With the regular season in full effect, it's sometimes difficult to remember that the NBA just underwent a potentially disastrous lockout. The league came out on the other side just fine, but there was a time at which it looked like the league would be overhauled over a missed season. Instead, we got some minor changes that mostly cause players to make less money over the course of their careers.
Nevertheless, those changes have already had substantive effects on the way NBA teams and players do business. For proof, look at the case of Portland Trail Blazers forward Gerald Wallace, who has the opportunity to opt out of his contract this offseason. Wallace, now in his first full season in Portland after being traded from Charlotte at last year's deadline, has been a major part of the team's terrific 7-2 start and would like to stay in Rip City for a while. However, because of the new collective bargaining agreement, it makes more sense for him to hit the open market as a free agent. Jason Quick of The Oregonian has more details:
Wallace is under contract for this season and the 2012-2013 season, but he can opt out of the final year of his contract, which would pay him $11.4 million. The Blazers had hoped to avoid that potential scenario and in December had casual conversations with agent Rob Pelinka to extend his contract this season. However, under the new CBA, the Blazers can only extend Wallace for two more seasons, down from the four-season option in the previous CBA.
If Wallace opts out this summer and becomes an unrestricted free agent, he can sign with any team for as many as four seasons, but the Blazers would hold significant bargaining chips. If Wallace opts out, the Blazers would hold his Bird Rights because they acquired him in a February 2010 trade, and as a result would be able to offer him five years and more money.
Wallace has not made a decision on whether he will opt out of his contract or accept the $11.4 million for the 2012-2013 season. An advantage to opting out is this summer figures to feature more than 10 teams who are under the salary cap, creating a potentially lucrative free agent market. Plus, at age 29 with a family that includes four children, Wallace would like to establish long-term security as soon as possible.
Wallace likely won't even leave Portland — he's a valued part of the franchise and seems interested in staying. But the fact that he'll hit the open market complicates matters significantly in a way that the old rules wouldn't have. Last season, Wallace would have signed an extension for four years and started some long-term planning in Portland. Now, he'll be the target of several suitors, at which point his price may be driven up by a random team (potentially the Warriors, who want to establish a hard-nosed brand) which puts Wallace out of Portland's price range. The Trail Blazers can only lose if Wallace becomes a free agent.
Player movement drives interest in the NBA, so it's possible that future cases like this one will be good for the league. On the other hand, these new rules were sold to fans as a chance to create greater competitive balance for small-market teams. If the Blazers can't afford Wallace, then the exact opposite will have happened: A very talented team in a minor market will have lost a key player because of money. Perhaps another small-market team would win Wallace's services. Whatever the case, the well-run team, Portland, would come out the loser because of finances. That's not the meritocracy we want from the NBA.
These are minor changes in the grand scheme of the NBA — it's not as if Wallace will make the veteran minimum or be forced to play for a franchise he can't stand because ownership controls his fate. But they're important changes nonetheless, and the sort of thing we're likely to see more of over the next six years. We'll all need to adjust our expectations for extensions and free agency accordingly.