By Ian Thomsen
January 29, 2010

It's not all about this free-agent class. All we've been hearing about is the importance of the coming summer, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson will be on the market.

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 Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who are their second- and third-most-expensive players with current salaries of $16.5 million and $12.5 million, respectively. And even their disposal wouldn't be enough: The Lakers would need to slash another $4.8 million to climb under the hard cap. (Goodbye, Luke Walton.)

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."

The conversion is already beginning. GMs have been outspoken about the impact of declining league revenues, which have shrunk the salary cap and left teams like the Knicks with less room under the cap to offer free agents such as James or Wade this summer.

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 Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Rudy Gay? If you're a team owner who views a hard cap in 2011 as your salvation, are you going to risk an eight-figure salary on a player who isn't likely to carry your team to the championship? If a hard cap is the new reality, then everyone in the league will be taking a new view of player salaries.

"I want to be careful about calling this collusion, because that's illegal," said agent David Bauman, who represents Ron Artest and other players. "But I do think it's being strongly suggested to teams that they should not give out long-term deals because the next CBA is going to look drastically different.''

A prominent example is offered by the case of Jermaine O'Neal, who, in 2003, signed a seven-year, $127 million contract to remain with the Pacers. At that time, the 6-foot-11 O'Neal was a 25-year-old who had played in two All-Star Games and had averaged 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 2002-03. Signing him to that contract was a no-brainer at the time.

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."

We'll see the first influences of the new reality at the trading deadline. While some teams will stay away from making long-term player investments in these uncertain times, other owners will try to exploit it. "There are still two titles to be won [before 2011-12], and certain teams will throw caution to the wind to win them," a team executive said. "If you're the Celtics, are you going to worry about your future? What you're probably going to focus on is the here and now."

That's why the Celtics made a run last month at acquiring Kirk Hinrich, who has three years (including this season) and $26.5 million left on his contract, an outlandish amount for someone who would be Boston's third guard. But he would have resolved all of Boston's backcourt issues while extending its defense, and so the Celtics considered offering spare parts for Hinrich before the Bulls decided they needed a high-quality player or draft pick in the exchange.

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 Mark] Cuban and [Cavaliers owner Dan] Gilbert," a GM said.

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 Antawn Jamison, a complementary All-Star-level scorer and rebounder who would space the floor for Shaquille O'Neal and make Cleveland the prohibitive favorite in the East. A package of Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract, young power forward J.J. Hickson, draft picks and $3 million might get it done, but I'm told the Cavs have been reticent -- not so much because Jamison has $40 million over three years left, but more so because they don't want to lose Ilgauskas and his ability to match up with Pau Gasol in a potential NBA Finals against the Lakers.

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 Tracy McGrady, Stoudemire or even Bosh might be more valuable in the current market. If the underachieving Wizards are looking to slash payroll and start anew, then a simple move would be to package Jamison and Caron Butler to Houston for McGrady and other considerations -- which would provide the Rockets with two stars while netting Washington with $22.5 million in relief when McGrady's contract expires this summer.

With so many teams offering expiring deals or highly valuable players (like Jamison, Butler or Detroit's Richard Hamilton) who have multiple years on their contracts, it will be interesting to see if the Bulls will be forced to renew negotiations with Boston in order to unload Hinrich's money at the trade deadline.

Other options. Agent Bill Duffy is among those who believes the NBA won't be able to install a hard cap in 2011-12. "I've heard all of that [speculation]," said Duffy, who represents Yao Ming, Steve Nash and other stars. "If the league tries to go too far with this, then my prediction is the union will disband. If the league is going to try to force a hard cap down the players' throat, then they'll disband the union and file antitrust [lawsuits] against the league."

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 Gilbert Arenas brings guns into the locker room, he hurts all of them.

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."

Buyouts. "This might be one of the greatest buyout seasons ever," another GM said. "Think about your savings: You have a $10 million player, and you save $800,000 by buying him out so he can go play for a contender. That $800,000 is going to mean a lot to teams these days, especially if you're paying a luxury tax on that guy."

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.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

Wouldn't you think Seattle would be the perfect place to move the Clippers? They would be the only men's pro basketball team in town and wouldn't have to share space with the Lakers anymore. They are an established young team and can grow within the Seattle market.-- Steven Brown, Tulsa, Okla.

For decades people have dreamed of Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling selling his team, but that isn't going to happen. He isn't going to move the Clippers, either.

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.

