How NBA players can use the age minimum as a bargaining chip

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The owners took the players' lunch money in 2011. It's time to take a little of it back.

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NBA owners took players' lunch money in 2011. I'm not sure that was ever in question, but it's painfully obvious at this point that the players got shook down and took. In the eventual deal, players collectively gave up $270 million (and rising) in salary per year.

Very little of that is going to go back into the game. It's going primarily toward two things, depending on when a given owner bought into the NBA. For the few remaining old heads of the Board of Governors, that money is lining pockets. It's gravy. For the new money in the league, those savings are paying down the debt incurred from financing their ways into the NBA.

The insulting thing is that all of those savings come on top of the real prize of NBA ownership: the eventual cash-out of what is really an investment property. The Maloofs ran the Sacramento Kings into the ground and sold for $534 million. The Bucks are among the most destitute franchises in the league and sold for $550 million. Before the lockout deal, the Nets and Bobcats sold at discount rates, but they sold at profit to the previous owner. Now that all of the owners have a revenue gravy train in addition to the investment gravy train, values have exploded. We're talking about potentially $1 billion ... for the Clippers!

(The revenue gravy train, by the way, will only increase when the NBA's new TV deal hits soon. Teams currently get $30 million from the national TV contract. That could double. Half of the increase would go to players, and the other half would go into owners' pockets.)

But the players have a little bit of power because commissioner Adam Silver wants something badly. His top policy priority is increasing the age minimum to 20 years old. He wants to mandate that players have been out of high school for two years before entering the NBA. He needs the players' union's consent -- this is a collectively bargained policy. And from a financial standpoint, there's little reason for the union to fight it. A loss for young players is a gain for veterans. But not everything comes down to finances.

Here are the two reasons for the players to fight the age minimum:

1. The principle: Many of the league's best players came into the league fresh out of high school or as college freshmen. Robbing that option from the next generation is a bad look. Further, the age minimum itself is a failed policy. It should die, not be bolstered.

2. This is an opportunity for players to get back some of their lunch money.

If the owners really want to bump up the age minimum, what are they willing to give up? The revenue split -- which is the item that cost players all that money in 2011 -- isn't getting touched. (Maybe ever, let alone in a non-lockout situation.) The same applies to maximum contract lengths, salary cap and luxury tax rules, player movement and maximum contract values. Those ships have sailed.

But there's a policy directly tied to draft rules that the players could force into play: rookie contracts. Under the rookie scale, teams control player destinies for at least four years in a literal sense, and control really good players for seven years in a practical sense. No All-Star on a modern rookie deal has ever failed to sign an early extension. The incentives to do so are too strong.

If the NBA boosts the age minimum, the best players basically won't have the ability to choose their team until age 27. That's not really fair to the best players, is it? Here's what they can ask for: Make Year 3 of the rookie scale first-rounder contract guaranteed from the jump (it's currently a team option that is almost always picked up) and make Year 4 of the first-round rookie scale a team and player option.

Under the rookie scale, teams control player destinies for at least four years in a literal sense, and control really good players for seven years in a practical sense.

How it would work in action: After a first-round pick's second season ends, the team has until June 30 to decide whether to pick up the player's fourth season. If the team declines it, the player will become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. (This is the same as the current policy, except that teams currently have until the end of preseason.)

If the team does pick up the player's option, the player has until, say, July 15, to opt out of the fourth year of their rookie deal. They would remain on the team for the following third season regardless. But if they opt out, the player and team can negotiate a second contract to begin a year later. The current rules on early extensions apply: a minimum of three guaranteed years and salary limits that result in contracts maxing out at around $15 million a year. But, if they so choose, players can get to that point one year early.

If the player doesn't want to negotiate that deal one year early, then they opt in and things proceed just as they do these days. If a player opts out and no extension deal is reached by the end of October, the player becomes a restricted free agent after his third season (provided the team extends a qualifying offer).

Basically, it speeds up the process of getting paid for the best young players (who are currently the best deals in the NBA) and it offsets the extra year without player choice that the boosted age minimum creates. Owners will not be a fan of the idea. But let's find out how badly they want to increase the age minimum.

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