The ability to keep this deep Knicks roster intact is riding on a decision that will be made by an independent arbitrator in June. Though this is technically an NBA Players Association vs. NBA argument, the result will have a direct and dramatic impact on the Knicks more than any other team.
On Tuesday, Howard Beck wrote an extensive piece in the New York Times outlining how the players union is seeking arbitration to challenge a ruling on Bird Rights for players claimed on waivers.
This is a rare case, one that has people I spoke to on both sides of the argument, plus several NBA executives and agents, equally fascinated and curious. Generally, players claimed on waivers are of little significance to the teams that claim them mainly because they are usually fringe players who are either not re-signed or re-signed at an affordable price.
But leave it to Linsanity to create yet another unprecedented situation in the NBA.
It was during Jeremy Lin’s remarkable emergence from 15th man to stardom in February when the debate began about Lin’s contract status. He was in the second year of a two-year deal he signed with the Golden State Warriors, but had been twice waived and, subsequently, twice claimed.
Collective bargaining agreement experts, such as Larry Coon, proclaimed that Lin would still be a restricted free agent, but one without “Early Bird Rights,” which are given to a player who is two years into the same contract. Therefore, Lin could only be re-signed by the capped-out Knicks by using their Mid-Level Exception.
That would severely limit the team’s ability to sign other players and improve a roster that has six players headed to free agency. If another team signed Lin to an offer sheet for the full MLE ($5 million per season for a maximum of four years), the Knicks would be faced with signing Lin and having only the Bi-Annual Exception ($1.9 million) and veteran’s minimums left to fill out the roster, or losing the 23-year-old wunderkind for nothing.
“Bird Rights” were established to protect teams, especially those over the salary cap, from losing their own star players to teams that can offer more money. A three-year waiting period was created in 1995, which spawned the call for “Early Bird Rights” which were created to allow capped-out teams to re-sign their own free agents after just two years under contract. However, with Early Birds, the team is limited to offering the player a maximum of the league average.
According to the CBA, a player’s “Bird Rights” go with him when he is traded from team-to-team. But there is nothing in the document that indicates whether rights also transfer when a player is claimed on waivers.
The NBPA contends that the rights should transfer, because the contract remains intact, therefore the player’s “clock” does not re-set. If, for instance, Lin cleared waivers and became a free agent — such as when Jared Jeffries was waived by the Rockets in March 2011 and signed with the Knicks — then the Bird Rights clock resets to zero.
But since Lin was claimed off waivers and the Knicks inherited his contract from the Rockets, the union believes his Bird Rights went with the contract just like it does in a trade. Essentially, to claim a player off waivers is like acquiring his contract for nothing.
The NBA’s argument is that the Bird Rights rules are specifically defined in the CBA and cannot be debated.
That, however, will be up to an independent arbiter to decide. The union has asked that the process be expedited so a decision can be announced before free agency begins on July 1. It behooves the NBA to want to accelerate the process as well, because it could cause unnecessary problems during the free agency period.
This does not only impact Lin, but another important Knicks free agent, Steve Novak, who was in the second year of his contract after the team claimed him off waivers from the San Antonio Spurs.
If the union wins this argument, two other NBA players, and their respective teams, may benefit, including J.J. Hickson (Portland Trail Blazers) and Chauncey Billups (Los Angeles Clippers). But no one wins bigger than Lin, Novak and the Knicks, who could re-sign both players to a maximum of the league average (about $5.7 million, though it is doubtful Novak would command that much) and still have the MLE and BAE to spend to attract a free agents to upgrade the roster.
Now, before all of you CBA experts get into a lather, there are still other restrictions (aprons, cap holds, etc.) that will make things challenging for GM Glen Grunwald and his staff, but there’s no question that it makes things astronomically better for the Knicks if the arbitration results in favor of the players.
So while the season may be over, there is still one more win the Knicks need before the summer.