Martin was still on the free agent market because he signed a contract with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in China during the lockout. Unlike the players who signed in European leagues, Martin and other NBA players who went to China were not allowed to return to play in the NBA immediately upon the resolution of the NBA lockout.
There is currently confusion as to exactly when Martin will be allowed to play in the NBA. FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, has granted Martin a Letter of Clearance to sign elsewhere, but the Chinese Basketball Association insists that Martin must wait until Xinjiang's season is over. The final game of the regular season is February 15, but the Tigers are still in the running for a playoff berth, so even that could drag on longer.
The Tigers are currently 12-12, in tenth place and so would miss the eight team playoffs if the season ended today. However six of their remaining eight games are at home, where the Tigers are 9-1 this season, so it's very much within the realm of possibility that they could finish strong and sneak into the playoffs.
I find it hard to believe that NBA commissioner David Stern would want to run afoul of the Chinese for the sake of Kenyon Martin and the Clippers. The FIBA decision gives the NBA some political cover, but the NBA isn't even officially within FIBA's jurisdiction. When they choose to abide by FIBA's decisions, it's as a courtesy to the organization, and one would suspect that the NBA might want to be even more courteous to a country with a billion potential NBA fans.
The current situation raises other questions as well. Has Martin actually signed a contract, or merely agreed to terms? One presumes that by even signing a contract, Martin has breached if not the letter then the spirit of his original agreement in China. If the two sides have agreed to terms then Martin will be a Clipper eventually, which is certainly good news given the team's puddle deep bench, but it's not just a question of when he will be allowed to play: can Martin even practice with the team before this dispute is resolved?
[Note by Steve Perrin, 02/03/12 11:11 AM PST ] I see several different possible outcomes of the current situation:
- The Chinese back off, and/or the NBA ignores their objections, and Martin is cleared to play right away. Even then, he won't be in game shape, and would likely need at least a week's worth of practice. I find this possibility unlikely. If he won't be able to play until February 10th, why not throw the Chinese a bone and wait until the the end of the regular season, the 15th?
- The sides reach a compromise that allows Martin to begin practicing with the team, but not to appear in games until the conclusion of the Xinjiang season. This seems like a win-win for everyone, allowing the NBA and Chinese each to save face, while getting Martin onto the court almost as quickly as he would be otherwise. Furthermore, while I of course haven't seen the affidavit Martin signed with the Chinese league, a strict reading of Adrian Wojnarowski's story would not preclude this sort of compromise: Woj states the affadavit "stipulates [Martin] wouldn’t play in the NBA until his Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers’ season had ended" (emphasis added). That would seem to indicate that he can sign and practice, just not begin playing. If the Tigers miss the playoffs, Martin could then conceivably play in the Clippers Feb. 16 game against Portland.
- If the Chinese insist that Martin not practice, and/or if the Tigers actually make the playoffs, things will of course be delayed further. The NBA All Star break occurs about a week after the Chinese regular season ends: in that type of scenario, Martin might begin practicing with the team after the All Star break (around Feb. 27) and be game ready in early March.
So for now this is certainly good news for the Clippers, but there is still much unknown.