Debate: NBA Franchise Tag?
One of the many issues on the table in the ongoing labor dispute between the NBA and its players is whether or not the league should adopt a franchise tag system like the one in the NFL. At its center, a franchise tag system would prevent the centralization of the league’s top players. HOOPSWORLD’s Eric Pincus and Joel Brigham find themselves on opposite sides of this issue, and debate it for you below.
HOOPSWORLD’s Joel Brigham:
While the NBA hasn’t released an official list of the 22 teams that allegedly lost money by the end of the 2010-2011 season, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers were one of them. Nobody loses a commodity like LeBron James for essentially nothing and makes more money as a result. In fact, it has been said that losing LeBron James decreased the value of the entire Cavs organization by $200 million, and it all happened because the best player in the league playing for a relatively small market decided to take his talents to… well, you know.
As human beings, we all should be afforded the right to work and live where we want to, especially after paying our dues in a location that we never really considered ideal. For the sake of professional basketball, however, organizations should be given every possible opportunity to keep the franchise-saving players they had the luck and/or savvy to draft. Otherwise, what’s to keep every player in the league from roughing out their rookie contracts and then signing with the Lakers or Knicks or Bulls or Mavericks? Those are the teams in the big markets with the great TV contracts where everybody wants to play, and those are the teams that aren’t losing money in the first place.
One solution that the players understandably hate is the franchise tag, which owners have been publicly mulling for the better part of the last year. The NFL has been using it since 1993, and it has, for the most part, largely hampered player movement in pro football. The players don’t like that, but the fans should—particularly fans of teams that would almost certainly lose their best players were the rules set up any differently.
In the NFL, the franchise tag allows a team to handcuff one unrestricted free agent every offseason, essentially giving them a contract worth the average of the top five salaries at his position the previous year, or a 120% raise, whichever is greater. Teams can tag a player for no more than three years in a row, and at any point over the course of those three years they’re welcome to renegotiate a long-term contract to keep the player where they are, forever and ever amen.
There’s more to it than that, but in the NBA that exact system wouldn’t work. With 53 roster spots in football, teams can afford to tag one unrestricted free agent per year. In the NBA, however, with 15 roster spots, a savvy GM could structure deals in a way where they’d never have to let anybody go. The idea is not to cripple free agency; it’s to keep franchise players where they belong, so we’re looking at a variation here, not a direct translation.
Say, for instance, that an NBA team was allowed to tag only one player as its “franchise player” at a time, but that player would need to have met certain criteria to be tagged—All NBA Team or All-Star Team honors, top 25 in certain statistical categories, that sort of thing. In that case, teams just couldn’t tag any ol’ free agent that popped up every single summer.
If that were the version of the franchise tag that the NBA installed, Cleveland could’ve tagged LeBron James and kept him a Cav. Same for Chris Bosh in Toronto and Carmelo Anthony in Denver and Deron Williams in Utah. Without fear of losing that player for nothing (or essentially nothing, like a trade exception and a draft pick, for example), a team wouldn’t have to take a bad deal for a player they didn’t want to move in the first place.
It would keep Magic and Hornets fans from having to worry about the potential departures of Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, both of whom are very much necessary to their franchise’s value. Without them, it becomes increasingly harder to put butts in seats, especially in the already-struggling New Orleans arena.
It has been suggested that if the NBA and the players agree to anything even remotely close to this (and that’s far from a certainty), it would be more along the lines of adding incentives for a player to stay instead of forcing them to stay, but didn’t we already try that in the last CBA? If an unrestricted free agent re-signed with his own team, he was allowed 10% annual raises instead of 8% annual raises, and was allowed to sign a six-year max contract instead of a five-year max contract. The sign-and-trade proved to be a huge loophole in this incentivized program, however, because as soon as LeBron and Bosh decided they were playing in Miami one way or another, their former teams had the choice of letting them walk away with zero compensation, or submitting to giving the players their extra year and extra 2% raises so they could get that trade exception and draft pick(s).
The Indiana Pacers are going to step into the next free agency session, whenever that may be, with more money to spend than almost any other team in the league. They’ve got a great young core and max cash to throw at a free agent, but so far nobody is coming out and begging to play in Indianapolis. It’s a perfectly fine city, but it can’t hold up to the weather in Orlando or Miami, or the culture in New York and Chicago, or the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles.
It’s never just about money, and with Indiana right on the cusp of being a really good team for the foreseeable future, it’s unfortunate to think that they wouldn’t be a front-runner for a major free agent. That being the case, they’ll have to build through the draft and through trades, and if they ever do end up with another perennial All-Star, the last thing they’d want is for that young man to walk away because the Big Apple was sexier. If they had the wherewithal to draft Paul George, and he ends up being great, they shouldn’t have to lose him for nothing.
