Friday, January 9, 2009

The Past Rearing Its Ugly Head Once Again...

The news around the Portland Trail Blazers this year has been relatively positive. The team is winning with solid talent, good natured guys who are out in the community and want to be the faces of the team, and the crowds are returning in droves to the Rose Garden. The expectations are this team should make the playoffs this year, and content for a few NBA titles over the next few years, as they have that much young talent. So imagine the surprise for many Trail Blazer fans over the news of the past 48 hours, and it's been anything but positive.

The link to what is happening courtesy of the Oregonian is noted here, but to give you a quick catchup of the events, here goes. Back in 2003, the Trail Blazers took a chance on signing Darius Miles, a former top draft pick of the LA Clippers. The kid had a world of talent, even appearing in a movie playing a basketball players, but he couldn't put it together with the Clippers and Cavaliers, and was in danger of dropping from the NBA. His attitude and demeanor was the major issues, as he seemed to play mostly for himself, but Portland thought we could resurrect his career and so we took a chance. And he proved himself pretty good in the half season here in the Rose City, so much so that the Trail Blazers gave him a 4 year maximum contract, even though we really were bidding against ourselves to keep him. The next season was moments of talent followed by sulking and disinterested play, but that was the problem for the entire squad. Miles also had run-ins with the coaching staff, including a few suspensions that were reduced without the coach's knowledge.

During the 2005 - 2006 campaign, Miles blew out his knee in a game, and ended up needing microfracture surgery, the new rage in the NBA where they put tiny breaks in the bone to help speed healing, with the recovery time taking a bit shorter time than regular knee surgery. The team has experience dealing with these situations, with Zack Randolph and Greg Oden needing these surgeries while with the team. So the thought was that Miles would rehab and see if he was able to return, although doctors indicated the injury was pretty severe.

So the rehab continued, and the team starts rebuilding but keeps Miles away from the new talent, desiring to keep him from corrupting the others. The rehab seems to go Ok or not, depending on who you believe, but suddendly it's the 2007 - 08 season, and Miles isn't near coming back. The team can't cut him without taking the full brunt of his salary, so they hold onto him with the thought that he might medically retire if the condition is worse enough, or the team can enact insurance to cover his contract if he's deemed unfit to play. Miles has no desire to retire, so the team waits until April to file the insurance claim on the salary once independant doctors indicate that Miles' injury is deemed career ending. But Miles continues to work out and try to come back, and ends up getting some interest from teams. During this summer, Miles gets himself in trouble with drugs, and ends up earning a 10 game suspension. But the insurance clause is also something to consider for the summer as well. If Miles ended up playing 10 games during the 08-09 season, the insurance claim would be rescinded and the Trail Blazers would have to pay his entire salary for the next two years, about $18 million. The team was taking a risk by filing insurance, but they felt he wouldn't come back. And now, an extra 10 game suspension meant even if he made a team, he'd have to sit 10 games before he could play, and then it would be 10 games before the clause kicked in.

Miles played in Boston for the pre-season, and was cut before the season. While some teams had expressed interest, it was December before Memphis signed him, knowing about the suspension. He could be under contract with the Grizzlies until this week in January, and the team could cut him without having to pay his salary for the rest of year. The Grizzlies decided to let him sit the 10 games, and give him a 2 game audition before making the call to keep him or not. They chose to cut him after 2 games, but apparently the move was more money related rather than talent, as Miles fit in with the team and showed some skill.

Cut to this week and Yahoo Sports indicates that the 10 games that everyone expected Miles to have to play before it hit the Blazers' salary cap was actually 2, as the league counted the six games Miles played in Boston. So now, any team signing him to a 10 game contract and playing him for 2 games would then trigger the insurance clause, and the Trail Blazers end up paying Miles' salary. This ends up putting the team over the luxury tax, so instead of being under the amount to be able to sign free agents, the team would have to pay into the league pool. While there were rumours that teams were interested in signing him, the Trail Blazers took an interesting tact today.

