Cleaning House

NBA teams now have incentive to dump overpaid players--and those guys can make even more elsewhere. Got it? Your guide to the league's new rules
July 10, 2005

It's summertime, but the living shouldn't be this easy for the Los Angeles Lakers' Brian Grant. One of three players the team received when Shaquille O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat last year, the 33-year-old forward, like Shaq before him, established himself as one of the more charitable and civic-minded Lakers. Alas, the similarities to the Big Philanthropist end there. Grant suffered through the worst of his 11 NBA seasons, finishing with career-low averages in scoring (3.8 points) and rebounds (3.7). Now there are reports that the Lakers want to cut him.

Yet all is swell for Grant, who told the Riverside, Calif., Press Enterprise last week, "If they wanted to release me I can't be upset." Perhaps it's because he knows there are untold riches buried in the fine print of the league's new collective bargaining agreement. Under the new "amnesty rule," designed to help high-payroll teams get rid of their overpaid underachievers and lower their luxury tax, Grant will collect the $30 million he's owed for the final two years of his contract if the Lakers place him on waivers this summer. He'll also be free to sign a separate deal with another team this season.

Making $15 million a year to shoot hoops: Pretty sweet deal. Getting paid by two teams after a disastrous season: Priceless. Welcome to the new NBA, where players may soon double-dip as often as they double-team, and the gap between contenders and also-rans may widen. The ink isn't dry on the CBA (it's expected to be ratified and published later this month), and you'd have to be a lawyer, a salary cap wonk or a shut-in to make your way through it, but this is all you need to know: The NBA is getting a little nuttier.

Gone with much fanfare, for example, are the days of phenoms jumping from high school to the NBA; the new CBA bars American players from the league until a year after their high school classes graduate and ups the minimum age from 18 to 19. The rule is supposed to protect American youth from exposure to pine--and help raise the profile of the NBA's Development League, which lowered its minimum age from 20 to 18. Teams can now send two young players down to the D league for seasoning, giving the NBA a version of baseball's farm system. But apart from throwing a bone to college basketball, the league's real farm system, what has the NBA accomplished by stiff-arming teenage prospects? One year won't make a meaningful difference in the maturity of NBA rookies.

The chief effect of the age rule could be to sap the NBA of some of its international flavor. Precocious Europeans, South Americans and Asians who also must now be 19, might think twice about giving up their careers back home just to play for the Fayetteville Patriots or the Roanoke Dazzle.

If they do join the D league, the next Manu Ginobilis and Dirk Nowitzkis will witness a bizarre twist on the American dream. The amnesty rule is a rare chance for teams to be rewarded for getting rid of their junk. They can cut players like Grant (the option can be exercised once per club), though they'll still be liable for those salaries and the move won't create salary cap space. But it will give teams relief from the luxury tax, a dollar-for-dollar tariff on the amount by which clubs exceed the luxury tax threshold.

By cutting Grant the Lakers, who paid $4 million in luxury tax last year, would trim their bill by some $30 million over the next two years. If the New York Knicks ($33 million tax bill last year) exercise their amnesty option on chronically injured guard Allan Houston, as they're rumored to be considering, they'll save $40 million. Other potential cuts include Dallas Mavericks guard Michael Finley (who has $52 million remaining over three years) and the Orlando Magic's Doug Christie (owed $8.2 million for next season).

Any hurt feelings those players have will probably be quickly salved. At least a half-dozen teams are expected to line up for Finley and offer him the midlevel exception, worth around $5 million a year. (Which means his income would rise from $15 million to $20 million this season. Not bad for someone whose scoring average has declined six years running.) Teams that are already contenders (Miami, Phoenix, San Antonio) will be the likeliest destinations for amnesty guys, who might accept a smaller paycheck for a chance at a ring.

So, the rich get richer: Talent-laden teams can add missing pieces. And a rule meant to save owners cash will help subpar players buy that fifth SUV or third summer home. It may be harder for young guys to break into the NBA, but deals like this are worth waiting for.

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After pushing his friend to safety, the Cal lineman was run over twice. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 30

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG

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