But a more ominous date is 2011, as owners and players look ahead to a new collective bargaining agreement that will take effect in 2011-12. Four team executives have told me they're anticipating a hard cap on payrolls, which will clamp down on player salaries and prevent big franchises like the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics from outspending teams from smaller markets.
A hard cap would transform the way teams are assembled. Look at the Lakers, whose payroll of $91.4 million has vaulted them a league-leading $33.7 million above the cap. Try this perspective: If the soft-cap system of today was instantly replaced by a hard cap, the Lakers would no longer be able to afford the salaries of
If, in fact, a hard cap is installed after next season, then it will likely be preceded by a transitional system over a short number of years that will enable contenders like the Lakers to keep the likes of Gasol and Bynum without destroying their roster. After all, it would be self-defeating for the NBA to instantly deconstruct the most popular -- and expensive -- payrolls. Maybe some kind of amnesty will enable a few salaries to be grandfathered in until those preexisting contracts expire.
No one knows for sure what kind of system will result from extended negotiations and a potential lockout of the players in July 2011. Some believe (as you'll see below) that the players will avoid a hard cap, or that other more creative solutions will be applied. But let me repeat this much: I asked executives from four teams what they think they'll be dealing with after next season, and all four predicted a hard cap.
"I really think worst case it will be a hard cap that gets phased in over three years," a GM said.
By "worst case," he's implying that the players shouldn't hope for anything better than a three-year transition. Another senior executive predicts an even more draconian transformation, especially if a failure of negotiations results in a lockout. "Our players don't save money," he said, and so he predicts that a few months without income will force the players to cave in and accept the owners' demands, including an instantaneous reduction in salaries similar to the harsh transformation of the NHL, which was able to get its players to concede to a 24 percent pay cut following the season-long lockout of 2004-05.
"If there's going to be a lockout," he said, "then there's a 99 percent chance there is going to be a hard cap."
But that's only part of the story. As owners look ahead to the new realities of 2011-12, many may no longer be willing to use their cap space on free agents this summer. A contract that appears reasonable today may turn out to be an albatross in the new era of a hard cap.
"Teams might say, 'I don't want to give $15 million to $20 million to one guy because that might lock me out of a hard cap,' " a team executive said. "It could change everything."
James and Wade will get everything they want this summer, because each is clearly an elite player capable of leading a team to the championship. Bosh and Johnson (who are viewed on a level just below James and Wade) are likely to receive max, or near-max, contracts.
But what about the next tier of free agents, which includes
"I want to be careful about calling this collusion, because that's illegal," said agent
A prominent example is offered by the case of
But then a new collective bargaining agreement was negotiated, and the economics changed. Now you look at O'Neal's salary -- $23 million in the final season of that contract -- and you wonder what the Pacers were thinking, especially since injuries have robbed him of his big statistical numbers.
If a team signs a player to a five-year contract this summer, four of those years will be paid under the rules of a new CBA starting in 2011-12. That's why owners will be taking the new realities into consideration as they make offers.
Predicted one GM: "In the new deal, $8 million is going to be star-player money."
That's why the Celtics made a run last month at acquiring
Two contenders in particular can be expected to be aggressive while others are receding. "I see two guys who will play heavily in this market -- [Mavericks owner
The Cavs face the possibility of losing LeBron to free agency this summer, which is why they are aggressively pursuing a trade for Wizards power forward
As for Cuban, it goes without saying that he would approach the trade deadline as an opportunity to grow while other teams are cutting back.
The expiring contracts of
With so many teams offering expiring deals or highly valuable players (like Jamison, Butler or Detroit's
There are a number of potential solutions to what ails the league. The most creative idea I've heard is to sign players to a percentage of revenues. Let's say not only that a hard cap is installed but also that players are signed not to an outright salary, but instead to a percentage of the team's cap figure.
For example: Instead of signing Stoudemire to $8 million per year, a team would pay him 15 percent of the hard cap each season. Because the cap is based on revenues, then Stoudemire and all other players would make money based on the league's success. I like this idea because the players would be encouraged to police themselves. And, more than ever, they would realize in a highly tangible way that when
Paying each player a percentage of revenues would create a new partnership between NBA players and owners. But it will also be a very hard sell because players obviously won't want to surrender their current right to long-term contracts that are guaranteed, regardless of market conditions.
One GM hopes that the new CBA will do away with max contracts.
"If we do get to a hard cap, I want to get rid of all the stupid rules, like mid-level exceptions and max salaries," he said. "Say the new max is $12 million, which means some team is getting LeBron at $12 million when he is really worth $60 million to their franchise. All that will do is tilt the playing field toward losing more than ever."
In other words, a limit on max salaries will provide further incentive for teams to improve their lottery position in order to acquire a star like James.
"The only way to get a player like LeBron is to get a top-five pick, and the only way to get that kind of pick is by losing," the GM said. "The league is only going to increase the incentive to lose games if you're prevented from paying LeBron more than $10 to $12 million. It's too big of a competitive advantage to the teams that have a player like him."
All of this is very fluid, and when you put it together it becomes harder than ever for franchises to choose between trying to win now while planning for the future.
For decades people have dreamed of Clippers owner
If Seattle had a modernized arena, it would probably jump to the top of potential markets for NBA franchises that are looking to move. But there is no political will in Seattle to devote public money to such a project.