The owners don’t even agree on this, by the way. The majority of them are reportedly in favor of using some sort of franchise tag, but the majority of them also are losing money. This probably seems like one way to help insure that happens less often in the future.
Of course, the players never are going to sign a CBA that forces them into suffering what NFL players have suffered since 1993. They hate the idea, and if I were in their shoes I’d probably hate it, too. But if there is to be parity in the league instead of five or six super-teams playing for markets that already are wildly profitable, some kind of franchise tag might actually be necessary.
None of us want to dislike LeBron James as much as we do. We never used to, but his free agency (and Chris Bosh’s and Dwyane Wade’s too, for that matter) turned him into a villain. In a different world, he could’ve just stayed in Cleveland and probably had just as a good a chance of losing in the Finals as he did with the HEAT.
HOOPSWORLD’s Eric Pincus:
In the (stalled) negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), NBA Commissioner David Stern said that anything and everything needs to be on the table. One notion that has come up is that of the “franchise tag.” The NFL employees the franchise tag which gives a team the right to protect a single free agent. That player must be offered a one-year deal for at least the average of the top-five players at his position – or a 20% raise (whichever is greater).
Teams can’t tag more than one player in a given offseason. That player can’t even negotiate with other teams. The NFL does have a non-exclusive version of the rule in which the player is offered a one-season deal at either the top-five average or 20% raise but based on the numbers from one year prior. The player then becomes essentially a NBA-style restricted free agent. They can negotiate with other teams but their existing franchise has a right to match. It’s pretty obvious to see what would have happened last summer if the NBA had such a rule. The Cleveland Cavaliers would have tagged LeBron James. The Toronto Raptors would have chosen Chris Bosh.
Forget the Miami Big Three . . .
The Orlando Magic wouldn’t have to worry about losing Dwight Howard after next season. Chris Paul would likely stick in New Orleans. You can see why many teams would favor such a move but . . . it’s a lousy idea for the NBA. Teaming up Dwyane Wade with James and Bosh may have hurt the two teams they left but the Miami squad that got all the way to the Finals drew gave the season an enduring buzz and a tremendous audience.
The NBA is a league built around stars. The best eras in history had super teams, be it the Showtime Lakers or their Boston rivals, the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls, the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers and the like. Keeping stars in a losing a losing situation with no end in sight, that doesn’t help anyone. Kevin Garnett might still be with the Minnesota Timberwolves if the NBA had a franchise tag in the now-expired CBA. Garnett revitalized the Celtics and gave the world two Boston/LA finals over a three-year span.
The best young players typically go to the worst teams each year in the draft. Contracts, under the recently expired system, already gave teams at least four years to put together a strong enough team. Even then, the player has to navigate through restricted free agency before getting the chance to leave. If a team can’t get it together by then, why should a player be obligated to stay in a losing situation?
In Bosh’s case, the Raptors were going nowhere so he up and left. Even a competitive team may not be able to keep their star but that’s part of the process. James had a shot at the title in Cleveland but got frustrated that his team just couldn’t get it done. His “Decision” was a ratings bonanza for the league. Nearly everywhere the HEAT played, they sold arenas out. Carmelo Anthony in New York, paired with Amar’e Stoudemire, makes the league’s biggest market team an even bigger attraction. Both Anthony and Stoudemire wanted out of their respective situations (in Denver and Phoenix), be it because of finances or to avoid the rebuilding process.
Unrestricted free agency has been a core principle for the union, to the point that they said they’d oppose a franchise tag as fervently as they’re opposing a hard cap.
If the NFL players have given up the right to choose, that’s on them. To an NBA star, why should he be forced to play for one team his entire career?
The union simply isn’t willing to give up that freedom. As it is, they’ve allowed for restricted free agency in the early days of a player’s career. They’re not going to go for a franchise tag in this negotiation. From a practicality perspective, it’s a bad idea because it would only freeze the league indefinitely in lockout. As is it, resolution to the gaps that exist seem insurmountable.
In compromise, the notion of a softer franchise tag could work in that the player is still free to sign anywhere they choose. Greater incentive to stay can be achieved by increasing the benefits of Bird Rights. If that’s limited to one person per year, that won’t infringe upon a players’ ability to choose his place of employment.
There may be no way for a team to block their departure but a big enough check just might do the trick. Market size is only one of many deciding factors for a free agent. A team with the chance to win and a strong future may trump other opportunities. A bigger paycheck itself may trump it all.
The NFL and NBA are vastly different organizations. If the franchise tag works for football, that doesn’t make it right for basketball.
And it doesn’t . . .
There you have it; the experts have sounded off. Convinced? What do you think – franchise tag or no franchise tag? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below!