“Bird rights” arbitration could impact Knicks with Lin, Nash, everyone

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The Knicks — if they want to have any hope of adding Steve Nash or any other significant free agent this summer — have a lot invested in what an arbitrator says about “Bird rights” in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Because that new CBA ties GM Glen Grunwald’s hands behind his back.

It’s a long and complex tale, one told by Howard Beck at the New York Times with additional details from Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ. Stick with me through this.

First off, Bird rights are the rights of teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign players already on their roster. The league has interest in good players staying with one team and allowing fans to identify them that way (it’s good for marketing), so they provide a financial incentive for players to stay.

The question is, how do the Bird rights apply to waived players like Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak. The league and union disagree. From Beck at the Times.

The league contends (Bird rights) are lost when a player changes teams through waivers. The union is challenging that interpretation.

If the union prevails, the Knicks would be able to re-sign both Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak, their two top free agents, despite cap constraints. They would also retain a $5 million salary slot — known as the mid-level exception — for use on another player, possibly J.R. Smith, who might opt out of his Knicks contract.

But if the union’s challenge fails, the Knicks will probably lose Novak and possibly Smith, when free agency opens in July. And they will have little ability to sign significant a free agent — such as Steve Nash — once they re-sign Lin.

Here’s where it gets more complex for the Knicks.

The Knicks currently have about $64 million in salary on the books for next year, before Lin, Novak and J.R. Smith make their decisions, plus Landry Fields is a restricted free agent. The way the salary cap works in the new CBA is that there is there is a luxury tax line — which will be about $70 million next season — then $4 million above that is an “apron.” Once you go above the apron there are all kinds of tight restrictions on how much money you can offer new signings (it’s not a hard cap but it will feel like it).

Lin will get $5 million as a restricted free agent, not because he totally deserves that for his play but because he’s worth far more than that in marketing terms and Knicks will keep him (and he wants to stay). If the Knicks spend that on Lin they cannot give Nash a full mid-level exception of $5 million because it takes them over the apron, they can only offer $3 million.

However, if the arbiter rules the Knicks have the Bird rights on Lin and Novak, they could offer Nash (or Jason Kidd or Jameer Nelson or a host of other free agents) the full mid-level then go over the apron to re-sign their own.

All of which is to say — the Knicks are not making any big moves this summer. Nash can get the same money to play for the Knicks or Heat (a team that plays an up-tempo style), so where do you think he’s going? You can try to trade Amare Stoudemire and is $56 million uninsured contract, good luck with that.

I do not envy Knicks GM Glen Grunwald. The expectations on him are way out of line with the tools at his disposal.