The Lockout is Over…what does it mean?
7:00 AM EST on December 7, 2011
After the least damaging "nuclear winter" ever, there will be a--short--NBA season. Since June, the only question being asked by most Thunder fans was some variation of "are they going to play this season?" After the situation was amicably resolved at the point of no hope, the conversation has shifted to how the new dawn of the league will affect Oklahoma City.
Okay, that isn't really happening, but it should. I'll start out with the good news:
Money, Money, Money
One of the primary objectives of ownership in the collective bargaining negotiations was to create a system that invited league parity. In layman terms, they want everyone to have an equal opportunity to win the NBA Championship. This has not been the case over the past...history of the league. Unless Michael Jordan was playing the the Bulls, either the Celtics or Lakers have won just about every year.
The way to achieve parity apparently comes down to making the individual ownership groups more profitable. And since most of the money earned by the league goes to Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Chicago, and New York, the way to make the smaller market teams have better looking financial statements is to make the big markets share.
As one of the smallest cities with a team, the Thunder are going to be the recipient of that sweet shared revenue. Theoretically, that means they can take the infused money, increase team payroll, and start being a player in free agency.
Don't count on it. Thunder ownership is rooted in the kind of fiscal responsibility that, if the other 29 teams practiced, would have helped to avoid labor disruption in the first place. What it will mean, however, is that when the current roster becomes more expensive, the Thunder can hopefully use those extra checks from the Knicks and Bulls to keep Serge Ibaka and James Harden from jumping to richer teams. Speaking of which...
Keeping Players in Town
After LeBron James and Chris Bosh exercised their rights to choose which team they played for, the lockout became less about money and more about keeping franchises from losing their cornerstones. Unable to undo the legacy of Curt Flood the NBA had to settle for giving extra incentives for players to not leave.
This has technically been the case since the "Larry Bird Exception" was created as an exception to the salary cap. The new CBA, however, takes the Bird Rule and cranks it up to eleven. Now, players whose service is still desired by their current team will have to be willing to take far less money in order to get new scenery. Ownership was able to eliminate loopholes used by James, Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony to get the benefits of the Bird rule and still switch teams.
Again, this bodes well for Oklahoma City's hopes of keeping Harden and Ibaka. If other teams want to bid up their services, they will not be able to offer more years or dollars than the Thunder.
Of course, there was also plenty of bad news from the new agreement:
The primary rule changes that will benefit the Thunder will not take hold until the third year of the collective bargaining agreement. That means the Lakers of the world have two more years to try to take advantage of their geography. Want to make a guess of whether the team will need to lock up Harden and Ibaka before that window ends?
Sam Presti, the Thunder team president, is infamous for never making a bad contract decision. He knows that small market teams can be torpedoed by a single awful decision, and as a result, he has been rational while all of his contemporaries made high dollar gambles. Being shrewd gave Oklahoma City a major advantage, but the new CBA gave each team a "get out of jail free" card.
With the amnesty provision, every team can cut a player that is on their roster right now and the contract comes off of their salary cap and does not count toward the luxury tax threshold. That means a team like Portland who gave an $84 million contract to a player (Brandon Roy) they knew had bad knees can waive said player and suffer no consequences. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has no need or desire to use this option. But for a team that got a leg up by watching everyone else shoot themselves in the foot, it stings to watch them waive a magic wand to heal the wound.
Under the old CBA, the maximum size of contract a player could sign was determined by two things: the number of years he had played in the league and the willingness of his team to give him that money. By those rules, Kevin Durant was limited to 25% of the cap--approximately $13MM in the first year of his deal. If he had been in the league more than six years, it would have been 30% or $16MM. However, that contract he signed does not take effect until this season starts, and the language in his contract says he gets the max, not $13MM.
The new CBA gives certain players a shortcut to the max-plus. Winning MVP, starting multiple all star games, or being named to an "all NBA" team in multiple seasons makes a player eligible. Durant qualifies. That means he just got a $3MM raise that takes effect right now. This wipes out just about all of the cap space the Thunder had to use this season.
Even worse, Russell Westbrook is in line for a contract extension and word is the Thunder are not going to hesitate to give him a max contract as befits a three year pro who has already made an all-star roster and been named second team All-NBA. Yeah, that's right, he's already half way to getting that max-plus eligibility. So, for everyone who was concerned that the Honey Badger was overly concerned with his own stats last season, he now has about $12MM reason ($3MM/year bump for each of a four year extension) to get named all-NBA again.
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