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My New Heros - Citizen John R and Tim Kawakami

We've now entered a long holiday weekend.  Not that it's impossible to conduct business over the Fourth of July, but I don't really expect any announcement until Monday. 

In the meantime, it's quite gratifying to see that there are basketball writers out there almost as smart as our own Citizen John R.  From the beginning, he's insisted that the Clippers do not have to renounce Elton Brand's Bird rights in order to sign Baron Davis.  Once Maggette and Livingston are renounced, the first season dollar value of EB's deal is the only thing that matters in determining what's left over for Davis, and that amount can be established for Brand with or without renouncing him.  The significance is that without renouncing him (i.e by retaining Bird rights) the Clippers can offer a six year contract, as well as 10% annual raises (as opposed to a maximum of 5 years and 8% raises).  These things would seem to be crucial in this entire process.

So why then was the Clippers Brand offer being reported as for only 5 seasons?  Even more disconcerting, basketball writers left and right were saying that the Clippers were offering only 5 years specifically because they had to renounce Brand first.  So who's right?

Enter Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.  A Warriors beat writer for many years, Kawakami is definitely the go to guy for the GSOM crowd, which is enough for me to say that he's good at what he does.  Turns out that Kawakami was struggling with exactly the same question that we were.  The Collective Bargaining Agreement sure SEEMS to allow for the Clippers to offer Brand that sixth season.  So why was the offer only for five?  Were the Clippers being cheap?  Were they confused?  Or were those of us thinking that a sixth year was allowed the befuddled ones?

The great thing is that we have a record of Kawakami's thought process.  From wondering aloud why others were saying he had to be renounced, to insisting that indeed he really did NOT have to be renounced, to finally uncovering that it was BRAND (and not the Clippers) insisting on a 5 year deal.  Another nice thing is that Kawakami is infinitely better connected than either Citizen John R or myself, so he was able to get some questions answered, as opposed to just asking them.

To call Larry Coon a competent Capologist is an understatement.  He wrote the book on the salary cap (or at least, he wrote the FAQ).  Coon's FAQ is the one and only source of information I use when I want to know something about the CBA and the cap.  I know that it's Citizen John R's primary resource as well.  If Kawakami was able to put the question directly to Coon, and he said that the Clippers don't have to renounce Brand, then it's a done deal.  No more questions to be asked.  We strongly believed that before, based on John R's convictions and our own reading of the FAQ - but now it's a given.  Larry Coon has spoken.

Next step for Kawakami - dig up the reason the Clippers offer currently stands at 5 years instead of 6.  His sources (remember, he has them, I don't) tell him that it is Brand insisting on a 5 year deal.  So the good news is that our worst fears (that the Clippers are so stupid as to either be trying to get cheap on the 11th of 11 cumulative contract years to two all stars at a discount  or to simply be making a bookkeeping mistake by renouncing Brand when they didn't have to) are unjustified.  The Clippers aren't that stupid (phew!)  Of course it still begs the question, why would Brand be turning down the 6th year, at a season salary of $17M or so?

No one seems to know - not even Kawakami.  He has two hypotheses:  (1) the "Over 36" rule is driving Brand to insist on a slightly shorter deal now; (2) the current CBA could be expiring after 5 seasons, so maybe Brand will be in a position to make more money then.

I find the second theory very hard to believe.  Bear in mind that (assuming we're right about the fact that Brand orchestrated these events and that he'll sign with the Clippers) EB is jumping through a lot of hoops so that he can take LESS than the maximum allowed in this contract.  Is he really concerned that the new CBA would significantly alter the maximum amount of money he would be allowed to sign for in 2014 at the age of 35?  If he's in a position to command the maximum salary in his NEXT contract (whatever the maximum is, whether it's from the current CBA or a subsequent CBA) then life will be very good indeed for Elton Brand.  He's not concerned with that.  He's just not.

