If ‘Helen of Troy’ (Sparta actually) possessed the face that launched a thousand ships to war then, Lebron James and the other prized 2010 free agents possess the games that will launch a series of contentious courtships by various teams fighting for those prized players’ services. Yet, unlike the distressed damsel made the subject of various nations ambitions, many of the players of the 2010 free agent class possess significant ambitions of their own. The objectives of these free agents have transformed them into Bachelors and Head Hunters who in turn court the franchises who desire their services and the fellow free agents they desire to join forces with. However, the approaching courtships of the 2010 Free Agent class takes place against the ominous backdrop of the impending drums of a greater conflict on the NBA’s horizon over the league’s collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2011. The outcome of that conflict, which threatens to significantly reshape the league, places management in a position where they must approach cautiously as they maneuver their teams to successfully transcend the impending results of 2011’s labor-management conflicts.
The impending changes in the ‘Heaven and Earth’ of the NBA:
Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is a classic treatise primarily applicable to large-scale military engagements but which has through the ages been applied to the realm of corporate/business and even legal strategy and maneuverings (where applicable). In the Art of War, an assessment of the elements of Heaven and Earth are two of five Constant Factors (more on the others in Part 2) accounted for in assessing the conditions before a general in the field of conflict.1 Heaven pertains to the seasons and climate2 and Earth pertains to the landscape3 to which wars/conflicts/engagements are carried out.
For the NBA, the Salary Cap (and exceptions thereto) crafted within the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), may be conceptualized as the landscape of the league. The landscape of the CBA prescribes the terms of the salary cap and exceptions thereto under which a teams management, players (and agents) can negotiate the provisions of contracts and trades between and amongst NBA teams. The National and World economy under which league revenues are generated may be conceptualized as the climate/heaven of the NBA. To wit, just as a significant change in climate may effect the earth’s landscape (think global warming melting ice caps and vanishing glaciers) so to can a change in the economic climate effect a change in the CBA which determines the landscape of the league’s salary cap structure. That is what NBA team ownership was essentially saying to representatives of the NBA Players Association in August of 2009 when they and NBA Commissioner, David Stern, indicated that too many franchises were losing money because of the Global Financial meltdown.4 Ownerships claims of losses as a result of economic conditions became the basis for ownership to declare their intention to opt out and not extend the league’s current CBA into the 2011 – 2012 season.5
Ownerships assurances to the Players Association regarding the non-extension of the current CBA was followed by their initial hard line proposals regarding the renegotiation of a new CBA. Ownerships initial proposal issued in early February of 2010 would move the league closer towards a hard cap system, would significantly reduce the players’ percentage of Basketball Related Income (BRI), would eliminate the league’s luxury tax structure, would limit the length of contracts and the amount of max contracts.6 The ramification of a hard cap on spending is believed to likely have an adverse effect on non-max contract free agents. Many teams will likely use their cap space to first secure their max contract player/s leaving the remainder of the cap to round out rosters of journeymen with the scraps of money from a teams remaining cap space.7 Other sources indicate that a hard cap will also result in the elimination of exceptions to the current salary cap (e.g., the Mid-Level Exception [MLE]) and that the future Salary Cap structure may create non fully guaranteed contracts that would include provision/s requiring that all current contracts placing a team above the current soft cap be conformed to place a team under the future hard cap.8
Collective and Individual Player Responses:
The effect of the impending NBA labor/management struggles over the next CBA is believed to likely result in another lockout9 and appears to be drawing different reactions from players in the league. Concerns over the elimination of the MLE and other exceptions may result in a divided response from the union where mid-level journeymen players may exercise their individual votes to produce concessions on max contracts in order to preserve some semblance of the salary cap exceptions afforded to such players.10 Yet, the fact that many players were not around during the 1998-99 CBA negotiations (and lockout), which produced the MLE, may place those younger generations of players out of touch with the conditions that produced the MLE. But possible or perceived dissension with the players union may be oversold as max contract stars and mid level journeymen recognize that a collective response is in their best interest11 and the union challenges ownerships assertions of lost revenue during the recent economic recessions while daring the league to issue a lockout.12
In addition to the collective union response, many individual players will elect to opt out from their contracts to enter the 2010 Free Agent Class due to the uncertainty of a changed landscape after the 2010 -11 season.13 The class of free agents (both restricted and unrestricted) will include major franchise talent such as Dwayne Wade and Lebron James; stars such as Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire and an assorted mix of flawed yet rising talent and role players. Most of the 2010 free agents will likely be the subject of team’s free agent pursuits. Others, such as Dwayne Wade, will attempt to recruit additional talent to join forces with them. While the crown jewel of the free agent class, Lebron James, will pursue the courtship of championship caliber suitors all the while utilizing the summer free agency period to sell his products, promote his brand and pursue his far reaching entrepreneurial ambitions. For the class of 2010 free agents the incentive of securing a final max contract is counterpoised against the Sword of Damocles of a possibly more restrictive salary cap landscape beyond the 2011 season.
Heaven and Earth and the shifting field before the Teams Courting the 2010 Free Agent Class:
2010 also presents a carrot for the management teams of individual NBA Franchises. For those management teams the carrot before them is the prospect of landing a franchise caliber free agent/s or a collection of stars capable of boosting or transforming a team’s fortunes in the field of the NBA playoff for the foreseeable future. The enticement of success in 2010 Free agency also comes with the possibility striking out on the field of impact players worthy of the salaries they’ll command. For teams who have stripped down their roster to acquire such impact talent such a scenario would be disappointing. Yet, a worse scenario (the stick) would be to misevaluate and overpay for good yet flawed players or worse role players who will all also look to cash in (via their agents) on one last big payday prior to the 2011 offseason.14
NBA management teams, who move recklessly to make headway/headlines to justify clearing cap space,15 can look to the Pistons, who spent over 90 million dollars to acquire Ben Gordon (good yet limited role player) and Charlie Villanueva (role player).16 But miscues and miscalls in free agency are par for the course, has baffled writers deemed experts17 and has even led an NBA owner to deem the contracts tendered to undeserving players as stupid pills.18 With a changing landscape imminent during the 2011 offseason, having the misfortune19 of tendering and winning bids on players undeserving of generous contract offers may result in a lethal overdose on stupid pills. With a ‘Sterner,’ hard cap, salary structure in place maneuvering out of risky (and possibly desperate) moves to transform or boost a franchise’s fortunes may have the reverse effect. Thus setting up a team for a foreseeable future of further frustration rather than success. The lesson of the shifting NBA climate and landscape is clear, unless a home run free agent can be landed, teams should proceed with extreme caution.
13. Berger, Ken: NBA owners propose hard cap, pay cut for players.