While most of the attention in NBA free agency was on the big names – LeBron! Melo! Bosh! Kevin Love (via trade)! – a few of the most intriguing young prospects have languished untouched on the shelf, like the last hot dog on the plate after a barbecue. Every year the same pattern plays out as the best young players on the market never actually hit the market, and it’s because there is too much restriction and not enough freedom in restricted free agency.
The rationale behind restricted free agency was and remains solid: in a league where there are clear advantages to certain big or glamorous markets, allowing teams an advantage to retain stars they drafted and developed is necessary. Even more so in the post-Decision era when top players are seemingly willing to accept sub-market salaries in exchange for better chances at titles.
Without a “home team” edge, the Lakers, Knicks and perhaps a few other teams would function in a system much like baseball where the best, highest priced players tend to end up playing for the Yankees or Dodgers. This imbalance would probably be bad for the league overall, as why would fans continue to support teams in Milwaukee or Salt Lake City (for example) if those teams couldn’t compete on even a semi-level playing field?
However, the particular form of the restriction hinders player movement in to an unhealthy extreme. One of the major benefits to come out of the current collective bargaining agreement for the league as a whole has been the onset of the “year-round NBA.” The harsher penalties for exceeding the salary cap by too much too often (the so-called “repeater rule”) has somewhat eliminated the multi-year albatross contract. Shorter deals are the norm. Half of the league or more will have cap space each summer.
This leads to whirlwind days like July 11, the first day of Las Vegas Summer League. After James announced his decision to return to Cleveland, all hell broke loose. Signings came too quickly to process each individually and rumors mounted, multiplied and metastasized. In short it was great fun to follow, and brought a palpable energy to the crowd for the opening few days of LVSL.
Strangely missing from the merriment were two of the more intriguing prospective free agents, Eric Bledsoe of the Suns and Greg Monroe of the Pistons. Even almost two weeks later, there has been barely a peep about either, and it’s largely because of the rules surrounding restricted free agency. Their present teams have a strange combination of too much leverage and not enough flexibility.
Under the NBA’s rookie salary scale, players who aren’t offered a contract extension before their 4th season become restricted free agents after that season. This “RFA” tag means their present team gets the right of first refusal for any deal they sign in free agency, and they have three days to do so. This puts potential suitors in the spot of either having to wildly overpay or put in bizarre trade kickers or “poison pill” provisions such as the ones used by Houston to lure Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik two summers ago.
Alternatively, teams can bid the market rate, only to have the parent team simply match the offer as happened with Charlotte’s pursuit of Gordon Hayward. The three days the current club has to match the offer illustrates the problem. After Dallas signed Chandler Parsons to an offer sheet, they were forced to watch helplessly as Vince Carter decamped to Memphis while all of Dallas’s money was tied up and waiting on Houston’s decision to let Parsons leave or not. In the end, Houston allowed Dallas to have Parsons. Which is great for the Mavs, until they realize they’ll be paying Parsons almost $15.5 million per season.
This extreme degree of control exercised by the current teams of RFA’s makes the Kings decision to let Isaiah Thomas go to Phoenix for nothing more (well, “the rights to Alex Oriakhi” more) than a trade exception all the more mystifying. Sacto could have simply matched the extremely fair contract offer Thomas signed with Phoenix.
Coming back to Bledsoe and Monroe, many teams who would have happily offered Bledsoe a maximum contract (4 years for around $65 million total) might have been dissuaded from doing so by the knowledge Phoenix would likely match, and they would have been unable to participate in plans B, C and D after Bledsoe signed with other teams. Certainly this is why Orlando decided not to dip into the top end of the free agent pool and instead preemptively signed Channing Frye to a four-year, $32 million deal. Now the free agency dollars have largely been spent, and Phoenix might have no competition for Bledsoe’s signature whatsoever.
In the case of Monroe, the word at Summer League was that he wants out of Detroit so badly that he’s simply not negotiating with other teams, as he knows any contract he signs the Pistons will match. Instead, he will (or at least is threatening to) play out his option year to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
By operation of these rules, three of the top ten or so free agents this offseason were never really in play, (the Jazz matching the offer to Hayward was considered a formality by all involved). Additionally, the RFA system hinders those at the lower end of the market as well. Useful players like Mike Scott of Atlanta and Ryan Kelly of the Lakers are never considered as realistic targets for other teams because the only way the current team doesn’t match an offer sheet is if the new team radically overpays. Scott is a versatile forward with legitimate range and athleticism who teams would like a look at for $2-$3 million, but not the $5 million per season it would likely take for Atlanta to not simply match.
If the NBA is serious about making the offseason hold as much interest as the season itself, a focus of the next collective bargaining agreement should find a way to lessen these restrictions, even if just a little.