Exciting new amnesty clause might not be very popular this season

Eric Freeman

For fans, one of the most compelling stipulations of the new collective bargaining agreement has been a proposed amnesty clause that would allow teams to cut one bad contract from the books forever. It's like a mulligan, or a Get out of Jail Free card, on any really terrible deal that probably shouldn't have been signed in the first place. That's a very attractive thing for fans, to the point where two prominent writers thought it prudent to run through every team's amnesty cases months ago, when we had no idea if the NBA would even exist this season.

Now, with an official deal likely days away, front offices can start to have serious discussions about whom to release under the amnesty clause. Except, if you believe this report from Howard Beck of The New York Times, the clause might not be used much this year:

"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.

Waiting makes perfect sense, mostly because there's no telling if some of these amnesty-worthy players -- many of them former stars and semi-stars -- might see the lay of the land under the new CBA and decide it's in their best interest to get their acts together and earn as much of their contracts as they can. With most high-payroll teams unable to afford any of these amnestied players even at a near-minimum contract, it's not in their best interests to become free agents again just to play for another lottery squad. Plus, there's no certainty that teams can use their new cap space to sign an appreciably better player. It's much more sensible for teams to wait a little, see if their big-ticket mistakes turn things around, and act accordingly later on.

The question, then, becomes why so many of us assumed that Amnestypalooza 2011 was a given when logically it makes more sense to hang back for at least a season. The answer likely has something to do with our own impatience, or at least the hope that the lockout would have some immediate qualitative effect on the league. Why exactly would it be worth it to miss real games if these new rules didn't change things right off the bat?

Unfortunately, labor deals don't work quite like that, especially when so many of the biggest changes don't take effect for two seasons. For at least a season, it may seem like the lockout was a waste of time that hurt the NBA product and brand. But it's going to change this league a lot, even if we don't see tangible results for a few years. Labor deals as complicated as this one are rarely irrelevant.