NBA collective bargaining agreements are like a game of Whac-A-Mole: each one has unintended consequences, and the effort to fix them invariably leads to different loopholes and flaws in the next one.
The essential, core (self-inflicted) dilemma the NBA and its Players Association face every few years during negotiations is choosing between the lively, headline-grabbing free-agency frenzy in July and defending the league against the perception that small markets cannot compete. And much like a team when they fire their head coach, the league and the NBPA have chosen to go in the opposite direction from previous years.
What’s worth noting is that the NBA is the only one of the three major sports leagues that deals with this choice.
MLB avoids it with draconian control over young players and by not even pretending that the Tampa Bays, Minnesotas and Pittsburghs will ever spend as much as big-market powerhouses. Meanwhile, the NFL faces no such conundrum largely because careers are short and contracts are practically voidable by the time the ink dries, meaning that players are wise to lock up the most guaranteed money, regardless of where it’s coming from.
At first glance, the incoming CBA would appear to rectify the unforeseen errors of neutering contract extensions in order to help small markets and non-free-agent destinations like Milwaukee keep über-stars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo. As cap wizard Albert Nahmad notes at heathoops.com:
The league has structured the new rules to seamlessly integrate into existing rules to ensure top-level players are always ahead of the curve with their pay, but only if they remain with their existing teams. A first-round pick can sign a four-year rookie-scale contract. He can then transition right to a five-year “designated player rookie scale extension” (and even tack on the super-max salary bump to a Tier 2 max contract if he meets the “Fifth Year 30% Max” performance qualification). He could then transition right into a five-year “designated veteran player” extension if he qualifies. He could wind up being with his team for 14 years, potentially without ever having hit free agency.
And to be clear, it will help those teams. The Greek Freak and other top stars of his generation would be insane to pass up the extra tens of millions that come from re-upping and staying in-house.
So, with stars incentivized to not fly the coup, the NBA will, as mentioned, swap the buzz of All-Stars taking meetings from a half-dozen teams (with the effect of their choice cascading throughout the league) for the image of protecting small markets and the vision that any team can compete for a championship.
Additionally, in a seemingly minor but equally important distinction for business, the NBA is trading the national casual fan appeal of the free-agent frenzy for the local casual fan appeal of stars who want to “finish what they started,” as loyalty at a price will still be loyalty for fans who crave such narratives.
So, how could this be a bad thing for small markets? The critical piece of the new CBA’s lucrative extension system are the qualifiers: for the third contract super-max deal, players must not have already changed teams as a free agent and cannot have been traded following their fourth year in the league.
Those caveats put a premium on getting to the right destination as soon as possible, which is going to make an important choice even more critical for top draft entrants: the agent.
With such a massive discrepancy in contract value, the leverage of stars threatening to leave for greener pastures will be more empty than ever, not to mention it will take even more to acquire them in trade since they’ll be easier to retain. That’s going to require draftees to get to their ideal destination right off the bat.
For example, if the hapless Kings are picking second and say, the Celtics (via Brooklyn) are picking third or fourth, that could be a career-defining process for a mere 19-year-old, and they’ll need a power broker in their corner to not just influence the outcome, but cushion the potential public relations backlash.
Teams like Milwaukee and Minnesota that already have franchise pillars in place are set up perfectly, while well-run upper-echelon markets like Miami and Dallas that are currently bottoming out will be just fine. It’s the non-glitzy cities currently hunting for their star of the future that are in danger of being behind the eight-ball over the next decade.
The new CBA hasn’t even started, but here’s a prediction on its defining legacy: stars can’t leave small markets if they don’t play for them in the first place.