Is Restricted Free-Agency Status Backfiring on NBA Players and Teams?

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Is Restricted Free-Agency Status Backfiring on NBA Players and Teams?
USA TODAY Sports

If it seems odd that two of the league's brightest young talents are still available in free agency, that's because it is. 

Both Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are restricted free agents, and that's something that hasn't worked in their favor this offseason.

Bledsoe and Monroe have both had to sit on the sidelines this offseason while they watched their fellow draft classmates get paid. After the market dried up and all the money went elsewhere, Bledsoe and Monroe now face the unenviable position of negotiating a long-term contract with almost no leverage whatsoever.

Here's Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports with a good breakdown of how restricted free agency works, and how sometimes it doesn't:

As BDL Editor Kelly Dwyer wrote in November, restricted free agency exists largely to help front-office decision-makers, allowing them to pass on bidding against themselves for players near the end of their rookie-scale contracts in favor of exploring the league-wide market for a player's services before making a long-term decision.

This can come back to bite you. The Utah Jazz, for example, now probably wish they'd given Gordon Hayward the "deal in the four-year, $50-million plus range" he sought last summer, rather than letting him hit restricted free agency and eventually having to match a four-year, $63 million offer sheet.

But while the Jazz might be kicking themselves for not getting a deal done early after having three years of time to weigh the value of a player they drafted, the Suns had seen Bledsoe in purple and orange for all of one game before the deadline to offer him an extension of his rookie contract. First-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough decided instead that he'd use the leverage afforded him by restricted free agency...to let Bledsoe sing for his supper.

If McDonough didn't like the tune, then he would have avoided larding up the books with a pricey deal for a player who didn't take well to an increased role. If everything sounded sweet, he could match any offer a competitor made, keeping a valuable contributor at the market rate.

As it turned out, things broke just about perfectly for McDonough; he does like Bledsoe, and a month into the offseason, nobody has tested just how much he wants to keep his rising star guard in the fold.

The reason restricted free agency exists in the first place, aside from the benefit of teams not having to negotiate against themselves, is to keep players in the same market they were drafted.

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

It's beneficial to the league to give small-market teams the option to retain star players after their rookie deals are up in order to create both familiarity and league-wide parity. While it's not a guarantee that all big names would leave a city like Milwaukee after their first four years, it's understandable that the league doesn't want to test that by making all free agents unrestricted.

Most players and teams understand the risk of entering restricted free agency instead of negotiating an extension in the offseason prior to that final year. Young players are usually wise to bet on themselves and hope that they'll perform better than ever in a contract season.

If it were just the players getting burned in restricted free agency, it would be easy to rally for a change to the current system. But that isn't necessarily the case.

Teams can get hurt by restricted free agency through creative offer sheets designed to make matching undesirable, and the acceptance of a qualifying offer can spell trouble as well.

Still, the teams hold most of the cards. They can match, decline or even find a sign-and-trade to benefit all parties. One of those three options happens much more often than not. Who is the last high-profile player to accept a qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent the next season? Exactly.

David Sherman/Getty Images

Bledsoe and Monroe are rare examples of when things can go wrong.    

Here's Sean Deveney of the Sporting News:

Given the stalemates that have gone on with Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe and Pistons forward Greg Monroe, the best option for both players would seem to be some sort of sign-and-trade. Bledsoe has been shopped around the league for the past month, while the Washington Post’s Michael Lee reports that Monroe’s agent, David Falk, has sought sign-and-trade deals to get his client out of Detroit.

But, as one league general manager told Sporting News this week, their potential free agency next summer has cooled the market for each.

'I think any one of us would be wary of getting involved in a trade for either player,' the GM said. 'Their teams overvalue them in terms of making trades, they don’t want to give them away for nothing. There’s no reason to give up significant assets for players who probably will be available next summer. That doesn’t mean a deal can’t get done, but it is complicated.'

A stalemate really is the best word to describe what's happening for Bledsoe and Monroe, but eventually, it will get solved. Although this situation can breed a lot of bad feelings going both ways, in this particular scenario, both sides seem to understand the realities of the business.

