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01-23-2004, 01:15 PM
Slowing youth movement seen as key issue

In the 1980s, Stern turned a struggling league with a small fan base, tape-delayed Finals and serious image problem into one of great success stories of the past two decades.

Stern had help, of course, from guys named Magic, Bird and MJ. Since Michael Jordan & Co. retired, though, Stern has been on his own, and the league has experienced a small swoon. Attendance is down, complaints about the quality of the game are up. The league has been inundated with unknown, unprepared teenagers looking for a quick buck. Scoring is down. Salaries, despite a restrictive cap, are up. You have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company just to afford four tickets in the lower bowl.

As Stern begins his third decade as NBA commish, the folks he works for -- the GMs and owners of the 29 NBA teams -- have their own to-do list of things they want Stern to address.

At issue? The product the NBA puts on the floor. Arenas have never been more sophisticated. Retro jerseys have never been cooler. The league, thanks to ESPN, TNT, ABC and the league's own NBA TV, has never been more accessible. The product has never been better marketed. But what about the game itself? Does it live up to the hype?

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires June 30, 2005. The last time the CBA expired, it took a nasty lockout to get the sides to agree on a number of restrictive rules aimed at reining in the league's out-of-control spending. Neither the owners nor the players are completely happy with the result. Can Stern convince the Players Association to tweak the CBA enough to make the actual game more enjoyable?

Insider talked to several NBA GMs to get their take on what issues should be at the top of Stern's agenda this year. Not surprisingly, curbing the flood of young teenagers into the league is at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Start checking IDs

The NBA doesn't seem quite as "Fan-tastic" as it did a few years ago. Can Stern reverse the trend?
The problem, to everyone, seems very clear. "We're getting too young," one GM told Insider. "And it's hurting the quality of play on the floor. There was a time when teams focused solely on winning a championship. ... Our time is not equally divided developing talent anymore. That directly affects the product on the floor, and it's got to change."

Says another GM: "The flood of teenagers into the league is hurting the college game and the NBA game. We had a great farm system in college and Europe, and we're losing it quickly. I'm not sure we can go back, but something has to be done."

Wait a minute. Isn't LeBron James, a kid who just turned 19, turning the league upside down right now?

"LeBron is a one-in-a-million type player," another GM said. "He hurts our ability to curb the flood of teenage immigrants into the league. Now everyone says, 'If he can do it, why can't I?' The answer is that he can do things that no else can. He's not like any other teenager I've ever seen."

While GMs agree on the problem, the solution is much murkier.

Stern has been on record for the past several years favoring a minimum age of 20 years to play in the league. Most GMs aren't in favor of a hard-and-fast age limit, and many believe it wouldn't stand up to a legal challenge. Instead, the GMs Insider spoke with want the league to set up system that allows teams to develop young talent. Several years ago, Stern began the NBDL, an NBA-owned minor league system that was supposed to develop young talent not quite ready for the NBA, but the GMs Insider talked to all called it "irrelevant" to their current predicament.

GMs also want to firm up the rookie wage scale rules. Stern fought hard for a rookie scale in the last CBA, arguing it would discourage kids from leaving school early for the NBA. In many ways, the solution backfired. Young players felt the need to declare for the draft sooner so they could start the clock ticking on their rookie contract sooner and, ultimately, qualify for free agency and its potential big payday sooner. GMs feel it's time to close the loopholes there, as well.


Develop a real minor league system

Every GM polled was in favor of some system that allows teams to send young players to a farm team to gain experience. While most agreed that a 29-team minor league system modeled after Major League Baseball wasn't financially feasible, a reworking of the NBDL could help solve the problem. Currently, players under NBA contract are not allowed to play in the NBDL. Many GMs support a system in which each NBDL team serves as a farm team for four NBA teams.

# Each NBA team would send three young players to the NBDL team, along with an assistant coach to monitor the players' development.
# If the player was a first-round pick, he'd continue to be paid at the rookie wage scale. If the player was a second-round pick or free agent, he would have a split contract that paid him different amounts depending on whether he was in the NBA or NBDL.
# Players with more than three years' experience under the NBA umbrella couldn't be assigned to the NBDL but could accept such an assignment at their choosing.
# Teams retain the rights to all of their players and could recall them at any time.

