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Friday, November 11, 2011
Nothing left to yell about

By Henry Abbott

Some things just sound like news.

David Stern’s no-holds-barred ultimatum of Wednesday at 5 o’clock was a jolt to the system. Similarly, Billy Hunter's calling a premature end to a meeting a few weeks ago packed a punch.

But a lot has happened since. Essentially, all of the really big issues have been negotiated. And now, while there is still no deal, it strains credulity to suggest we could lose an incredibly promising (and, let's be honest, multibillion-dollar) season over, say, incremental tweaks to the mini-midlevel exception for taxpaying teams.

That exception, by the way, would apply to maybe 10 players a year.

What’s happening in these talks now is simply not writ large. What divides now are things that would struggle to make headlines in economics journals, let alone The Wall Street Journal.

This is a sign of both how close the two sides are and how much little things can matter.

“Some of them,” deputy commissioner Adam Silver said, “are philosophical points, for example about creating more movement in the system. And I think for all of us -- they have an economist running models, we have in-house cap people running models -- it’s going to be hard to predict precisely what behavior will be under a new system.

“We continue to have a disagreement about what the free-agency market will look like. One of their major points has been freeing up taxpayers to be in the market for free agents. That’s something we don’t want to see.”

The league has long wanted to make it not just expensive -- via steep luxury tax -- for high-salary teams such as the Lakers and Mavericks to add players when they are already paying luxury tax. It also wants to make it impossible.

Many of the salary-cap loopholes the league wanted closed in the name of competitive balance have been reopened by the players in the name of giving free agents choices.

But the most commonly used one, and the engine of NBA free agency, the midlevel exception, is the hot issue now. It used to be that any free agent in the league could be offered more than $30 million over five years by any team in the league. That’s a lot of leverage for players who are, by definition, not max players. There’s a reason the league’s least efficient contracts are given to players via the midlevel exception.

Both sides have agreed it will be a much smaller exception in the future, with a total value halved, to about $15 million.

Agents say this concession will cost future free agents a fortune. The league replies that players will make 50 percent of basketball related income regardless -- with finite roster spots, the money has to go somewhere. There is only so much leverage free agents could lose.

Meanwhile, both sides have agreed that teams in the luxury tax will not be able to use the regular midlevel exception, but will instead have a special, smaller mini-midlevel. It was something the players proposed and the league initially rejected. Now the league has not only agreed to it, but made its offer a bit bigger -- Hunter says the league now is saying it would like to let taxpaying teams offer a three-year deal starting at $3 million. “We tweaked that over the last few days," Silver said, "and we tweaked some other aspects of our proposal as well -- all aimed at creating a more robust offer for free agents.”

Put it all together, and you get nothing much to get riled up about, and therefore a lockout that's most assuredly nearly done.