The Washington Post's Tim Bontemps put together a tidy package of flashpoints in upcoming NBA labor negotiations, issues that could be so divisive they could spark another season-damaging lockout. We'll talk more about the Lockout Warning Level as summer wears on, but one item in particular piqued my interest and is worth exploring: the franchise tag.
The franchise tag is an NFL artifact that, essentially, allows a team to lock up its very best unrestricted free agent for another year by preventing him from negotiating with other teams. In many cases, this franchise tag results in said player agreeing to a long-term deal with the team that holds the franchise tag. It's yet another way NFL teams control players with the purse strings and put the lie to the idea of free agency.
Here's Bontemps on the budding idea of adding something similar in the NBA.
One of those elements to be re-examined will likely be the proposal of an NFL-style franchise tag, an idea tossed out by several executives in Las Vegas this week. If the Thunder had the option to retain [Kevin] Durant with such a designation, he would have been prevented from leaving via free agency. Similarly, if it existed now, the Thunder would have the option to use it on Russell Westbrook after next season.
Kevin Durant spent the first nine seasons of his professional career with the Thunder franchise (one year in Seattle, eight in Oklahoma City). If the Thunder keep Westbrook this season, he'll have spent nine seasons in OKC. LeBron James, who introduced the world (with his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) to the mini-max extension, stayed in Cleveland seven years on his first tour of duty. DeMarcus Cousins is entering Year 7 in Sacramento. Because of the existence of restricted free agency and the low rookie scale, NBA teams can already essentially lock up their best drafted players for seven to nine years.
And NBA owners want more guaranteed time to win with them?
This is one of the most obvious contradictions of the NBA's posturing with regards to contract length over the past 18 years of labor struggles. Teams want the ability to lock up the best players for their entire careers while dropping the maximum contract term as low as possible. Teams want control over the best players but don't want to commit to paying anyone more than five years out. This is why restricted free agency is so perfect for NBA teams: it creates control without commitment. The franchise tag would do the exact same.
Shouldn't the very best basketball players in the world actually have a choice as to where they work at some point in their careers? Didn't we litigate this in the 1970s? Have we forgotten Curt Flood already? The league has some brilliant minds, and they can sculpt this pitch into something like empathy for the poor small market teams struggling to keep their stars, struggling to keep up with the nouveau glamour teams of the NBA. Don't buy it. It's a retrograde move for further control over the free movement of young millionaires.
As important as the principle are the knock-on effects. Every major issue in labor negotiations will be divisive; lawyers and spokespeople never have any problem turning somewhat arcane clauses into conflagrations when millions are at stake. But the franchise tag idea could be particularly flammable. It's a clear non-starter for players, who continue to push for more control (even at the potential loss of money). But it's just sane-sounding enough for the owners to include it in their packages of asks, which will piss off the players' union to no end. It can be an actual chip to barter with in negotiations, despite its regressive nature.
Now imagine the owners actually get a franchise tag. Star players and the league actually enjoy good relations right now. Outside of the regular work stoppages created wholly by owners, the labor and the management actually get along. This has been doubly so during Adam Silver's tenure, fueled by a) the fact that he's not David Stern and b) his work on the Donald Sterling issue.
Pushing through a franchise tag would destroy those good vibes, and throw an annual firebomb on the broader relationship between players and management. The NBA's contract standoffs now are limited to mid-tier restricted free agents like Tristan Thompson and Greg Monroe and mid-tier veterans like J.R. Smith. No one outside the people involved and the fans of one team actually pay attention to these standoffs.
Now put Kevin Durant in very public, very high-profile contract battles with the darling Thunder and see what happens. It's a recipe for bad vibes, hurt feelings and anger. It's not worth it.
The NBA won't abandon its push for the franchise tag, because (per usual) management is in clear control in labor negotiations. That was proven in 1995, in 1998, in 2005 and in 2011. That will probably never change. But for the sake of the league, let's hope the franchise tag idea dies an unceremonious death, never to be heard from again.
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