November 7, 2000

How David Killed Goliath Again

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We have all heard the historical account of David teaching the allegedly untouchable Goliath a lesson about who is the true big man in the Bible. In the NBA, usually this prophetic lesson does not hold true. Front office executives and players regularly take advantage of, circumvent and discreetly avoid the contract laws laid down by its regulating body.

However, history did repeat itself in the NBA last week as we saw who was the true big man in the NBA. Commissioner David Stern firmly exerted his regulating power on Joe Smith and the Minnesota Timberwolves. His decision is one that could destroy team morale, team ticket sales, team wins and most importantly could make other Goliaths of the NBA exposable to the wrath brought down by the commissioner’s office.

For those who are unfamiliar with this situation, here is the lowdown. Smith and the Timeberwolves worked out a seven-year deal for $86 million in 1999. Problem? Definitely.

This was a secret deal that violated the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The rules of the CBA are as follows: “At no time shall there be any undisclosed agreements (i.e. undisclosed to the NBA). . .between a player and a team.”

This rule was put into effect to curtail secret contract extensions, renegotiations or any amendments to the existing player contract. In their situation, the T-Wolves renegotiated with Smith in secret, which in effect prohibited other teams from competing for his future services and placed Minnesota’s actions in direct violation of the CBA.

So, did Stern verbally reprimand the organization and give it a light slap on the wrist like he has done in prior under-the-table deals? Emphatically and punitively, David Stern quieted all critics as he fastened the T-Wolves’ wrists to the electric chair and pulled the lever on the team’s future. Stern fined the organization $3.5 million, took away their first-round draft picks for the next five years, voided Smith’s contract, and took away his Larry Bird rights. The sheriff in town took out his six shooters and laid down the law.

For those who have not taken the sports collective bargaining class in ILR, you might not know about the Larry Bird rights. Let’s see if you can figure it out from these three choices:

A) It gives a player the right to acquire supernatural shooting prowess for the last two minutes of a game against the Lakers.

B) It offers a retired player the right to take the head coaching position for the Indiana Pacers.

C) It allows a team to sign its own free agent — if he has been with the team for at least three years — to a contract that would cause the team to exceed the salary cap.

Enough nonsense. The answer is, of course, C.

Besides voiding the secret contract, Stern also voided Smith’s 1998-1999 contract with Minnesota. In essence, this means that according to NBA records, Smith never even played for the T-Wolves. Therefore, he has zero years’ tenure under his Minnesota belt, and his Larry Bird Rights must start over again.

Subsequently, Minnesota cannot sign Smith for a contract that exceeds its salary cap. The organization can only offer him the league’s minimum salary requirement, which probably means that Smith will leave for greener pastures in Miami or New York. (What a surprise that the Heat and the Knicks are vying for the same player.)

If you are confused by Stern’s nullification of Smith’s Larry Bird Rights, you are in good company. Smith’s lawyers do not understand how Stern can void an already played 1998-99 contract, and they are appealing for his Larry Bird Rights to be reinstated.

Even if their appeal is granted, the Timberwolves will have been punished almost as severely as the country will be if George Bush wins the election. (Take no offense Cornell Republicans). Not only will they not be able to build rookies around Kevin Garnett; they will have difficulty bringing in big-time free agents to complement KG because of his exorbitant $120 million contract. For the next five years, KG better put up his $120 million numbers or else we could be seeing the beginning of a demise of this young franchise.

Secret negotiations, like Smith’s, have gone unscathed over the years. But this is the new millennium and a new David Stern. To sum up, his punishment served as a large warning notice plastered on every “Goliath’s” door contemplating an illicit negotiation: “Don’t mess with David.”

Archived article by Jason Skolnik