I see where you're coming from, Gary, and I've often wondered myself whether the playoffs might benefit financially by reducing seven-game series to best-of-five, or even best-of-three. As it stands now, the NBA runs the "purest" postseason tournament in sports, in the sense that the basketball playoffs so closely mirror the results of the regular season: If you want to win an NBA championship, then you must earn it over the course of the regular season, as underlined by the fact that 12 of the last 14 champions have been a No. 1 or 2 conference seed (and all 14 have been seeded no worse than No. 3).
The NFL and MLB playoffs have been far less reflective of the regular season. The NBA season is arguably the truest test in U.S. pro sports, because winning the basketball championship requires season-long excellence. But the NBA gets no credit for this. On the contrary, the predictability of its postseason hurts the NBA with fans (apart from those eras when the public wants to see a rare star like
But I can't imagine the NBA reducing the number of games in either the playoffs or regular season. I say this because close to half of NBA revenues come from ticket sales. Therefore, the league would be slashing its own revenues.
Maybe in time fans would grow to appreciate a shortened NBA season and eventually the league would profit. But the league wouldn't survive the interim while waiting for the public to adapt to the new shortened season. And the players, as much as they complain about the long season, would not accept fewer games if it meant smaller salaries.
When I do those mock drafts, I'm not advocating one player over another. All I'm attempting is to predict what each team will do with its draft pick. I always thought it was a mistake for Memphis to pick Thabeet so high. He may become a good NBA player, but how many teams get burned year after year by picking size over talent?
Fair question. I would say that it is harder than ever to judge the draft these days because the players have never been less qualified -- in terms of youth, inexperience and absence of fundamentals -- to play in the NBA. It used to be easier to pick the best players based on their four years of college. On the other hand, scouts today have more access to video than in previous generations.
On the whole, the NBA process bears more in common with baseball's draft than with the NFL's. Baseball operates a "futures" draft, and the NBA continues to move in that direction, which makes a hard job even harder for NBA scouts to rate the long-term potential of players who have a lot to learn.
I prefer to make All-Star selections based on the players' impact on winning games, but there are other points of view. Iverson is an authentic star who has sold a lot of tickets over the years. How many players in today's NBA actually sell tickets?
Iverson created deep feelings among his audience, which have not been forgotten in spite of his diminishing play. For more than a decade Iverson has developed a rapport with his fans, and they've clearly sympathized with him in his declining years. Maybe they think he's better than he really is, maybe they want to give him a proper send-off worthy of his career, maybe they couldn't think of anyone more compelling for whom to vote -- the details are incidental. All that matters in this case is that they went to the trouble of voting for him.
I am not in favor of eliminating or diminishing the election of All-Star starters by fans. The fans' vote is a referendum on stardom in the NBA, and that feedback becomes more important than ever as the league extends into new global markets. I've heard the complaints that Tracy McGrady this year and
When I went through my own All-Star ballot recently, I couldn't believe how star-poor the East has become. Many of the best players in the conference --
This election of Iverson is a self-fulfilling act. You can argue otherwise, but the fact that he received 1,269,568 votes is proof that Iverson is a star. Now that they've gone to the trouble of voting for him, he should respect their wishes and go to Dallas proudly.
I've pointed out before that
But the Harvard study points out that barefooted runners tend to land on the forward or middle part of the foot, which lessens the impact of each stride, while runners in sneakers strike the ground heel-first at a jarring impact of two to three times their body weight.
The next step is to investigate whether landing on a different part of the foot actually decreases injuries suffered by the runner. (It's important to note that the lab of one of the Harvard professors receives funding from Vibram, which manufactures glove-like shoes with minimal soles.)
I'm not trying to shoot down the sneaker companies. I don't think any player would give up a lush pair of well-cushioned Nikes, Adidases or Reeboks in order to return to the canvas sneakers of 50 years ago.
At the same time, I've often questioned how NBA players in
Look to Ron Artest as an example. Artest has hired a team of advisers -- led by agent David Bauman -- to provide expert advice and, ultimately, help keep him out of trouble. Artest may not understand why he gets in trouble, but he understands he needs help.
Arenas needs similar counsel. At 28, he is one of the league's most talented stars, and yet, he has played in only 47 games over three seasons. He is adrift. He needs help.
As they enter this decisive period, I recall a conversation in November with Gentry, who emphasized his close relationship with GM
"I think Steve would be the first to tell you he has learned so much over the last couple of years," Gentry said. "The thing I like about him is he's not afraid to say, 'I made a mistake,' or 'We should have done this,' or 'I wish I had this to do over again.' That's all you can ask your boss to do.
"And the thing I like about it is that everything that we do, he consults me on. He goes, 'Do you think this scout would fit on our team?' Or, 'Where do you see him fitting in if we get him?' That's all a coach could ever ask of a GM."
The high-risk moves of previous years -- the trade for Shaq, the replacement of coach
Gentry wasn't talking about possible trades for Stoudemire when we spoke in November, but his answer casts light on his perspective.
"The big thing about this time is I'm almost like an old fart," Gentry said. "I'm just going to do what I'm going to do and what I think is best to try to win. I don't have anything to prove to anybody. I really don't."
So, I answered, that makes you the NBA's version of
"I don't know if I want to be known as that," Gentry said, bursting in laughter. "I don't know if that's the analogy I really want. But, hey, I'll take it. I don't have anything to prove."