Might LeBron play out his contract with Lakers rather than sign extension?

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LeBron James is under contract with the Lakers next season for $44.5 million, the final year of his deal.

This August, the Lakers can — and will — offer him a two-year, $97.1 million extension. The conventional wisdom around the league has long been he would sign it and finish his career a Laker, but that may be shifting. The first eyebrows were raised when LeBron left the door open to a return to Cleveland during the All-Star break — a sentiment shot down by LeBron’s agent Rich Paul, who also met with the Lakers to say the same thing.

Now this week came LeBron’s non-answer answer when asked about signing the extension.

“The conversation hasn’t been talked about,” James said to reporters at his exit interview. “Technically, it’s because the collective bargaining agreement cannot even be discussed until later on in the year. So, you know, I know what’s out there. But we can’t even — myself and Rich — can’t even begin to talk with Rob [Pelinka, Laker GM] or the front office at all, because of the collective bargaining agreement. So we get to that point, we’ll see.”

While LeBron is technically correct that he and the Lakers can’t talk extension yet under the terms of the CBA, we also all know that’s not how the NBA works. In practice, there are back-channel conversations and intentions are laid out. In reality, LeBron knows what is coming. He chose not to talk about retiring a Laker. He chose to leave the door open. As Sam Amick of The Athletic put it:

We’ll see? If that doesn’t show you James is still reading the Lakers room right now, then nothing else will. Then again, can anyone blame him for continuing to reassess a situation that looks as sideways now as it did when Magic Johnson walked off the Staples Center set back on April 10 of 2019?

LeBron’s pattern in Cleveland was to go with short deals that kept the pressure on the organization to put a winning team around him. The threat of leaving was constant.

After a disappointing season, it looks like he is bringing that strategy to Los Angeles. Or at least the threat of it.

Magic Johnson says he wanted DeRozan on Lakers, LeBron pushed for Westbrook

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DeMar DeRozan said he wanted to come home to Los Angles and be a Laker when he was a free agent last summer, and he even talked to LeBron James. That deal never got close to being done, mainly for financial reasons.

Unless you ask Magic Johnson, who said he was pushing for DeRozan then laid the Russell Westbrook singing at the feet of LeBron James. Magic was on ESPN’s Get Up Monday and talked about it (hat tip to Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll).

“When I think about it, the blame that he’s gotta take is the fact that DeRozan ended up in Chicago and not with the Lakers. DeRozan wanted to play for the Lakers, and when I got the call from his agent, I called the Lakers, said, ‘Hey, he wants to come home.’ And DeRozan could have been a Laker instead of a Bull.

“We could have made that deal, but when Russell and LeBron and them started talking, that’s when they nixed that deal and went with Westbrook, and he became a Laker instead of DeRozan.”

Magic is right that LeBron — and Anthony Davis — pushed for Westbrook. The Laker front office agreed and went all in.

Magic said on ESPN the Lakers could have signed DeRozan, gone through the Buddy Hield trade that would have sent Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to Sacramento, kept Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and re-signed Alex Caruso.

No, they couldn’t have. Financially it would not have worked, the CBA gets in the way. Magic the executive needs a cap expert in his corner.

DeRozan was a free agent and the Lakers had no cap space, the most they could have offered him was the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of $5.9 million. DeRozan’s market value was far higher than that, the Bulls signed him for $26 million this season (three years, $81.9 million guaranteed, could reach $85 million). While maybe DeRozan would have taken a few million less as a hometown discount, he commanded far more than the Lakers could pay him as a free agent.

The Lakers could have worked out a sign-and-trade with the Spurs (which means Caldwell-Pope and others have to be traded to San Antonio in the deal), however, that would have hard-capped the Lakers. Meaning the Lakers could not have spent more than $143 million on payroll this season (the current Lakers roster is $156.6 million). They could not have gone over that number. For any reason.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined make $76.5 million this season (more than half the hard cap number on their own). If DeRozan took a $3 million hometown discount to sign with Los Angeles, the Lakers are at $100 million for three players. Hield makes $19.7 million this season, so in Magic’s fanciful world the Lakers are now at $119.7 million, leaving $23.3 million total for 11 more roster players (minimum, that’s just to get to 15 players, they can’t afford injuries) plus any two-way players. No way they can afford to re-sign Caruso, even at the steep discount he did offer the Lakers.

All this means in Magic’s scenario, the Lakers would have been LeBron, Davis, DeRozan, Hield, and a bunch of minimum-salary players. It’s still a top-heavy roster with no margin for error or injury. Would that roster have been better than the one the Lakers ended up with? Yes, if DeRozan had the All-NBA level season for the Lakers he has had with the Bulls (Chicago has used him well, would Frank Vogel and the Lakers have done the same?). But were Magic’s fantasy Lakers competing with the Suns, Grizzlies or Warriors for the top of the West. No. Reality would not let Magic Johnson play fantasy basketball with his former team.

 

NBA denies expansion report, but Seattle mayor says “odds are high” his city gets team

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic
Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images
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During the height of the pandemic, when NBA owners were losing money due to empty buildings, long-dormant talk of an NBA expansion to 32 teams gained momentum. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver even discussed it, and it felt like there was real momentum behind the idea, with Seattle and Las Vegas as the front runners.

