Playing the RFA Game Can Help Both Sides

Last night, we said the Hawks and Marvin Williams had a deal. This morning, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said close, but no cigar. The numbers are supposedly about the same as those in the DONE!!! report, but the sides are still staring at each other from across the proverbial table. ↵
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↵What got lost in my initial post, besides the fact that the deal hadn't been closed yet, was how strange it was that the Hawks continually allow their stud youngsters to test the waters of restricted free agency. Traditionally, if a player looks like a key part of the future, you lock him up the summer before, in advance of any team even getting a crack at his services. ↵
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↵The Hawks may be criticized for many things, including my perhaps too-easy "SF City" refrain. But in pushing things to restricted free agency, especially as teams are reluctant to throw around money, especially on works-in-progress, isn't this smart, not petty? ↵
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↵The truth is, whether through accident, demonic genius or good fortune, Atlanta RFAs Williams, Josh Smith and Josh Childress all have flashed their thighs at other teams with major questions about exactly how solid an investment they'd make. Conventional wisdom holds that, if a player has All-Star written all over him, you lock him up at the earliest possible date. That's why, for instance, Dwight Howard, Devin Harris, Kevin Martin and Al Jefferson never got this far. ↵
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↵But then there was that weird crew of Okafor, Gordon, Iguodala, Deng and the aforementioned Hawks. You could make a strong case for Okafor and Iguodala as overpaid in RFA, and Gordon getting more than his due in unrestricted free agency this summer. What do they have in common? They entered that crucial extension summer expecting franchise (or at least vital building block) money. Teams had reservations, but the echo stuck. ↵
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↵So when RFA time came around, their teams were shook, values tacitly set, and these players were regarded—almost prohibitively—as worth a lot. Their RFA period picked up where negotiations had broken down the preceding summer. And thus teams somehow found themselves worried that their peer organizations would pony up big bucks, even though no one did, and so in RFA considered it a victory if they talked down that extension offer. ↵
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↵As someone who sides with players, I should love this, yet I can't say I like any of these contracts. You almost wish that, instead of hanging onto the ghosts, hopes and fears (of exponential improvement) that dogged the preceding summer, teams had sat down and frankly said "okay, where are you now?" That's what the Hawks have done, and it's worked. Is that because it's increasingly a buyer's market? Perhaps, but also arguably a more fair one. ↵
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↵Instead of this being a case of those rascally Hawks denying Williams the open market, why not see it like this: no team knows him better than Atlanta. They know how good he could still become. They also know exactly where he is now and which limitations must be addressed. Williams can't fool them, and what's more, can't likely entice any other team, since potential isn't exactly en vogue these days. ↵
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↵Restricted free agency, then, becomes the ultimate tool of fairness for both sides. Premature extensions are panicky, silly and can lead to inflated contracts. Waiting till the RFA period means that, if both sides have an interest in continuing the relationship—which is what the league and fans should want, incidentally—they can sit down and negotiate. No looming dollar signs. No sense that, well, there's always cashing in a summer from now. ↵
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↵Rather than view matching offers as oppression, maybe we can start seeing it as a way that a player like Williams and his team can both get a fair shake. If extensions are overwrought and silly, and free agency becoming more and more just a question of who feels like paying, this phase of the contract might be the only point where two parties can sit down and come up with a fair figure—without any side having to feel exploited. ↵
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↵Bizarre, I know, but market value now seems to reside within this closed circuit, not in any kind of interdependent system or upon an open plane of exchange.
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↵For more NBA coverage, visit SportingNews.com's new NBA blog, The Baseline.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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