No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic can't get off the bench in Detroit. Is practice enough?
How would that make a difference? "Can you imagine how much quicker a player like Darko Milicic, Jonathan Bender, Kwame Brown or DeSagna Diop would have developed given playing time?" one GM asked. "It's no big deal when a college senior sits for a season; he's already had four years of big-time basketball under his belt. But it kills a kid who came straight from high school. We can teach, practice and spell it out to kids all we want, but what they really need is experience. Too many kids sit and watch and never play. It really retards their development."

Another GM says it also would help coaches and GMs get a better feel for their second-round picks. "We have guys sitting on the bench that we just don't know about. We're winning, so they can't really play. When it comes time to pay them, no one's sure what we've really got. A minor league would go a long way toward helping us get a better feel."

While GMs said they expected some objection from the Players' Association on such a proposal, most were confident the NBPA would go along, as long as the players' pay wasn't affected and veterans weren't forced to participate.

Restructure the rookie contract scale

GMs think the league can do a better job of encouraging young players to stay in school or with their international teams. Currently, first-round picks get a three-year, guaranteed contract with a fourth year at the team's option. That means first-round picks can't cash in on a big payday until after their fourth year in the league.

GMs would like to see the number of years a player plays under the rookie wage scale tied to their experience in college or overseas. Players who come to the NBA directly from high school would be under the rookie wage scale for six years. College freshmen would be under it for five years, sophomores for four and juniors for three. Players who play four years of college ball would be locked in for only two years before being eligible to negotiate a market-level deal. International players would be governed by something similar, likely based on age.

Such a change takes away any penalty a player suffers from staying in school. For the kids who decide to forgo college anyway, the rule gives NBA teams more time to develop and evaluate them before having to commit millions of dollars long-term.

Stern can expect a fight from the Players' Association over such a move, but all the GMs Insider polled felt such a rule was crucial to stemming the tide of teenagers infesting the league.

Take some of the guarantees out of contracts

Every GM Insider talked to is praying Stern addresses the length of guaranteed contracts a player is allowed to receive. Currently, free agents are allowed to sign six- or seven-year guaranteed contracts (depending on whether they are signing with a new team or re-signing with their old team). That's an awfully long time for a team to commit to anyone.

"I'm not sure where the seven-year thing came from," one GM said. "I think it's pretty ridiculous. In other sports like the NFL, contracts aren't guaranteed, period. I don't think we'd ever get to that point in the NBA, but six and seven years is too long. Situations change. Injuries happen. The economy fluctuates. Meanwhile these contracts are going up at a rate that is triple that of inflation each year. It doesn't make any economic sense. It's an Adam Smith world. Our hands are forced right now. I just wish the long-term ramifications weren't as long."

Expect this issue to be one of the central bargaining points in the new CBA. GMs are pushing for a maximum contract length of three to four years. While that minimizes the risk for teams if a player were to get injured or flop, shorter contracts can also work out for the benefit of a player.

"If a guy signs a contract for a low amount and then blows up, he's stuck," one NBA agent said. "The move allows them [players] to revisit their contract situation earlier. In the end, I'm not sure who wins here. The owners will save some money on guys who will flop. But they'll also have to pay out a lot more cash to guys who play well. My guess is that there's no net increase on either side. With that said, I can tell you right now that players like the security."

GMs know that to get a change of this magnitude, the teams will have to give up something in the bargaining process. But management believes the flexibility it would gain is priceless.

Open the trade floodgates

Trades are good for teams and good for the fans. That's the message Insider got from several GMs. So why, they ask, has the CBA made it so difficult to trade players?

GMs have grown weary of the rules that require salaries of players being traded be within 15 percent of each other. The rule has the unintentional side effect of turning simple trades into multi-team monsters, with many players moving to teams that don't necessarily want them. GMs also are sick of archaic rules like base-year compensation and the poison-pill provision that make it virtually impossible to trade players who have recently signed big contracts.

"Trades are exciting for fans, and they're the best way for a team to remake a struggling franchise," one GM said. "But right now the rules make it virtually impossible. We've had big trades fall apart because we didn't have another minimum player salary to include in the deal. I don't know why the league doesn't just dump the rules and let us decide which trades make the most sense for our own franchises."

