On his 29th birthday, Steve Novak was back in New York on Wednesday to attend the Bird Rights arbitration hearing between the NBA and the NBA Players Association. Novak will be directly impacted by the decision, as will the Knicks, who would love to have the ability to re-sign the NBA’s three-point shooting champ — not to mention young star Jeremy Lin — via Bird Rights.
After over three hours of arguments, the fate of Novak, Lin and the Knicks collective futures hangs on the decision that awaits from the arbitrator, Kenneth W. Dam. Consider this the first domino in what will be a very busy, very challenging offseason for general manager Glen Grunwald and company.
Novak, an active member of the NBPA, attended the meeting, but did not give testimony.
The players believe Bird Rights — which allow teams over the cap to re-sign their own players without the use of exceptions — should transfer with a player claimed on waivers just like they do in a trade. The language in the collective bargaining agreement suggests otherwise, but the union contends that there is enough ambiguity to challenge the rule.
The union, which was led by outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, the notoriously contentious negotiator for the NBPA during the recent NBA lockout, asked Dam to consider the difference between waivers and a trade. In both instances, a contract is transferred, so, the union says, the Bird Rights should go with both, as well.
The union official told us while the general belief is that the union’s chances at success in this argument are slim, he emerged from the hearing modestly optimistic. “I went from feeling like we had a 30 percent chance to now at least 50 percent,” the person said.
This is indeed a rare case, as generally most players claimed on waivers do not have the kind of value that would promote market competition as free agents.
Novak and Lin both had breakout seasons after the Knicks claimed each off waivers in December. Novak became the NBA’s leading three-point shooter and a key contributor off the bench for the Knicks, while Lin only turned into an international sensation and an incredible box office draw.
While questions abounded during Linsanity as to how the Knicks could retain the 23-year-old point guard, it was Novak’s agent, Mark Bartlestein, who got right to work about how his client’s value to the Knicks could be maximized. Bartlestein contacted the union and said Novak should be allowed to maintain his Bird Rights, because his contract was picked up on waivers by the Knicks.
Had he cleared waivers, his contract would have been bought out by the San Antonio Spurs, his former team, and then he would have had to sign a new deal to join the Knicks. But that didn’t happen, so, Bartlestein says, why would his Bird Rights’ clock restart when the contract continued?
This is the point the union believes gives them a compelling argument.
“Really,” the union official said, “I think we caught [Dam’s] attention.”
The NBA, led by general counsel Rich Buchanan, is strictly holding to the letter-of-the-law in regards to this situation and as evidenced during the CBA negotiations, they prefer to limit Bird Rights to strictly trades and not waivers, too.
Commissioner David Stern said in his pre-Finals address on Tuesday that he expects the ruling will be “in favor of the view espoused not just by the league, but the clear language in the agreement.”
Stern also said he expected the decision to come “relatively fast,” but Dam did not make any promises. Both sides made him aware that free agency is looming July 1 and it was important for the players and their teams, especially, in this case, the Knicks, to have a result before then.
If Dam rules in favor of the spirit of the Bird Rights rule regarding trades, it would be a major win for not just Lin and Novak, but also for the Knicks. In this specific case, a ruling in favor of the union would give Novak and Lin “Early Bird Rights,” which come after two years under contract. Early Bird Rights allow a team to pay its own player as much as the league average in the first year.
That would also allow the Knicks to re-sign both players and still have the use of their Mid-Level Exception ($5M) and Bi-Annual Exception ($1.9M) to improve the roster in other areas.
If not, Novak could be lost to a higher bidder and most or all of the MLE would have to be used to match any offer sheets that Lin, a restricted free agent, signs with another team. Other teams can offer Lin as much as the league average in the first season.
Dam has handled arbitration before between the NBA and the union, with several CBA-related matters from 1996-2001. Coincidentally, Dam had a decision that impacted the Knicks in 1997, when he ruled that a trade between the Knicks and Trail Blazers for center Chris Dudley was not an attempt to circumvent the salary cap. The NBA initially voided a trade that sent John Wallace to Toronto for a first-round pick that was then flipped to Portland for Dudley. The union brought the matter to arbitration and Dam said the deal was valid.
The union — and, privately, the Knicks — would love to see a similar result.