NBA owners need right to put franchise tag on players

If the new NBA collective bargaining agreement was all about competitive balance, by all appearances it’s been an abject failure.

The owners could have taken one simple step to significantly level the playing field all 30 NBA teams play on. But once again, players’ rights won out over what’s best for the whole of the league and more importantly for NBA fans nationwide.

Just days after a new agreement between NBA players and owners was announced, Chris Paul is holding the New Orleans Hornets hostage and Dwight Howard is doing likewise in Orlando.

It’s gotten so ridiculous that Paul and Howard are not only demanding trades, but have submitted a list of which select few teams they’ll play for.

This is how the game works: A player with one year left on his contract says he will not re-sign with his team and demands to be traded. Teams are apt to comply because if they trade the player a year before his contract expires they might get something in return. If they let his contract expire, the way Cleveland did with LeBron James, they get nothing and suffer an unsightly implosion when the player bolts for seemingly greener pastures.

The whole orchestration of the Miami Heat trio smelled bad to NBA fans. The deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York last year stank even worse, and the stench is rising once again.

Of course, the NBA has long been a league ruled by star players. Who doesn’t remember Magic Johnson getting Paul Westhead fired as the L.A. Lakers head coach in the 1980s? Penny Hardaway got Brian Hill booted out of Orlando 1997. Those aren’t isolated incidents.

It’s easy to say it’s a free market and it’s all about the money for these players. The new collective bargaining agreement—at least to some degree—addressed that. New Orleans could pay Paul about $40 million more over the long-term than any other team in the league.

Still, Paul wants to play with his friends in a big market, and with the current system he has all the power to do that.

Thursday night, NBA Commissioner David Stern stepped in and stopped a trade that would have sent Paul—one of the league’s best point guards—to the Los Angeles Lakers. Stern had the right to do that because the Hornets are currently owned by the league. He only did so after hearing a plea from several owners who said it reinforced the big-market bias.

But many today are asking what the end game is. What does Stern hope to accomplish long term? Eventually, whether it’s this year or next year, under the current system Paul will move to L.A. or New York. New Orleans may or may not get anything in return. Either way, the Hornets will be worse off.

All of these gyrations certainly don’t bode well for efforts by the Indiana Pacers—or any other small- or mid-market teams—to significantly improve through the free agent market. Instead of pursuing the types of players who can win championships and push fans through the turnstiles, the Pacers are forced to pursue players like George Hill and Nene. Solid players for sure, but not the kinds of guys who fill seats night in and night out.

The NBA could solve the problem by adopting the franchise tag system used by the NFL.

The franchise tag is a designation a team may apply to a player scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The tag binds the player to the team for one year if certain conditions are met. Each team may only designate one player each year as a franchise player.

An exclusive franchise player in the NFL must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position, or 120 percent of the player’s salary in the previous year, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams.

NBA players need to reign in their wanderlust and stop scheming to play where the lights are brightest and where their posse is gathering.

Instead they need to put down roots and play for the team that drafted them and in front of the fans who love them.

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