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Steve Aschburner

Will the new CBA have any impact in allowing smaller-market teams to keep their superstars in the fold?

Meet the new rules -- about the same as the old rules

Posted Dec 6 2011 10:57AM - Updated Dec 6 2011 8:31PM

It began, in no small part, because of barrels.

That is, the NBA lockout began because of the barrels over which franchise stars such as LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony had their respective teams in Cleveland, Toronto and Denver not so long ago.

Back then, each of those players had the freedom, the incentives and/or the leverage to get precisely what he wanted, where he wanted, without regard for the effect it might have on the NBA landscape. And while no right-thinking American could argue against freedom, one could object to a system in which incentives and leverage so favored one side (the players) over the other (the owners) in what needs to be both a competitive and cooperative system.

Which is why the NBA plunged itself into its second serious labor dispute in 13 years, lost the first eight weeks of the 2011-12 regular season and set itself up to be in frantic, land-rush mode when camps and free agency open on Friday.

The lockout ended. The barrels remain.

Star players still have the freedom, the incentives and/or the leverage to dictate their whereabouts ... and their whereabouts always seem to involve the same half-dozen teams. Instead of James and Bosh landing in Miami and Anthony forcing his way to New York, the post-lockout mania centers on Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams pushing in some variation toward the Knicks, the Nets, the Lakers and the Mavericks.

All of those smaller, neglected NBA markets desperate to sell tickets with fewer or no franchise stars? They're marginalized again. Already. With at least six years to go on the brand new CBA.

"The system didn't change that much," said the general manager of one such team Monday. "There are a couple of new restrictions, but the system basically is the same. One or two things got better [for teams] but one or two things got worse. I think it's almost a push."

Except that some of the shift already has occurred, with the playing field about to be tilted further. As Howard Beck of the New York Times wrote recently, if Paul winds up with the Knicks and Howard lands with the Nets, "15 of the league's top 25 players would be spread among just six teams. In a league where superstars rule, that is depressing news for the other 24 franchises. Superteams may boost ratings in May and June, but they do nothing to help ticket sales for a Detroit-Charlotte game in January."

From the beginning of the labor talks two years ago right to the handshake agreement over Thanksgiving weekend, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver stressed the two pillars of economics and competitive balance. These were the lockout's raison d'etre. (Revenue-sharing always was more of a third rail than third pillar, given the way the owners refused to touch it publicly.) Only by fixing both, Silver said, could the league go forward with a viable model for all its teams.

Then came the negotiations and the stalemate and the alleged "enormous consequences" and the litigation.

And there went the hard salary cap, the end of sign-and-trade and extend-and-trade deals and a half-dozen other alleged core issues for the owners, bargained away for what amounts to a $300 million annual cash giveback from the players.

Roll out the barrel, they'll have a barrel of fun.

Oh, there have been some nips and tucks in the old rules and there are certain provisions in the new CBA that, when phased in for 2013-14, might steer players -- if driven solely by their self-interest of making the last bottom dollar -- toward markets that wouldn't otherwise be considered.

But in most ways, the new rules bear more than a family resemblance to the old rules. Instead of eliminating luxury-taxpaying teams entirely from the market for free agents, the new math enables clubs paying all the way to $16 million above the salary cap (approximately $12 million to the tax threshold, then another $4 million before harsher limitations kick in). So now, in the sport known for its soft salary cap, even the tax threshold is squishy, aside from the dollar multipliers involved. Guess that renders the salary cap see-through.

One notable change, which reared its head immediately when the Paul and Howard frenzy ignited, is that contract extensions got sliced for players who might want to follow Anthony's lead. Now, if a player pushes to be traded in-season and get the best contract his "Bird" rights would allow, he can only add two new years to his existing deal.

So what does that do to help competitive balance? Nothing. It just encourages the player to get traded first to his team of choice, where he can exercise his "Bird" rights later.

Limiting the mid-level exception for taxpayers? Come on. This was hotly pursued by the have-not owners, who didn't want free agents plucked from the market by the "have" teams. And so a limit of $3 million in starting salary, and three years in length, has been created for the biggest spenders.

Except that it's $3 million, plus fat playoff checks, plus outside earning opportunities, plus the chance to earn "Bird" rights with a proven spender.

As for the stiffer luxury taxes, those might make some owners "a little more conservative," one GM said, depending on the players available in a given free-agent market. But more "robust" revenue-sharing might make those same taxpaying teams feel more competitive and justified in spending deep into tax territory, since they're already subsidizing the small-market rivals.

There is one rule that clearly favors the ordinary team that happens to draft shrewdly or simply get lucky: the so-called "Derrick Rose" rule. With such a player, a team can offer a five-year extension rather than just four, with a deal based on 30 percent of the league's cap figure rather than 25 percent. But of course, the criteria for using it -- an MVP winner, a two-time All-Star starter or a two-time all-NBA selection -- is extremely restricted.

And that fits right into what might have been the NBA's biggest mistake not just in the new CBA but in the past two: not giving current teams enough of an advantage in keeping its best players.

In the previous CBA, a player could re-sign for six years with his current club and get an annual raise of 10.5 percent. Or he could change teams for a five-year contract and an 8 percent raise. Now the current team can offer five years and a 7.5 percent raise vs. a new team's four years and 4.5 percent raise.

One extra year? Three little percentage points? Why not combine the old CBA rule for current teams (six years and 10.5 percent raises) with the new rule for switching teams (four years, 4.5 percent raises)?

You have to remember, the difference between a five-year, $100 million contract and a four-year, $74 million contract isn't $26 million. It's $26 million minus whatever the player gets in that fifth year, which becomes Year 1 of his next contract.

Most of these players, particularly the stars, either are in their prime or otherwise are convinced they'll still be employable at the highest levels. Barring a career-ending or -altering injury, they probably are right.

So that's where the new CBA leaves the NBA's players, owners, teams and fans. With provisions about as effective in steering talent to needy markets as any set of rules would be in nudging billionaires to build their vacation homes on the shores of Lake Erie or in the middle of Indiana.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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