NEW YORK – Mike Conley Sr., former Olympic gold medalist turned professional sports agent, considered the question and laughed at the possibility. What if the NBA, like the NFL, allowed rookies to negotiate their initial contract, rather than slotting them into predetermined salary ranges?
Conley represents Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, a likely top five pick in Saturday's NFL draft. He is also the agent for the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, 7-footer Greg Oden.
What could Oden have gotten from the Portland Trailblazers?
"Max money," Conley laughed, referencing the approximate $85 million limit of a seven-year NBA contract. "Greg Oden is a max player, of course."
The idea that a player who has never played a minute in the NBA would be able to demand the maximum amount of money and essentially cripple the options of the team drafting him is why NBA commissioner David Stern fought ferociously against his strong union for the rookie salary structure in the late 1990s.
To Stern, having unproven rookies with such immense salary power is no way to operate a league; is unfair to veterans; and makes things such as Oden's knee injury that cost him his rookie season exponentially more troublesome. Since Oden only earned about $3.9 million of a three-year, $12.5 million deal, it was less devastating.
No one agrees more than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who wistfully comments on how the NFL needs to copy the NBA's cost controls.
It's a rare reversal of fortune. For the most part, the NBA is considered to have the stronger union; the NFL is where the control is with the league. But on this one undeniable issue, Stern has what Goodell only possesses in his dreams.
Free to negotiate essentially any salary he wants (technically, there is a rookie salary cap, but it is easy to work around), Jake Long of Michigan agreed this week to a five-year, $57.5 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. Miami will make him the first choice in the draft. In doing so, Long became the highest paid offensive tackle in football before a single practice.
"It was mind boggling," Long admitted.
Long is a tremendous prospect and may prove to be worth every penny of that deal – it's not like it's going to break the Dolphins billionaire co-owner Wayne Huizenga. But is that any way to run a league?
A year ago, the Oakland Raiders signed top pick JaMarcus Russell to a six-year, $61 million deal, $29 million of which was guaranteed. The two sides only came to agreement after Russell held out until Sept. 12, essentially ending any chance of the quarterback being a meaningful contributor as a rookie. He completed just 36 passes in four games.
In contrast, the NBA, by controlling rookie salaries for at least three seasons, has set up a sort of in-house developmental league. A team has plenty of time to not only analyze ability, but even improve it before making the decision on a major deal.
The NFL has no such luxury, making the top of the draft the ultimate high stakes crap shoot.
"A salary structure definitely makes sense from a league standpoint and from a team standpoint," Conley said. "From an athlete perspective, we'll keep it."
The NFLPA has vowed to fight any rookie salary structure, but Goodell has already begun framing the debate not as an owners vs. players clash, but a veterans vs. rookies (or future rookies) battle. As owners swim in revenue, Goodell can't cry poverty. He can argue fairness.
"I think it's important to veteran players personally," Goodell said at last month's league meetings. "As a veteran player, you've proven your performance on an NFL field and that should be rewarded.
"When you see players come in (who) have not played in the NFL and it's unclear as to whether they will be able to play at a certain level in the NFL, I think that's a fair point.
"It's not necessarily saving dollars but putting dollars to the players who should get them."
If Goodell can get this one done, he will have finished a virtual clean sweep against the NFLPA.
"I personally think it'll happen at some point," Conley said. "It is a matter of when the right timing is."
For the most part, even the soon-to-be rookies who benefit from the current plan know it is essentially ridiculous. They know it doesn't make sense, but they are rather pleased with their fortuitous timing.
"I'll take it," laughed Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. "I see both sides of the argument but I'm going to take the (current) argument now.
"Maybe in 20 or 30 years and I'm a GM, I'll take the other side."
Roger Goodell isn't waiting that long to fight this fight.
- Greg Oden