When the Oklahoma City Thunder selected forward Josh Huestis with the 29th overall pick in June's draft, the selection struck most analysts as a bit of a reach. The Stanford senior had projected as a mid-second-rounder, if drafted and all, and figured to have to adjust to playing on the wing in the NBA. He was a player with promise, though not necessarily an ideal choice for a title contender with a need to improve a relatively thin bench.
Then it turned out that the franchise had a more complicated plan. On Saturday, Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman reported that Huestis was likely not to sign his league-mandated, guaranteed rookie contract from the Thunder and would instead sign a low-salary deal (roughly $30,000) with the Tulsa 66ers, the franchise's NBDL affiliate. In effect, that would make Huestis the NBA's first domestic draft-and-stash player, a decision that builds off a relatively long tradition of teams taking foreign prospects and not having them come to America for a year or two (or longer) so that they can develop on another team's dime. Nevertheless, the Huestis case is fairly different, because the Thunder would effectively be overseeing a player's development without taking on the financial risk of a rookie deal (or even a D-League contract, which is administered by the NBA).
While there is no evidence that the Thunder hoodwinked Huestis — in fact, it's been assumed that he was only drafted in the first round because he agreed to sign with the 66ers — the move has drawn considerable criticism. Tom Ziller of SB Nation has laid out the most complete case against the move, but the main takeaway is that the deal violates the spirit of several rules, including the cap on roster spots, so the Thunder can save some money and a relatively light luxury tax punishment. Meanwhile, Huestis will make something below a living wage while the franchise that drafted him makes millions of dollars in profit.
On Thursday, Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about the situation in typically comprehensive detail. In speaking with Huestis's agents, Lowe confirmed that player and team reached this agreement prior to the draft in large part because they wanted to ensure that he would be drafted at all. The much more interesting news, though, is that the players' union has no real problem with this arrangement:
The union actually views the Huestis move as an example of player empowerment that could have major long-term implications. “This is an example of the player flipping the script,” says Ron Klempner, the interim executive director of the union. “The player essentially drafted his team.”
The deal is proof that teams have an ambivalent relationship with low-first-round picks, since Oklahoma City is dodging the rookie scale here, Klempner says. But that can cut both ways. “The rookie wage scale was management-imposed,” he says. “Players have always been in favor of more open negotiation for rookies. Maybe [Huestis] will lead to a full reconsideration of the rookie wage scale.”
In other words: If teams want wiggle room with someone picked in the late 20s, then they should grant that same negotiating wiggle room for Anthony Davis and Andrew Wiggins. The NBA has been down that road before, and would fight hard against any removal of the rookie scale, but Klempner has a point. [...]
Huestis might not be setting some groundbreaking precedent here, but he will stand as the latest step toward the NBA having a true minor league system. He would not be sacrificing nearly as much money if the NBA had 30 minor league teams, one for each parent club, and an expanded NBA roster with two or three spots reserved for players who shuttle back and forth between the D-League and the NBA parent. Players inhabiting those roster spots would presumably earn money on some in-between salary scale well above current D-League levels.
The union would likely support such a system, since it would create more overall jobs and perhaps allow older players to hang in the NBA longer as locker-room sages. The NBA will get there eventually; the number of D-League teams will likely climb to above 20 over the next 18 months or so. All of this helps explain why the union hasn’t raised a stink about what Huestis is doing now.
Klempner may have a point, but it seems weird for the union to allow such a precedent. While Huestis is an outlying case right now, it's not crazy to imagine other contenders doing the same if only to increase their chances at adding traded-then-released veterans around the trade deadline. Huestis has absolutely benefited from this scenario, because he wouldn't have been a first-round pick otherwise, but it's quite obvious that the Thunder have benefited more. They've drafted a player they like, no matter his status as a reach, and don't have to worry about paying him if he gets injured or doesn't pan out. The franchise did something similar in 2013, when they drafted Grant Jarrett in the second round (via the Portland Trail Blazers), had him sign a D-League deal, and inked him to a multi-season deal this summer, but Huestis has more leverage than Jarrett ever did. In condoning (or just not criticizing) the move, the NBPA has created a scenario in which one of 30 first-round picks won't be used to pay a player who can't make comparable money elsewhere, unlike high-profile foreign draftees. How does that benefit the players?
Well, in short, it helps the guys who are already members of the union. The NBPA theoretically exists to protect draft picks, but those players are theoretical members — a group of as-yet-unidentified young men — until they find their way onto an NBA roster. As actually constituted, the union comprises a group of players more interested in protecting various other benefits than the options of future draft picks. A veteran — and the NBPA is mostly veterans — is always going to be more interested in maintaining the mid-level exception or winning a higher percentage of basketball-related income than in allowing rookies to make more money. It's a basic issue of self-interest, and it makes sense given the makeup of the union.
That's not to say that Klempner has no relevant arguments here, although his efforts might be better focused on issues other than the rookie pay-scale. (The idea of extra roster spots seems the most sensible.) Nevertheless, the merit of Klempner's point means little when any compromise-oriented negotiations depends on what each side values most. In any future collective bargaining talks, it figures that the NBPA will protect the interests of its veterans over those of players who don't yet pay union dues. If Huestis does inadvertently start a new trend, then the players will have had some hand in allowing it to happen. Chances are they won't lose much sleep over the decision.
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