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Sources: Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons Sagas Could Lead to NBA Rule Changes

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 14, 2021

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 14: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers guards Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets at the Wells Fargo Center on April 14, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Nets 123-117. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving's vaccination status and Ben Simmons' trade request could have ripple effects far beyond Brooklyn and Philadelphia. They may even impact the NBA and NBPA's next round of collective bargaining negotiations. 

There was never any confidence in league circles that the union would agree to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Both NBA and NBPA officials are quick to point out the overwhelming majority of players have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Yet team management and ownership figures across the league have voiced frustration about double standards for players like Irving, whom the NBA does not require to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, the league does require basketball and business operations staffers to be vaccinated, and they are subject to close contact with unvaccinated players. 

There is a belief among ownership figures that this discrepancy could net a concession from the players' union during the next round of CBA negotiations, sources said, especially after media day was dominated by conversation about players’ vaccination statuses. The storyline has only continued casting a pall over this preseason, as the Nets announced Tuesday that they will not permit Irving to join the team until he is vaccinated.

The league sent a memo to all 30 teams in late August seeking a wide range of feedback, which was due on September 22, well ahead of next year's upcoming round of negotiations with the players' union. The NBA and the NBPA currently have the right to opt out of the CBA ahead of each season, but there's an official opt-out date in December 2022. That precedes the NBA's new television deal, which would start in 2025. League officials are prepared for that deal to exceed $8 billion annually, which could leave teams with a salary cap north of $170 million per season, sources confirmed to B/R. 

Team executives provided extensive criticism to the league office about the perceived failure of the supermax contract to keep stars in their incumbent markets, sources said. The seemingly increasing volume of trade requests from star players such as Simmons, who have often already agreed to exorbitant deals, has exposed the limitations of even the most lucrative contracts. 

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Simmons signed a five-year, $170 million maximum contract extension in July 2019, which included designated rookie extension language that elevated him to a salary worth an additional 3 percent of his team's cap—a new total over $177 million—once he was named third-team All-NBA during the 2019-20 season. The fact Simmons then requested a trade only one year into that lucrative contract and away from Philadelphia, the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season, has raised alarm bells among league officials. 

The union and its agents will always vote in favor of increasing players' freedom of movement and have generally supported trade requests as players' parallel to teams' ability to move them at a moment's notice. Yet there is a clause in every player's contract that explicitly states their team's ability to do so, and team officials have recently discussed the possibility of introducing monetary repercussions for players who ask out, sources told B/R. 

"There's gotta be some kind of penalty or fine," said one assistant general manager. "These guys sign the supermax and they want to get traded the next day." 

"It is the new trick of the trade," agreed one longtime agent.

Proposals have varied, but they largely center on something that would be a reverse trade kicker of sorts, where players can receive a maximum bonus of 15 percent of their salary if a team decides to move them. Some team officials want to see a player who requests a trade forfeit upwards of 70 percent of his salary. Others have told B/R about what seems like a far more realistic scenario, where the player in question would only make 60 percent of his guaranteed money once he requests a new team. 

Any such outcome would clearly be disadvantageous to the union's side, and would likely require NBA governors to yield even more of the BRI that has already been whittled down to an essentially 50-50 split. That could be a worthwhile sacrifice, though, in the name of greater team stability. 

"If you put a provision in there and say you can't ever ask for a trade, and we'll give you a [BRI] percentage more, the league could win that," said the player agent. 

Is there a simpler reality where teams can be awarded supplemental draft picks for losing an All-Star by way of trade request? "They should absolutely throw that stuff out there," added another assistant general manager.

The supermax, or designated player exception, would seem to have a far greater likelihood of being altered in some fashion. The concept was originally designed to boost teams' chances of retaining their franchise players, but the results have been damaging to many of those franchises. 

Paying a player up to 35 percent of the salary cap when rival suitors cannot hinders a front office's ability to surround that player with the supplementary talent needed to win a championship. And when that team drifts out of contention, that player has typically requested a trade, such as Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and James Harden in Houston. Many rival executives hope the same eventually occurs with Damian Lillard in Portland.

Despite signing James Harden to an extension that would carry through 2023, the superstar forced his way out of Houston last year.
Despite signing James Harden to an extension that would carry through 2023, the superstar forced his way out of Houston last year.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

It can also hamstring teams that aren't in title contention. For instance, John Wall's contract long muddied the Washington Wizards' books. When Kemba Walker qualified for the designated player exception in 2019, it gave the Charlotte Hornets and Walker's agent a higher ceiling to negotiate his next contract. However, that new salary range for Walker would have made it more challenging for the small-market Hornets to further build around him, which led to them sign-and-trading the All-Star point guard to Boston. 

"The designated player was an epic disaster of a rule," said one assistant GM.

"If you look at every team that has signed that contract, they've either ended up in the tax or that player has been traded," a team capologist told B/R. "Players get disgruntled because they sign the contract early in their career, you have less cap room to build around them, then you've stalled your building process. You can't pay everyone, it becomes too expensive. It's a mess." 

These supermax salaries will only continue to balloon under the league's next television contract in 2025. Whether the league and union agree to "smooth" the new influx of cash remains highly uncertain. It seems no party in the league office, team, or union feels the events of 2016 were optimal, when numerous front offices splurged on expensive contracts as the cap jumped by $24 million.

"We probably have more people now in the league who want to smooth it," said another team strategist.  

Smoothing isn't just a quick solution, however. In that scenario, players would be paid incrementally larger amounts similar to when they receive shortfall payments, where the NBA's projection for the salary cap turns out to be lower than the actual BRI by season's end. 

So, would each player in the NBA be paid evenly? Would it be prorated, with supermax players getting 30 or 35 percent of their team's smoothing allotment and their lower-paid teammates receiving less?

Another main topic expected to be examined is whether all draft-eligible players should be required to undergo medical evaluations for all 30 teams during the predraft process. Agents have increasingly withheld a prospect's medical information from certain teams to steer their clients to a preferred destination. 

Some teams choose those players regardless. Cleveland selected Evan Mobley and Sacramento drafted Davion Mitchell this summer even though they didn't have access to those players’ medical information. But withholding that info does put some front offices in difficult predicaments. 

"It's f--king ridiculous," said an assistant GM. "You're telling your owner you're gonna draft a kid, and give him $30 million over four years, and we don't know his medical? You're giving so much money to these people. What happens if you draft him in the top five, over other players who could change your franchise, and find out there's a heart condition? That's fireable."

Executives are quick to point out when teams acquire players by trade or in free agency, they are subject to a medical evaluation, but not in the draft. And it is within the union's power to require all draft-eligible players to be evaluated. It simply has not done so. 

Teams are also hoping to address the league's luxury-tax structures, the ever-growing buyout market, G League exclusivity rights and two-way roster spots, the calendar order of the draft and free agency, and the mechanism of restricted free agency, sources said.

Buyout players have not historically made significant impacts for their new teams. But executives are curious about adding a budgeted waiver system that would allow teams to bid on bought-out players similar to the popular free-agent budgets in fantasy sports, or a system that would allow incumbent teams to still pay part of their player's salary and trade a smaller amount to his new team. 

All of these issues will be viewed through a particular lens. Small-market teams have different objectives than those in big markets, as does the union's membership, where supermax players have differing perspectives from those on minimum deals. 

But the league's overall economy, especially pertaining to its ongoing financial recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, will loom as the largest background context of all. 

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