The team sent an email to each NBA general manager and the league office stating that if Miles was signed simply to affect the clause and have Miles' salary hit the team's salary cap, the Trail Blazers would take any steps necessary to fight the situation, including litigation. Needless to say, the email caught some teams off guard, and caused quite a ruckus at the NBA offices and at the headquarters of the NBA Players Association. The Players group is filing a grievance against the team, claiming that the email hinders teams from signing Miles, while the NBA has stated that Miles is a free agent now and can be signed, and the NBA is ready to approve any contract that meets the standards. The Trail Blazers' front office has been busy with the press, explaining their situation and taking the heat, so to speak, Even the local columnist in town weighed in on the issue. He stated the reaction seemed paranoid, and the NBA is probably going to come down on the team rather hard.

The thing is, I don't see this as a bad thing overall. If I'm a business and I am now having to pay for something I didn't expect to pay, I'm going to use any recourse I can to get due diligence. And I know from watching the NBA rather closely that the fact that Miles could only play 2 games and affect the Trail Blazers' bottom line so much for salary hadn't escaped many astute teams. In the email out to the league, the team didn't say that another team couldn't sign Miles, but simply that the team would be upset if someone signed Miles simply to trash the Trail Blazers salary cap situation for next year. Mind you, the team will still have assets to trade and one rather large expiring contract if they don't trade LaFrentz, but the money available is slightly smaller, but it's something to consider. The team is looking out for their interests, and I don't blame them a bit for doing that. Ok, timing wise, after hearing about the 2 games, it probably didn't look very good, but did you expect the team to sit back and not say anything? The old organization probably would have bit the bullet and not said a word, but this team from management to the floor has a scrappy attitude and they don't take much from others.

Ok, I'll give the other side a point that it would be extremely difficult to prove that another team willingly signed Miles to affect our bottom line, but if anything, if an issue gets to court, you can't always determine what the outcome might be. I know most teams are very secretive about plans and draft strategies, but then again, the web finds out a lot of things that are supposedly secret. The team would have a tough road proving that a signing was done maliciously, but they'd have their chance in court and you never know. And in watching the events across the pond for my beloved West Ham, you think something might go away, but it doesn't. The team was penalized three seasons ago for supposedly signing players that weren't eligible to be signed, but they did anyway and one of them, Carlos Tevez, helped them stay in the Premiership. The team is now facing all sorts of legal inquiries and proposed fines, and it could cripple them. I don't know what the truth is there, but I know that the team has vowed to fight because they feel they've been punished already. But the courts continue to talk about it, and it seems never ending.

Look, the Trail Blazers situation getting to court would be a bad thing, but they have a few points that I think need to be addressed. One, how come the pre-season games counted towards the 10 games Miles had to play, when he was supposed to be suspended? Yes, he served the suspension later, but why was he allowed to start the pre-season and have those games count. Secondly, this insurance clause now gives another team the right to sign a player and significantly alter their ability to sign players, so the NBA has effectively given another team the right to affect another team's bottom line simply with investing a 10 day contract. The insurance clause rights should be further clarified, especially in this case since it wasn't team doctors that declared the injury career ending. If a team knows they can get away with this with other players in a similar situation, you don't think other GMs might try the tactic simply to keep an opponent from signing someone?

It's a mess, and I don't expect it to end happily for everyone. I don't blame Miles for wanting to play and prove people wrong, nor do I fault the Trail Blazers for trying to get some cap relief, thinking the injury was career ending. This is a rather unique situation, and one I hope ends without too much damage. What I expect to happen is the NBA fines the Trail Blazers, Miles is signed and the clause enacts, the team files a complaint, and the salary cap won't be affected for the full salary because there will be a compromise reached. The NBA doesn't want this dirty laundry aired out, and it's in the best interests for this to be worked out as equitably as possible. We'll see, but at least we can say the season has had some drama on and off the court.

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