The "Over 36" rule on the other hand may be a more reasonable concern.  Here's the description of the "Over 36" rule in the aforementioned FAQ.  As Kawakami says, it's complex.  Really complex.  I believe it is the longest entry in this particular FAQ, and that's saying something.  But here's the gist - the "Over 36" rule exists to try to keep teams from overpaying for older free agents, simply by paying them years beyond their expected retirement.  It applies to contracts 4 years and longer signed by players in their 30s (where in their 30s depends in part on the length of the deal).  Note that the "Over 36" rule could in fact have also been a factor in Brand's decision to opt out of the final year of this contract.  The "Over 36" rule would have kicked in for a six year deal next year, when he would be 30, limiting the perceived maximum value he could have squeezed out of playing out this contract.

As for the current negotiation, look at it this way.  Assume Brand believes his shelf life to be about 9 more seasons - that would have him playing until he's 38.  There are a couple of ways he can avoid the "Over 36" rule and still play until he's 38.  If he breaks that into a six year contract followed by a three year contract, he avoids the "Over 36" rule which does not apply to contracts of three seasons or less.  If he breaks it into a five year contract followed by a four year contract, he likewise avoids the "Over 36" rule which does not apply to 34 year olds signing 4 year deals, but DOES apply to 35 year olds signing 4 year deals.  The "Over 36" rule is a major cap burden for the team signing him, and everyone will want to avoid it.  So his best bet is to think 9 years out.  Does he think he'll have more value as a 34 year old, trying to sign a 4 year deal than as a 35 year old trying to sign a 3 year deal?  Maybe.  What I can say without hesitation is that he is VERY SMART to be thinking about this now.  I don't know that there's a huge difference to they way I see it.  But it is a consideration for a 29 year old superstar, without doubt.  (Of course, Falk is pretty smart too.)

Falk may have a strong feeling about negotiating contracts for older players.  His most famous client ever, Michael Jordan, played until he was 40.  And the last contract he negotiated with the Clippers was for an already 36 Sam Cassell.  The most compelling reason I can think of for limiting this contract to 5 seasons is a psychological barrier for teams signing players over 35.  It makes some sense.  Opt out now, sign as a 29 year old instead of a 30 year old.  It's easier for teams to justify spending big money on a player 'under 30'.  By the same logic, sign a 5 year deal, and the next negotiation will be for a 34 year old.  What team is going to sign a 35 year old to a huge contract?  But a 34 year old?  Hey, he's still under 35. 

As for the bigger question, I remain 100% convinced that Brand will be a Clipper.  As I mentioned yesterday, the potential bad news is that EB gets greedy and forces the Clippers to choose to pay him more, and in the process they lose Davis.  But I'm almost as certain that this whole thing was Brand's idea, so he'll eventually sign at whatever amount allows the Clippers to have both stars.

So what's the delay?  Could be any number of things.  For one, I'm sure that Brand and Falk want to do their due diligence and hear all of the offers.  It's just good business.  If the Warriors and Sixers want to make a pitch, you listen to what they say.  Even if it's almost impossible that you'll change your mind, you want to have a good relationship with these guys because you never know what's going to happen.  Maybe you'll want to sign with them in 5 years.  Maybe you'll get traded there.  Not to mention that an offer could come in that totally wows them.  Look at it this way - a week ago, most people thought Clippers best case scenario point guard for next season was Beno Udrih.  Maybe Philly has something cooking that is too good to ignore.  Probably not, but why not listen to their pitch?

Then there's John R's Phase 2.  If Brand and Falk really are the puppetmasters pulling the strings on this deal, then they know that they have all the power.  If their goal is to make the Clippers team as strong as possible, then forcing a sign and trade on Golden State is absolutely brilliant - the coup de grace on this whole thing.  And from their perspective, there's plenty of time.  Let the big time RFA's (Smith, Iggy, Emeka) re-sign with their teams.  Let Arenas' deal get finalized.  Let the Maggette bidding war get going.  All the while, the Dubs are getting really desperate.  It's particularly sweet if it lets Elton redeem himself with best man Maggs.  "Look, Corey, I did what I had to do for myself, and I'm sorry you got caught up in it.  But bide your time and work with me, and maybe we can get you paid too."  Until July 9th (next Wednesday) there's absolutely no reason to rush.