Here's what Bledsoe told Kyle Burger of WVTM-TV in his hometown of Birmingham:

'First off, I'm going to let my agent handle it,' Bledsoe said [of the contract negotiations] while attending a 'Ball Up' streetball tournament in Birmingham. 'I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me. But I understand that.'

There is another solution for both Bledsoe and Monroe, even if it's undesirable for them and their teams. By accepting the qualifying offers available to them, both players can play one more season with their respective teams, then become unrestricted free agents in the 2015 offseason. At that point, finding a suitor would no longer be such a hassle.

Of course, taking on that low salary for a season ($3.7 million for Bledsoe, $5.5 million for Monroe) means punting away a year of significant earnings. More importantly, if a player gets hurt, there's no guaranteeing his future financial health. It's walking on eggshells for 82 games in a lot of ways.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

While players can mitigate some of that by taking out massive insurance policies, it's obviously not ideal to get paid much less than what you think you're worth, even if it's for a season. The backlash from a fanbase that knows you're leaving isn't exactly fun to deal with, either.

Here's Brett Pollakoff at ProBasketballTalk explaining why it might be worth it to accept the qualifying offer, however:

Teams have all the leverage in the restricted free agency process, but playing for the qualifying offer turns things around to where the players have the advantage. The problem is the amount of risk associated with that decision, but for guys like Bledsoe and Monroe who feel like they deserve contracts at or near the max, they may see it as the only realistic option.

A player taking the one-year qualifying offer by the October 1 deadline is actually one of the worst-case scenarios for the team in restricted free agency. Restricted free agents that do that earn no-trade clauses, as Larry Coon explains in his CBA FAQ:

There are two additional circumstances in which a trade requires the player's consent:

-When the player is playing under a one-year contract (excluding any option year) and will have Larry Bird or Early Bird rights at the end of the season. This includes first round draft picks following their fourth (option) season, who accept their team's qualifying offer for their fifth season. When the player consents to such a trade, his Larry Bird/Early Bird rights are not traded with him, and instead becomes a Non-Bird free agent.

-For one year after exercising the right of first refusal to keep a restricted free agent. The player must consent to a trade to any team, although he cannot be traded to the team that signed him to the offer sheet.

What that means is that if Monroe or Bledsoe accepted their qualifying offers, they could reject any trade they wanted to.

It also limits the number of teams who would want to trade for the talented young players, as they couldn't go over the cap to retain him the following offseason because they lose their Bird rights.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Basically, accepting the qualifying offer gives the player the power to choose his next destination from the moment he signs it, even if the freedom comes at a potentially steep price.

It all brings on an interesting question. If the player is unhappy, and if the team stands to lose an asset for nothing after a year, is the system broken?

Absolutely not.

It's just a last resort for an ongoing negotiation that's failed at multiple turns. If the team and player can't come to a price in the middle, and if the market doesn't establish a price, and if a sign-and-trade can't be found, this is the result. It almost never comes to what it has for Bledsoe and Monroe.

While it's not pretty for either side, the outcome has to be a bit unsavory for both sides to provide incentive for teams not to try and get every young player coming off their rookie contract at a temporary discount and to not have players try and leave their original team relatively early on in their careers, even if the fairness of that for players is certainly more debatable.  

With that in mind, during the next collective bargaining agreement, you'd have to imagine that it's the players who would buck against restricted free agency, if anything.

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Perhaps they could push for a free-agency compensation system somewhat similar to major league baseball, where everyone is unrestricted and the original team would receive a compensation draft pick based on a set of qualifiers like stats or the size of the next salary.

That just seems incredibly unlikely to happen, as owners outside of the large markets would rally fiercely against that in the name of parity. There are no perfect solutions here, and again, this is a relatively uncommon circumstance in the first place and might not be viewed as a problem worth addressing. There will be bigger battles to fight, undoubtedly.

Restricted free agency, whether it be through qualifying offers or "poison pill" contracts, can potentially backfire on both teams and players.

It's all part of the game, though, and when you consider the goals of the league and why it's in place, it seems incredibly unlikely that any significant changes to the system will be made.

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