Le’Veon Bell is apparently going to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers shortly. The Steelers are off this weekend, which gives Bell plenty of time to reintroduce himself to his teammates, though there may be some confusion. Most of them, like most of us, think of Bell as a running back. Bell wants teams to think of him as a running back and a receiver—and pay him for both. But maybe it’s wisest for all of us to think of him as something else: an NBA player.
Bell has declined to sign the Steelers’ franchise tender, costing himself millions of dollars in the short-term and sparking confusion in the NFL. He is supposed to accept the tag because NFL players accept the tag. Get paid now and hit free agency later. That’s how it works in the NFL. But that’s not how it works in the NBA.
Consider the case of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, who also declined to report to his team for a while and is also a potential free agent after this season. His situation is not exactly like Bell’s—Bell wants to get paid, and Butler wants to play somewhere else and get paid. Also, Butler has already signed a contract for this season, and he apparently showed up at practice last week, ate a pack of firecrackers and poured hot sauce all over the team buffet. But the situations are similar enough.
Butler is trying to use leverage before his contract is up. This play is run almost as often in the NBA as the pick and roll. Paul George did it. A few years ago, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul did it. Kawhi Leonard did some weird version of it. Anthony Davis may do it next. Sometimes stars are traded before they can do it.
Butler has one year left on his contract, and by the standards of most American professions, he should work for that year before jumping to a competing organization. But by the standard of most American professions, if you are under contract, your employer cannot trade you to an employer in another city. The NBA is not like most professions.
Technically, Butler is under contract and can’t force a trade, but in practice, he knows he has leverage: the Timberwolves can trade him for something now or lose him for nothing later. If they trade him, they will get compensation, and he will get a new team and a chance at a larger contract. The NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement stipulates that teams can outbid anybody else to keep their own players. It is designed to allow teams to keep their stars, but often has the opposite effect: those stars demand trades before they hit free agency, so they can sign for the highest possible salary.
Think of Le’Veon Bell as Jimmy Butler. He is trying to use leverage before his contract is up. That’s it. The reaction is different because we see this all the time in the NBA and not in the NFL. But Bell isn’t stupid, and he isn’t crazy. He is trying to take control of his career in a league that makes it really hard for players to do that. ESPN has reported that the Steelers only guaranteed him $17 million last summer. The Rams guaranteed Todd Gurley $45 million.
Bell is trying to ensure he is healthy when he hits free agency, while also proving he is still one of the best players in the league. He has cut down on the number of games when he could get hurt.
It is very fair to ask if this will pay off for Bell and there is no clear answer, because we don’t know if he will be healthy and productive this season. But logic tells you that if Bell hits free agency next winter, he can get a better offer than the Steelers made last summer. He won’t have one potential suitor anymore. He will have 32.
Many smart people say this won’t work. But many smart people also said a star quarterback would never get a fully guaranteed contract, and then Kirk Cousins signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings. Cousins did not get it because he is the best player in the league (he clearly isn’t), but because he hit true unrestricted free agency. He gave himself options, which gave him an advantage in negotiations.
The NFL has conditioned fans, players and even some agents to think that players should take money now rather than try to hit free agency later. In many cases, that is wise. But if elite players use their leverage, the payoff can be enormous. Ndamukong Suh and Darrelle Revis both made a lot more money in their careers than they would have if they had signed when people said they should sign.
Bell’s tactics are different but the goal is the same. If he succeeds, more players will try a similar approach, and people will get used to it—the way they have gotten used to it in the NBA.
Bell lost several million dollars by waiting until now to sign (presuming he does actually sign). He may have to deal with a transition tag this offseason; he told ESPN he expects to use that. But even then, he could negotiate with other teams. The offseason could go in a variety of ways, but the bottom line for Bell is that the Steelers guaranteed him $17 million, and he is determined to get more. Football fans are shaking their head. But a lot of NBA players are watching him and nodding in agreement.