- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The NBA avoided its second lockout in seven years yesterday as players and owners agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that creates an enhanced series of salary controls and an increased minimum playing age.

The new accord arrives on the heels of several months of increasingly strident talk from both sides of the bargaining table, with NBA commissioner David Stern saying last week a union refusal to make a deal would be “a mistake of epic proportions.” But after a series of lengthy bargaining sessions held over the last five days, the two sides emerged with a tentative agreement, allowing the sport to avert the type of labor apocalypse that has crippled the NHL.

League and union officials announced the six-year deal before last night’s Game6 of the NBA Finals and nine days before the June30 expiration of the current agreement.

“We agreed almost all along the line that this business would suffer greatly from a lockout,” Stern said, recalling the 190-day work stoppage of 1998-99. “We know from our own experience what could happen.”

Both Stern and players union executive director Billy Hunter called the new deal a “50-50 partnership” in which each side gave up bargaining goals. But the agreement provides management several toughened measures to curtail the growth of average player salaries, which now exceed $3.8million, and to slow down bloated, eight-figure payments to players well past their primes. Among them:

• A reduction in the maximum length of guaranteed contracts from seven years to six. Free agents changing teams, previously subject to a six-year limit for contracts, now are capped at five years.

• The establishment of 19, or one year after the graduation of a player’s high school class, as the league’s new minimum age for players. The league sought a threshold of 20, while the union wanted to stay at the previous minimum of 18. The age change arrives in tandem with a planned expansion of the National Basketball Development League. Teams also will be able to assign any player with less than two years’ experience to the NBDL. Stern actively sought the measures as a means to reduce NBA scouting of high school games. Active rosters will be increased from 12 to 14 players, and the entry age for the NBDL will be reduced from 20 to 18.

• A reduction in annual raises in player contracts from 12.5 percent a year to 10.5 percent if a player stays with his current team and from 10 percent to 8 percent if a player changes teams via free agency.

• An increase in the salary cap from 48 percent of basketball-related income to 51 percent. In dollar terms, that likely will raise the cap from its 2004-05 level of $43.9million to between $47million and $50million a team next season.

• The creation of a second team option year for rookie contracts. Under the new pact, the first two years of rookie contracts, tied to specific wage pool, would be guaranteed. Years three and four will be team options.

• An expansion of the drug testing program to mandate four random tests for each player a year. Veterans previously were subject to one test during training camp. A first positive test brings a 10-game suspension, rising to a lifetime ban for a fourth positive test.

While several terms of the deal, particularly the increased minimum age, promise to usher in significant changes for the league, the pact still represents a broad modification of the previous labor deal and the soft salary cap system that is one of the NBA’s hallmarks. And without any systemic issues on the table, many basketball insiders wondered how and why the sport came so close to shutting itself down.

“We decided it was time to back away from the abyss and see if we could do a deal,” Hunter said.

Ernie Grunfeld, the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations, cheered the deal’s provisions to increase the use of the NBDL, which Stern and Hunter ultimately aim to develop into a full-fledged minor league.

“That’s going to be a terrific asset,” Grunfeld said, citing Wizards players like center Peter John Ramos as key candidates to play in an expanded NBDL. “Unfortunately, we have players now coming into the league who are simply not ready to play, and this is going to be a way to get additional experience. We can have them practice and do drills with us, but there’s simply no substitute for real game experience.”

The labor deal also arrives with a change to the escrow tax system, in which players pay back 10 percent of their salaries and owners whose teams stay below the luxury-tax threshold keep the money. The new agreement calls for a graduated reduction of the salary withholding to 8 percent and the money distributed equally to all 30 NBA teams.

The agreement is still subject to approval by the NBA Board of Governors and the players union membership.

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