Trade and salary-cap rules are supposed to rein in free-spending owners like Mark Cuban.
We know why. The trade rules were put in place to prevent teams from circumventing the salary cap. If a team could trade 10 low priced players for 10 high priced ones, the disparity between payrolls could quickly get out of control.

Surprisingly, no one Insider talked to is worried about that. They believe the luxury tax is a big enough deterrent to stop most teams from loading up with unbalanced trades. But what about teams like the Mavericks, Knicks and Blazers who in the past have ignored the tax?

"How many championships have those teams won?" one GM of a small-market team asked. "I think you can buy a good NBA team, but you can't buy a championship. There are just too many factors. An owner can have only 15 players on his roster. Eventually the well dries up. If they can afford it, let them. The amount of tax they pay eventually gets back to the small-market teams, giving us more flexibility to make our own big signings."

What GMs are more concerned about is teams that aren't willing to spend at all. "It wasn't the teams that were overspending that caused a problem in baseball; it was the teams that were always slashing payroll," one GM explained. "As long as everyone's in it to win, I don't have a problem with some teams being able to get around the cap with trades. The teams that are under the cap then have the advantage on free agents."

Flexibility is good

Everyone makes mistakes. But mistakes in the NBA can be especially costly. Whether a GM overpaid an unproven free agent, or a tragic injury sidelined a key player, or a team just misjudged a guy's talent, one thing is pretty clear -- there is little margin for error in the NBA these days.

With a hard cap, strict rules on trades and free-agent signings, the looming luxury tax and little financial relief for teams that slip up, one bad move can haunt a franchise for years.

The Magic didn't exactly get the bang for their buck they were hoping for with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill.
Several GMs have been quietly petitioning the league for a change in the CBA that essentially would allow franchises to recover more quickly when they make a catastrophic mistake.

Nicknamed the "My-Bad Rule" by one GM, the change would allow teams essentially to waive one bad contract a year from its books. While the team would still be on the hook for the money owed the player, the "My-Bad Rule" would erase that salary from the cap and luxury-tax calculations.

Not every GM is in favor of the rule. Some claim their owners would never go for it, because of the increased financial burdens. If a team was allowed to waive a player like Grant Hill, there would be pressure to sign an expensive replacement. Such a rule could cost owners millions of extra dollars every year.

It's also pretty unlikely David Stern will go for the rule -- it essentially blows a pretty major loophole in the salary cap -- but if you're a fan of a team handcuffed by a bad deal, it would be manna from heaven.

Take a look at some of the worst teams in the league and you'll start to understand why the rule might not be such a bad idea:

Magic: Grant Hill is collecting $13.3 million this year for wearing a foot cast.
Cavs: You think Jim Paxson wouldn't like to erase that $13 million, five-year deal he gave Ira Newble?
Hawks: Alan Henderson (six games, 11.3 minutes per) is taking home $7.7 million this year.
Heat: Eddie Jones and Brian Grant are making a combined $24.3 million this season. That's more than half the Heat's $46 million payroll.
Bulls: The Bulls finally got rid of Jalen Rose, but now they're already talking about ways to get Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Eddie Robinson's ridiculous deals off the books.
Knicks: Where do we start? Houston, Van Horn, Hardaway, Anderson ...
Celtics: Vin Baker ain't worth $13.5 million. Ditto for Raef LaFrentz.

Can the Commish get it done?

Those four items aren't the only things on GMs' minds, but they were pretty universal. Other executives are concerned about the challenges of small-market owners. Others believe there is too big a gap between single-digit owners (those who bought their teams years ago for less than $10 million) and triple-digit owners (those who paid more than $100 million).

Economics still rule, and every GM reluctantly admitted his job was about more than winning a championship -- it's also about making an NBA team into a real business. That ultimately works against some, but not all, of the items GMs would like to see changed.

Stern has gone out of his way to protect owners from their worst enemy -- themselves -- and he's been enormously successful. Is there a way to maintain the league's fiscal responsibility while addressing the concerns?

