not like the proposal that could replace it by Wednesday night. That one, dusted off from before the lockout, would include:

• A 47 percent share of BRI for the players.

• A "flex" salary cap that even Stern acknowledges would be a hard cap, with a ceiling just $5 million above the average NBA payroll.

• Rollbacks to existing individual contracts to reflect the players' new cut of BRI and other system changes.

• A mid-level exception starting at $3 million and a term limit of three seasons.

• Four-year maximum contract lengths for "Bird" free agents and three for other players. Each team would be allowed to give one player a five-year contract.

• Smaller raises across the board: 4.5 percent for "Bird" free agents, 3.5 percent for others and 3 percent for mid-level exception signers.

Getting shoved toward those terms, after rejecting friendlier ones in the ticking proposal in play Wednesday, is one reason some players -- and their agents -- continue to view union decertification as a viable option. Hunter told NBA TV that nearly 200 players, from what he had been told, were likely to sign cards petitioning that a formal vote take place.

If that were to happen, it likely would come after a 45-day waiting period, pushing the prospect of a shortened 2011-12 season perilously close to January.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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