The San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard wanted to sign a contract extension in July, 2014, probably with the same sort of alacrity that New Orleans and Anthony Davis used in agreeing to their no-brainer extension during this offseason. Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski has already reported that the Spurs and Leonard have agreed on the framework of a five-year, $90 million extension, and yet the signing process has been delayed while the Spurs attempt to finagle their way into more cap space in order to lure LaMarcus Aldridge to sign with them.
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As it stands, until Leonard puts pen to paper, he’ll count against the cap for $7.2 million even though he made less than half of that last season, even though his qualifying offer for 2015-16 is far less than that, and even though the words “seven point two million” were never brought up in bargaining talks between the two sides?
So why that figure?
It’s his “cap hold,” a collective bargaining tool that was put in place a decade ago in order to, as just about every owner-encouraged collective bargaining agreement bylaw usually is, to protect owners from themselves. For years prior to its debut, teams would hold off on signing their own free agents in order to use the fake “space” they had underneath the cap to sign other free agents. Because teams didn’t fully renounce their incumbent players, they were allowed to use the decades-old ‘Bird Rights’ provision to go above the salary cap to bring the whole gang back.
Owners and general managers can always talk themselves into spending big in the summer, when everyone is tied for first place, and though this practice didn’t result in a salary millstone for every team, the cap hold was developed in order to (mostly) discourage this. Varying holds were created – anywhere from 150 to 250 percent of the previous year’s salary to the max for ten years of service even if the free agent in question isn’t even guaranteed a contract at the veteran’s minimum with his next free agent contract.
The Spurs’ intentions were obvious a year ago, and no team has been as blatant about this sort of (legal, and correct, and intelligent, very-Spurs’y!) machination as this outfit. Even releasing a statement outlining the expectation of an eventual signing, with Leonard going on record as being “confident” that it will all get sorted out, is basically just coming clean. We’re all adults here. We know what’s going on. Everybody’s going to get paid.
This is where we can’t help but wonder how David Stern would have “dealt” with this.
We’re presuming that current NBA commissioner Adam Silver isn’t going to take any unneeded action with the Spurs should they find a way to sign LaMarcus Aldridge, bring Tim Duncan back at a lowered rate, release and then re-sign Manu Ginobili with the room exception, and eventually sign Leonard to the max. You don’t have to have a secret, under-the-table file already signed when both Leonard and his reps know that he’s already signing for the most he can, and that San Antonio wants to give him the most they can.
Back in 1996, however, Stern fought tooth and nail against a Miami Heat franchise that came close to pulling off the same damn thing.
Heat president Pat Riley completely re-formatted a middling Miami squad with a series of deals for free agents during the 1995-96 season, including Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and Rex Chapman. Working with cap space during the offseason, Riley attempted to sign Gary Payton (before failing), prior to re-signing both Mourning and Hardaway and signing free agent P.J. Brown. He then outbid Washington for Juwan Howard’s services, with Howard coming off what would end up being the best season of his career.
Stern, mindful that an emerging Washington Bullets team had just lost a young All-Star after just his second season in the pros, was not happy. Miami was a new money team, and the established-yet-perpetually-awful Bullets were just a year and a half away from becoming the ‘Wizards’ and opening a shiny, new arena. He looked into Brown and Hardaway’s contract and deemed that the players’ performance bonuses (Hardaway had been out of shape the previous season) had to count against the cap, even though that wasn’t strictly outlined in the 1995 collective bargaining agreement.
He voided Howard’s contract, charging that it put the Heat over the salary cap. It was Washington’s turn to then outbid Miami, and Juwan returned to the Bullets less than a week later to a richer contract than the one they initially offered. Riley was furious, pointing out that the NBA allowed teams to technically break salary cap law to go over the cap to sign their own free agents, and that Stern was effectively allowing Washington to (kinda) break the rules but not Miami to (kinda) break the rules.
Both Stern and Riley had their points, but the commissioner’s ruling stuck despite some aborted legal attempts from the Heat to have the decision scrutinized.
San Antonio’s somewhat comparable version of this, unless there is some signed document hiding in a drawer somewhere, is far cleaner than Miami’s attempts. Even if Riley’s (a noted body weight hound) attempts to keep Hardaway trim were legitimate. David Stern wasn’t averse to lobbing huge and ridiculous fines at the Spurs, and it’s worth wondering how the cantankerous former commissioner would handle San Antonio effectively hiding the difference between Kawhi Leonard’s cap hold and the first year of his eventual contract (about $8.6 million) in plain sight.
Thank goodness, so far, for Adam Silver. Until he locks the players out in 2017, of course.
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