"If anyone can do it, it's David," one GM said. "He listens and always has the big picture in view. I think he has literally saved the NBA and feel great about his ability to lead us into the future. With that said, we've got to find a better way to let us do our job. The handcuffs are too tight, and it's hurting the game. You just hope that the players get it as well. You hope it isn't all about the money. If everyone in pro sports -- the league, owners, management, players, agents -- isn't about winning, then you've got a problem. Great competition keeps the fans coming."

Sounds like Stern has his work cut out for him.


Melvin Ely


Jan. 23 - The O.C. Register reported on Friday that the Clippers were shopping little used power forward Melvin Ely. Mired on the bench behind Elton Brand, Chris Wilcox, Chris Kaman, Peja Drobjnak. "It's hard to get all the minutes around at that position," coach Mike Dunleavy said. "We have Brand, we have Kaman, Wilcox and Drobnjak. On a given night, you're only going to play three, maybe four guys."

Peep Show

Houston Rockets: Mom always said food tasted better when you share. Now, so is head coach Jeff Van Gundy with the addition of Mark Jackson to the Rocket lineup. "We have been starting to pass the ball a lot better," Van Gundy said in the Houston Chronicle. "I think Mark will keep adding to it and enhance it, but I really do believe, our guys -- we got shot-happy at one point in the third quarter when we were trading baskets -- are for the most part really trying to share. Mark is one of the ultimate sharers obviously in NBA history."

Washington Wizards: After serving a five-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy, Christian Laettner is back, is sorry and is ready to get on with his life. "If they decide not to play me like they already have a few times this year, that's just part of the game, something you've got to deal with," Laettner said in the Washington Times. "If Eddie gives me a shot and throws me out there, I'll try and play basketball the right way and try to help the team." And now, more than ever, he knows what that means. "I still love the game. It was tough being away," Laettner said. "Sometimes you say to yourself that you need a vacation. But as soon as I got back out there I realized how much I love the game. I definitely don't want to see anything like this happen again. So I'm committed and devoted to making sure it doesn't. I'm going to play basketball for as long as I can until my knees give out."

Chicago Bulls: If Scottie Pippen is going to get his butt kicked on the basketball floor as a member of the struggling Bulls, then he wants to get all of it kicked. "It's a lack of effort," Pippen said in the Chicago Tribune. "Guys have accepted losing here. It's to the point where losing and winning are on the same scale. Until they change their attitude and understand that it's more important to give a hard effort every night -- even if you still come away with a loss -- they won't feel better about themselves. Going out and giving a half-assed effort most nights, you're always going to come away with a loss." Pippen even went so far as to say that these Bulls are so bad, they're an embarrassment not only to the city but the game itself. "You have to be dedicated to the game," he said. "You have to have some pride in yourself to want to get better, want to be the best, want to make some strides in your game and in your life. Basketball has been great for a lot of people. To see the way a lot of these guys have taken advantage of it, it's sad. They're not putting the effort that I felt like a guy like me or a guy like Pax had to deal with to get to this level and to stay at this level."

Los Angeles Lakers: Rick Fox may be physically cleared to play professional basketball again, but he has yet to convince coach Phil Jackson. "I trust (Jackson)," Fox said in the L.A. Daily News. "I trust his eye. He's watched me play long enough to know what looks like the type of effort that can be used to benefit the team. I guess I honestly had to move beyond the emotional attachment, to wanting to be out there, wanting to get back and wanting to prove that I'd waited almost long enough. But it's not about the wait, it's about being ready at the right time." Even with Kobe, Shaq and Karl Malone injured, Jackson refuses to rush Fox back into the line up. "I'm not afraid he's going to reinjure himself; I want him to be able to succeed when he goes out on the floor," Jackson said.

Toronto Raptors: Vince Carter's right quadriceps muscle may be hurt but his ears are working just fine. "I'm going to sit next to him on the plane," teammate Jalen Rose said in trying to get his friend back on the court. "I'm just going to beg him for two hours. Beg him, threaten him, everything." But Carter has already heard it all before. "Every day is better and better," Carter said in the Toronto Star. "I feel good and I want to play more than anybody on this team. I hate sitting around and I'd rather be out there in the game, especially when I feel like I can help. So we'll see what happens. I'm day-to-day."

01-23-2004, 05:58 PM
This is a great, great article.