The Oklahoma City Thunder are just trying to be smart. By attempting to turn 29th overall pick Josh Huestis into the first domestic “draft-and-stash” player, Sam Presti and company are trying to preserve that last little bit of roster and salary flexibility while still controlling Huestis’s development with the relocating Tulsa 66ers, now conveniently based in OKC proper. While moves like this may represent the future as the NBDL becomes a true minor league, until that’s the case, this be should be explicitly disallowed.
Sam summarized some of the competitive and CBA issues with the proposal, the most salient of which is this arrangement is only available to a fraction of the teams in the league. The 13 franchises forced to share the services of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants certainly can’t make use of this strategy. After all, the only way Huestis even plausibly agrees to the deal (more on this in a minute) is if he’s guaranteed extensive playing and development time. The Mad Ants certainly aren’t in a position to guarantee this to any of the Pacers, Raptors, Bulls, Wizards, Nets, Hornets, Hawks, Bucks, Clippers, Blazers, Timberwolves, Nuggets, or Pelicans. Even among the 17 D-League franchises owned or controlled by a single NBA club, only about five are co-located enough to allow for the level of intense parent club supervision implied.
So the competitive advantage such a move would provide to those few teams who could plausibly employ it — or something similar — is bad enough. But the larger problem is the degree to which this tactic would strain and possibly break the contracting draft process.
Backing up, in the early 1990s, the league began to be concerned with the exorbitant salary demands of recently drafted players. Rookies such as Larry Johnson and Glenn Robinson demanded (and received) some of the higher salaries in the league before they had even played a game. In response, the union and owners bargained for and instituted the rookie salary scale for the 1995-96 season. With each 1st round pick “slotted” a salary, the days of protracted negotiations were over. Under this arrangement, Huestis would be due between $734,000 and $1,101,600 in 2014-15 by virtue of being the 29th pick. NBA custom is that players always sign for the highest possible amount under the rookie scale, and the contracts have a minimum of a two year guarantee. By comparison, the average D-League salary is just over $17,000, though Huestis would presumably get close to the max of $25,000.
It beggars belief that Huestis would pass up almost $2.3 million in guaranteed salary simply for a chance to “develop” as a player. Without any inside information, one could logically speculate that either Oklahoma City is offering something they aren’t permitted to offer, or threatening something they shouldn’t be allowed to threaten, or even a mixture of both. Either the Thunder have guaranteed they will sign him to his rookie scale contract next offseason, or they threatened to never sign him at all if he refuses the D-League stash season. Neither should be an acceptable tactic.
The first is a clear circumvention of NBA rules, the kind of thing which got the Timberwolves fined a whopping five (later reduced to four) draft picks for reaching a multi-part “understanding” with Joe Smith. While the Smith situation is slightly different, in that he was acquired via free agency rather than through the draft, the principle remains: sign this small, team-friendly (and below market) deal now, and we’ll take care of you later.
These nod-and-wink deals are a semi-open secret within the league. Both the formation of the “Big 3 era” Miami Heat and the decisions of all relevant players to opt out were prime examples. Even Udonis Haslem, a player of no real utility to the retooling team was “taken care of” for an extra $1 million despite the Heat’s plans being dashed by LeBron James deciding to return to Cleveland. Still, no team aside from Minnesota has ever been punished, because no other team has made it as impossible for the league to ignore as the Wolves having a signed agreement with Smith. Plausible deniability allows the system to function this way: don’t throw it in our faces and we’ll let the game play out as it always has. Huestis “agreeing” to an almost 98% pay cut in year one is throwing it in our faces.
Perhaps if this was common practice for every team, it could be ignored as business as usual. But Oklahoma City (and the other few teams which can do something similar) get an extra year of free development of a player which could lead to at least one more season of production on a highly team-friendly rookie deal.
The other possibility is more worrying. Oklahoma City would hold Huestis’s draft rights in perpetuity if he does not sign with them and signs somewhere else. Threatening to effectively prohibit him from reaching what is surely a lifelong goal of playing in the NBA unless he agrees to the scheme turns the rationale of the rookie scale on its head. To even describe it accurately is to demonstrate the offensiveness of the suggestion under any reasonable notion of fairness, so I have to believe that OKC is trying to pull a fast one rather than trying to operate as a basketball sweatshop.
Forcing observers to decide whether a team is engaging in simple chicanery or something even more nefarious is not a position the NBA should look kindly upon. Between the contractual shenanigans and the competitive imbalance, Oklahoma City’s plan simply cannot be allowed to come to fruition.