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Players union rejects salary cap 'smoothing' proposals

POSTED: Feb 13, 2015 9:41 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


— NEW YORK -- Always be closing. Always be closing.

And never, apparently, be smoothing.

In the National Basketball Players Association's annual All-Star meeting of player representatives Friday afternoon, the union sent the NBA and its fans a message that negotiations of the next collective bargaining agreement with the owners aren't neatly tucked away until 2017 (when the current deal can be re-opened) or even 2016 (formal talks might reasonably be expected to begin).

They're here now, with the union's rejection of two "smoothing" proposals from the NBA to manage the flood of new money from dramatically increased TV rights fees beginning with the 2016-17 season. Michele Roberts, the NBPA's new executive director, said the team reps voted unanimously to reject both proposals during a meeting that included about 50 players.

What that could mean, if left unaddressed, would be an abrupt hike in the league's salary cap from an estimated $68 million in 2015-16 to, say, $90 million for 2016-17. That's when the new nine-year, $24 billion TV deal kicks in at nearly triple the current broadcast fees. Boosting the cap number that suddenly could make virtually every team in the NBA a bidder for the lucky free agents of 2016. Rosters could be entirely rebuilt, or completely destroyed, all in a few weeks time.

The NBA apparently had pitched two versions of a proposal to "smooth" that infusion of money into the system to avoid artificially bidding up salaries of the players who happened to hit the market that summer, at the expense of the majority who would remain under contract. By "smoothing" the increase -- with the cap rising by lesser amounts, with the difference from the players' CBA-guaranteed share of the league's revenues divvied up proportionally among them all -- those locked into contracts would benefit from the added cash.

But the NBPA's economic consultants determined that a typical player would make less money overall by signing contracts into an artificially constrained salary cap (for example, $80 million vs. $90 million) while receiving "shortfall" checks, than he would signing a new deal without the smoothing constraints on the cap.

Roberts, hired last July to fill a vacancy created in February 2013 when the union ousted longtime chief Billy Hunter, said the NBPA had no counter-proposals to offer the league on smoothing. She sounded open to an "advance smoothing" option, if the league wanted to put some of the coming TV money into the system before 2016-17. But the NBA hasn't made any formal offers for that.

The details for how this looming bonanza of cash will be dispersed might bore some fans or seem needlessly contentious with the current CBA in place. But either the players or the owners can void that deal in less than 29 months. And given the rapid increase in franchise valuations, the flood of TV cash and the difficulty team owners might have now talking about red ink, the players seem almost certain to do so.

The NBPA's rejection of the smoothing proposals -- with the clock ticking on any advance-smoothing alternatives -- served notice that, even in peacetime, the NBA's labor adversaries are never far from another battle.

Keep in mind, both Roberts and NBA commissioner Adam Silver -- who will give a state-of-the-league news conference before All-Star Saturday events at Brooklyn's Barclays Center -- will be the faces of the next CBA talks for the first time. Credibility and reputations will be in play for each, with the union eager to claw back some of what it gave up in 2011. The owners, meanwhile, claim that the current deal (and its 50-50 split with the players) is what has made the NBA so profitable and desirable to new investors and corporate partners.

Always be closing, part II: The NBPA made another move in that direction by adding Cleveland superstar LeBron James as first vice-president, working with president Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers and the rest of the executive committee. Roberts said James' sway with his peers and importance to the league made him a high-impact VP choice, rather than his ability to be a free agent in 2016 when the biggest money hits.

Said Roberts: "LeBron has been a force to be reckoned with among our players since the man hit the court. We have always wanted to have players of influence be included on our executive committee. It gets your attention."

Always be closing, part III: Asked about the NBA's current one-and-done rule for draft eligibility, requiring a player to attend college or otherwise wait one year after high school before entering the league, Roberts said the team reps don't like it now any more than they did in the past. She made Silver's preference for a two-and-done system sounded like a non-starter. "Unless I learn otherwise, be happy with one-and-done," she said. "It's not going to be two-and-done."