In the NBA, where bad contracts are more common than lane violations, every team executive dreams of a way to expunge his mistakes.
Can that Eddy Curry deal be undone?
Can we make Gilbert Arenas disappear?
Is there a purple pill we can take? Is there an app for that?
Sadly, no. But the NBA is giving every team a multimillion-dollar do-over as part of its new labour deal, tentatively reached last weekend. The league calls it the “amnesty” clause. General managers call it a get-out-of-jail-free card. It will be available starting Dec. 9, when the NBA reopens for business.
Under the amnesty provision, each team can waive one player and remove him from the salary cap – creating room to sign another player and potentially saving millions in luxury-tax penalties.
The money does not disappear. The player must still be paid. But the provision could give a few teams some relief and put an extra jolt in the free-agent market.
Arenas could be set loose by the Orlando Magic, which owes him $62.4-million (all currency U.S.) over the next three years. Rashard Lewis ($46-million, two years) could be dumped by the Washington Wizards. Brandon Roy, Baron Davis and Metta World Peace – the player formerly known as Ron Artest – could all spill into the market.
All were considered stars at one time, and each could be helpful to another team – at a more reasonable price, of course. There is, however, one minor caveat for the amnesty watchers and World Peace enthusiasts: Most teams will not use the provision.
“I don’t think there will be very many at all,” said one team executive, who asked to remain anonymous while the lockout remains in effect.
At most, three to six teams will take advantage of the amnesty clause this year, the executive said – a view that was echoed by others around the league. The reasons are varied and complicated.
Some teams are so far above the cap that removing one player will not provide room to sign free agents. A few teams have such low payrolls that they would dip below the minimum-payroll requirements. At least 10 teams have no obvious candidates for amnesty.
And many teams might simply hold onto their amnesty card for a future year. According to a draft of the rule, a team can use the provision in any off-season, subject to two restrictions: the player must have been signed before July 1, 2011, and must be on the team’s current roster.
In other words, a team cannot sign or trade for a player now and apply for amnesty later. The provision is meant for past mistakes, not future cap calamities.
Because there is no deadline, teams may wait and see whether their albatrosses learn to fly again before casting them adrift. No team executive wants to admit a mistake, or to ask his owner for permission to eat a $20-million contract.
General managers are also eternal optimists – convinced that a player will rebound from a bad season or that some other general manager will trade for him despite the bloated contract and poor play.
Sometimes, they are right. Last season, Washington and Orlando swapped headaches, with the Wizards sending Arenas (who had been arrested for a gunplay incident) to the Magic for Lewis, who was simply bad. The philosophy: better to trade a player for another asset (even a flawed one) than to pay him a full salary just to disappear.
Amnesty players will go through waivers, like any other player. However, teams that make claims will also enter bids. The highest bidder will get the player and pay that amount (with the balance paid by the team that cut him).
There are some seemingly clear amnesty choices this year.
Arenas is a prime candidate because of his bad knees, his diminishing skills and his reputation for causing locker-room friction. Orlando, which is fearful of losing Dwight Howard to free agency next summer, cannot afford poor team chemistry. Cutting Arenas would not give the Magic any cap room, but it would drop them below the tax threshold, saving them millions.
Lewis is another obvious candidate, after his production plummeted last season (an average of 11.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, and a .433 field-goal percentage). However, waiving Lewis would leave the Wizards with just $19-million in salaries – $30-million below the minimum payroll. They would have to sign several players just to comply with the rules, no doubt creating more bad contracts in the process.
Perhaps the most enticing candidate is Roy, a Portland Trail Blazers guard. Just 27, Roy is a three-time all-star and a dazzling scorer. But he has chronic knee problems and played just 47 games last season, his scoring average plummeting to 12.2 points. He is owed $68.3-million over the next four seasons. Paul Allen, the Blazers’ billionaire owner, can surely afford the bill, but waiving Roy will not create cap room.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, who view bad contracts as just another cost of winning championships, the choices are overwhelming. They could waive World Peace ($21-million, three years), Luke Walton ($11.8-million, two years) or Steve Blake ($12-million, three years). Walton seems the most logical choice because of chronic back problems. But if Walton is forced to retire, the Lakers could clear him from the books through a medical waiver and use amnesty for World Peace.
The list of amnesty candidates, as compiled by ESPN.com, reads like an encyclopedia of contractual regret, filled with players who were signed only a year ago and already seem overpriced: Al Harrington (Denver Nuggets), Brendan Haywood (Dallas Mavericks), Richard Jefferson (San Antonio Spurs), Josh Childress (Phoenix Suns), Mike Miller (Miami Heat), Johan Petro (New Jersey Nets) and Travis Outlaw (Nets).
The new labour deal is packed with measures to mitigate payroll gaffes: shorter contracts, smaller raises and a new “stretch” provision that lets teams spread payments (and cap hits) over several years.
The intention is to let teams recover more quickly from their mistakes and to provide roster flexibility. But in the NBA, bad contracts are like the heads of a Hydra: cut one off, and two more will take its place.
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