Posted Jul 11 2012 12:28PM
In the old Hollywood film noir "D.O.A.," Edmond O'Brien plays a man who has been poisoned and has 24 hours to find out who did it. In the NBA, general managers poison the offer sheets of restricted free agents, then wait about two weeks -- 11 days of contract moratorium, then three days of a "matching" period -- to see who keels over clutching their throats and their wallets.
That was the scheme anyway, the reason some of the NBA's prized young players like New York's Jeremy Lin and Chicago's Omer Asik got offers of backloaded contracts, the so-called "poison pills" to discourage the Knicks and Bulls from exercising their right of first refusal.
Still, it's looking like what Houston general manager Daryl Morey (who made the offers to Lin and Asik) and Toronto's Bryan Colangelo (who made a similar offer to the Knicks' Landry Fields) stirred up was unpleasant for the players' current teams but hardly lethal. Just when it looked as if a new NBA trend had taken flight and the league's landscape come Saturday morning (the likeliest deadline for matching) would be completely different, GMs began scarfing those supposedly poison pills as if they were Skittles.
It wasn't supposed to go down that way.
• Lin, the Knicks' point guard who unexpectedly exploded onto the NBA scene and into popular culture last season, was offered a deal by Houston worth up to $28.8 million over four years. Morey structured the contract with a $5 million starting salary, $5.2 million in the second season and then $9.3 million in each of the final two years.
The Rockets hoped that New York, with Mike Woodson back as head coach -- "Linsanity" happened on Mike D'Antoni's watch, fizzling after D'Antoni resigned -- might be less interested in retaining Lin. They also hoped the ballon payments due him later in the deal would give even a big spender like Knicks owner James Dolan pause under the league's increasingly punitive luxury-tax system.
• Morey offered Bulls backup center Asik a $25.1 million deal over three years, with annual salaries of $5 million, $5.2 million in 2013-14 and, in a huge bump, to somewhere between $14.1 and $14.9 million in the final year (depending on the salary cap by then).
Even its average value of $8.37 per season was more than Chicago wanted to spend on Asik, a 7-foot defender vital to the Bulls' size advantage up front but also an offensively challenged participant. Asik, who does set good screens, averaged 3.1 points and twice as many turnovers as assists last season to go with 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 14.7 minutes.
• Fields, Lin's New York teammate, was offered a three-year, $20 million deal by Toronto with a bump of more than $9 million in the final year. In theory, the Raptors were trying add a helpful player for a stronger roster that might entice Phoenix free agent Steve Nash, the NBA's best-ever Canadian, to come home. But Colangelo was also playing a little tic-tac-toe, using the offer sheet to block New York's hopes of using Fields in a sign-and-trade package for Nash.
Lin, Asik and Fields all are restricted free agents (RFAs) and eligible for this version of free agency because they were drafted in the second round (or not at all, in Lin's case). Like Gilbert Arenas back in 2003, they aren't bound by the option years in first-round picks' rookie contracts. Unlike Arenas, who jumped from Golden State to Washington and had his paycheck soar from $512,000 to $8.5 million in his first Wizards season, these guys faced new CBA limitations.
Now any player just one or two years into his NBA career is eligible for a salary no greater than the midlevel exception ($5 million for 2012-13) in Year 1 of a new contract and 104.5 percent of that in Year 2. After that, though, the restrictions come off. And because offer sheets must be matched in their entirety -- including the payout of the funds (no evening out the salary, year to year) -- the interested team can throw cap- and luxury-tax considerations at the current club. That's especially true in coming seasons, when the current $1-for-$1 pinch increases to $1.50, $2 and more for every dollar beyond the tax threshold.
With the other supposedly poison pills scattered around this summer, the expectation is that those offer sheets will be matched, with the likely exception of Fields' deal. In fact, there has been little doubt almost from the moment those offers were reported. For example, ESPN.com's Marc Stein quoted a source close to the Lin situation as vowing, "They will match any offer on Lin up to $1 billion."
There are, after all, souvenir jerseys to be sold at Madison Square Garden.
So what happened to the alleged toxicity of these deals? One Eastern Conference executive noted that sweating out odious ramifications for 2014-15 isn't the brightest blip on anyone's radar at the moment. Three years is an eternity in pro sports, with plenty of time to reconfigure rosters and payroll, plenty of time to trade the backloaded contract if it came to that, plenty of time for a current GM to get fired or otherwise move on and drop the problem in someone else's lap.
Thus GMs who were supposed to take one look at the skull-and-crossbones stamped on their guys' offer sheets and run in the other direction barely have blinked.
Using contracts and a team's own free agents as leverage is nothing new. One classic example came courtesy of wily old Red Auerbach back in 1983. Kevin McHale, just three years into his Hall of Fame career, was a hotly pursued free agent that summer and drew what, at the time, was a fat offer from the Knicks: $3.6 million over three years. The threat that McHale would leave to join one of the Celtics' arch-rivals -- hello, Ray Allen -- seemed very real ... until Auerbach flexed some early salary-capology.
For this old Boston dog, the cap was a relatively new trick, arrived at in a CBA negotiated the previous season. But that didn't stop Auerbach, who pounced on the Knicks' own free agents, signing Marvin Webster, Sly Williams and Rory Sparrow to offer sheets. Since McHale was taking his time with a decision, New York got worried about ending up empty-handed. It matched on their three players (trading Williams to Atlanta for Rudy Macklin), taking itself out of the McHale sweepstakes.
McHale -- who hadn't made the first of his seven All-Star appearances by then or even won the first of his two Sixth Man awards -- stayed in Boston on a four-year, $4 million contract that made him the league's fourth-highest paid player, behind Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Jack Sikma. It all made Auerbach look again like the legend he was.
After initially denying the brinksmanship of his offers, he finally acknowledged it all was a ploy. "Yep," he told a few writers, grinning.
In 2009, Paul Millsap was an exciting young talent stuck behind power forward Carlos Boozer in Utah. Portland signed Millsap to a four-year, $34 million offer sheet but structured it with a $6 million signing bonus. That front-loading wasn't done to technically block the Jazz from matching -- the CBA rules then called for a signing bonus to be pro-rated against a team's cap over the life of the contract -- but it did throw a cash-flow challenge at Jazz owner Larry Miller and GM Kevin O'Connor.
Utah matched, said goodbye to Boozer a year later via free agency and still has Millsap at a reasonable $7.2 million this season (compared to Boozer's $15 million).
The tactics to thwart players' current teams have worked no better so far this summer. If anything, the offers causing the most distress in the marketplace haven't been the frontloaded or backloaded ones but rather the loaded ones, period. There still is serious money being lavished, from Minnesota's alleged $45 million offer sheet to Portland's Nic Batum to 38-year-old Marcus Camby's three-year, $13.2 million deal with the Knicks.
As for disincentives to re-sign a player, ambitious GMs might want to try something a little more persuasive next summer. Like a rattlesnake in the mailbox.
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