How do you know that fewer games in an NBA season would produce less revenue? I maintain that with fewer games there would be more "big games." There would also be fewer injured stars, the anchors of today's NBA. Just imagine what the ratings would be if the Lakers had their team decimated by injuries as the Warriors and Blazers have this season. Wouldn't the TV ratings go up with fewer games and produce more revenue from the networks? It's the old supply-and-demand deal.-- Gary, Katy, Texas

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 Michael Jordan win every year; LeBron may yet reincarnate those kinds of feelings).

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.

You questioned how the Grizzlies could pick Hasheem Thabeet over Tyreke Evans. But didn't you advocate picking Thabeet over Evans in your last mock draft as well? Maybe I am misremembering -- if so, sorry for the call-out -- but I don't remember you being all that high on Tyreke, either.-- Dave Bristol, Trumansburg, N.Y.

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?

Last year, the pundits were saying that there was only one surefire starter in the draft and he might not be good enough to become a star. That was Blake Griffin. Now take a look at how the rookie class has performed. The scouts were simply wrong. They missed very badly on players like Brandon Jennings, DeJuan Blair and Chase Budinger. In fact, they got it wrong more than they got it right. So what do they know?-- David Small, Houston

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.

Allen Iverson voted to the All-Star team. So the fans honored Iverson, despite his eviction from Memphis and his 14.5 scoring average in 20 games with Philadelphia. My response is they had every right.

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? Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and a few others -- a very short list of players who have the charisma to create box-office success. As well as Joe Johnson has been playing, it's not like he has been drawing in hordes of fans at home or on the road.

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 Yi Jianlian last year were very nearly elected as All-Stars based on their popularity in China. My response is that popularity is never a bad thing for any league. The Chinese fans are voting for their favorite players, and other groups of fans are entitled to do the same thing.

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 -- JoshSmith, Al Horford, Gerald Wallace -- have played well enough to belong in the All-Star Game, but are they truly stars?

Larry Bird wasn't among the 12 most productive American players when he was named to the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics, yet he deserved to be there. A lot of fans feel the same way about Iverson as an All-Star this year.

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.

Researchers claim sneakers cause injuries. A provocative Harvard study has found that people who run barefoot avoid jarring impact and, therefore, may suffer fewer injuries than people who run in well-cushioned shoes.

I've pointed out before that Red Auerbach used to say that the growth of sneakers led to more injuries in the NBA. This is a counterintuitive suggestion, because you would think that the improved cushioning and support of modern sneakers would protect athletes.

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 Bill Russell's day ran the court in thin-soled Chuck Taylors without suffering injuries -- if those players didn't put themselves in high-risk positions because landing hard on the floor would hurt their feet. Now, this Harvard study raises the possibility that players of previous eras may have avoided injury to knees because their shoes provided so little protection.

Gilbert Arenas suspended for the rest of the season. Arenas needs an agent, for starters.

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.

From an Eastern conference executive: "People are finally coming around on [GM] Chris Wallace now that Memphis is playing so well. You don't hear a lot of people talking about that Pau Gasol trade anymore, do you? People will say that trade helped the Lakers win a championship, and they're right. But Gasol was never going to take Memphis past the first round as their best player. Now they have a good young team, and it's starting to make sense for them."

From an NBA players' agent: "In the perfect world, according to David Stern, he wants a blue book of basketball players. He wants every GM to open up the blue book and if you're looking for a power forward [who is] 6-9 and 260 pounds, a guy who averages 10 points and nine rebounds, the blue-book value on that guys is $2.9 million. He wants to set a value on the players and he doesn't want to have agents involved in the process, because when you have an agent negotiating the value of the player, then the value is going to go up. That's what good negotiators do: They raise the value."

With Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry: Should the Suns move Amar'e Stoudemire before the Feb. 18 trade deadline? Stoudemire provides their lone inside presence, but he can become a free agent this summer and the Suns have gone 13-18 since a 14-3 start.

As they enter this decisive period, I recall a conversation in November with Gentry, who emphasized his close relationship with GM Steve Kerr.

"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 Mike D'Antoni with Terry Porter, who lasted a half-season before Gentry took over -- have provided Kerr with the experiences needed to make a decision on Stoudemire over the next month. He will do so with advice from Gentry, who has a different perspective than he might have had during previous runs as coach of Miami, Detroit and the Clippers.

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 Dick Cheney -- a senior official without higher aspirations.

"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."

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