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Shoals Unlimited: Spreading the NBA's Wealth

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Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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The NBA Players Association looks out for its own. Not as much as the baseball's union, but in ways the NFL's could only dream of. That is, unless your name is LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Deron Williams or any other young superstar sure to fetch max money. ↵

↵It's an agent's job to try and get the best deal possible for his client, and the right of every player to take what the open market will pay him. There's no presumption of fairness; the player and his representatives are out to get overpaid, while the team wants a bargain. That's where negotiations, and the leverage provided by other parties' interest (or lack thereof) enters the picture. ↵

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↵Not so for the league's franchise players. There's a limit on how much they can make; testing the water only makes sense if they're interested in a change of scenery. The max deal writes itself, and if the player goes with length, he's tied to a team that in the meantime, is free to make horrible financial decisions -- overpaying lesser players, for instance -- while retaining his peerless services. For the best players, the ones who win championships, there is no leverage, or promise of accountability. The open market hurts superstars. ↵

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↵The players listed above have managed to launch a small-scale revolution in the economics of the NBA. Opting for so-called "mini-maxes," James, Paul, Williams, Wade, and Chris Bosh effectively blackmail the team. They can always choose to stick around if things are going well -- if the team's making good decisions -- but at the same time, they retain the freedom to leave well ahead of schedule. They may not be able to bargain for higher salaries, but they can keep themselves from falling victim to their peers who, quite understandably, do. ↵

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↵This is an important first step in protecting superstars -- and fans -- from other players' self-interest and irresponsible front offices. But the ideal way of mandating responsible spending would be to, in essence, set up a salary system that cut out negotiations, something like rookie contracts or government scale. Say, for instance, the following contracts were available: ↵

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↵-- $1 million per year
↵-- $4 million per year
↵-- $8 million per year
↵-- $12 million per year
↵-- $16 million per year
↵-- $20 million per year
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↵These may seem like arbitrary figures. But so does the amount attached to "veteran's minimum," "mid-level exception," or, of course, "maximum contract." Except that we have an idea of what kind of player goes with each of these labels. These distinctions are both qualitative and quantitative. The numbers would add up such that, under the current cap, each team had an appropriate distribution of talent; however, nothing would stop them from blowing it all on three max deals. What's important, though, is that rather the quibbling or playing hardball, the value of a player would be a function of his importance. ↵

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↵Take Ben Gordon, whose contract is a source of endless debate. Under this system, he'd be either an 8 or a 12. The hard and fast division actually simplifies the process of free agency; if a team thinks you're a 12, go there. If not, accept being an 8. If there's no way to meet in the middle, a wide gulf adds clarity instead of setting off several years of uncertainty. ↵

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↵Of course, part and parcel with this system is the right of a player to earn a higher contract. That's why, just as James or Wade signs a three-year deal to maximize his flexibility, lesser guys would, say, accept shorter deals so that they could advance their "rank." Three years guaranteed followed by some combination of options would give them the opportunity to make a leap in pay grade. At the same time, a team option would correct for overpaid players sooner. ↵

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↵But this proposed system isn't just about keeping LeBron happy, or teams more fiscally responsible. It would also foster increased player movement and parity; you wouldn't see the likes of the Pistons, where a sub-dynasty was kept intact for years under cheap contracts. But at the same time, a reasonable amount of the core could be retained. And ultimately, a moderate redistribution of talent would still leave room for smart signings, players with incentive to give it their all, and three-year windows of success. ↵

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↵What we'd be missing would be those ruts. The ones that keep the powerful in place, and those that keep the lousy at the bottom of the standings (barring a genius GM and/or lottery jackpot). This isn't socialism, it's just about giving every team a fighting chance -- and preventing them from getting distracted by some of the league's bad habits. ↵

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↵(Thanks to Ziller for the assist on the CBA stuff.) ↵ ↵

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