The owners are expected to take up the topic again this summer (although that agenda is not locked in). While league sources previously told NBC Sports some owners have cooled on the idea — they don’t want to further divide the revenue pie, even for the short-term boost of a $166 million (or more) expansion fee check that would go to every team — Bill Simmons put the issue back on a front burner by saying on his podcast he had “intel” that the league would expand soon, and that LeBron James could have an ownership stake in the Vegas team after his playing days end.

On Wednesday, a league spokesman denied Simmons’ report to NBC Sports, saying “there is no truth to it.”

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s job is to be optimistic about things and push for them. He told NBC’s King5 in Seattle he thinks the NBA will expand to his city, but he didn’t put a timeline on it.

“The odds are high,” Mayor Harrell said on Wednesday. “We’re very intentional about it. I chase down rumors and I chase down actual people in a position to make that happen. I feel good about our opportunity.”

A few quick thoughts here:

• Whenever the NBA does choose to expand, Seattle will be the city at the top of the list. Las Vegas has a good chance, but Seattle will be a lock.

• Seattle now has an NBA-ready arena in the Climate Pledge Arena, where the NHL’s Kraken play. Las Vegas has an NBA-ready home already built as well in the T-Mobile Arena.

• It takes two-thirds of the owners to agree to expansion, which is a very high bar to clear. These days, getting two-thirds of any group to agree on things is a challenge, NBA expansion will be no easier.

• Previously Silver had called a $2.5 billion per team expansion fee “very low,” Simmons estimated the fee to be $3-$3.5 billion.

• While the fan/media focus has been on the big fat check the owners would get in an expansion fee — money they do not have to share with the players, this is not “basketball-related income” as currently defined by the CBA — Silver said the owners need to have a longer-term focus.

“The most important considerations for us when we look at expansion is, will it ultimately grow the pie?,” Silver said last year. “Meaning it’s potentially 30 more [player] jobs if you expand with two teams. You expand the league’s footprint. How does that help us in varying ways, sort of increased support nationally. So we’ll continue to look at it. I mean, I’ve said this many times before. We’re certainly not suggesting we’re locked at 30 teams.”

 

Report: WNBA fined New York Liberty $500,000 for private flights

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The Nets, owned by Joe Tsai, have been accused of what sounds like salary-cap circumvention to benefit their stars.

His WNBA team just got busted for violating that league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with extra benefits for players.

After years of receiving relatively pedestrian salaries and flying coach, WNBA players successfully lobbied for higher pay and better treatment. The new CBA, signed in 2020, requires teams to put players in “premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare)” if available. No less.

But also no more.

Tsai’s New York Liberty repeatedly flew private.

Howard Megdal of Sports Illustrated:

The Napa trip, over Labor Day weekend, violated the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a benefit that vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players. So, too, did the charter flights Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai bought and provided to their team repeatedly throughout the second half of the WNBA season, a competitive advantage for New York that led to a league-record $500,000 fine of the team—originally floated by the league at $1 million, reduced on an appeal, itself an irregular process—and the removal of Liberty executive Oliver Weisberg from the league’s executive committee, sources told Sports Illustrated. The league confirmed these details, as well.

After someone alerted the WNBA to the Liberty’s violations, possible remedies floated by the league’s general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, ranged from losing “every draft pick you have ever seen” to suspending ownership, even “grounds for termination of the franchise,” according to a Sept. 21, 2021, communication between the league and the Liberty reviewed by SI.

If you’re at all interested in the WNBA and/or sports business, I highly recommend reading Megdal’s full story. It is a fascinating look into a league still finding its footing a couple of decades in.

This is a massive fine, one that would rank among the highest known to be levied by the NBA.

It’s also understandable.

Imagine the New York Knicks ignoring the NBA salary cap and paying players larger sums than allowed. Perhaps, free agents will still spurn the Knicks. But New York would have a far better chance of loading up. Outrage by every other team and their fans would be immense.

There is practically no difference in what the Liberty did.

You might think WNBA owners should get their teams charter flights if desired. But both owners and players signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibiting it.*

*At least how the CBA is being read by the league. The actual wording: “All air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between games) will be, if available on the Team-chosen flights at the time of booking, premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare).” Could the Liberty have said, “We chose a private flight. There were no premium economy seats. So we put everyone in other seats on the (private) flight?”

Especially because they negotiated with a players’ union, teams can somewhat operate in ways that would otherwise be considered collusion. In some respects, the WNBA is considered to be a single entity competing with other sources of entertainment for revenue rather than the 12 WNBA teams are considered to be competing with each other. In that sense, WNBA teams – and players – can agree on their own set of internal rules for the league.

To that end, there’s a perceived value in a salary cap and other cost-limiting mechanisms. Most people believe competitive balance is good for leagues. If the Liberty and Las Vegas Aces (who are paying Becky Hammon more than $1 million in annual salary because there’s no cap on coaching salaries) disproportionately attract top players, will other teams draw sufficient attention?

The WNBA must strike the right balance between the haves and the have-nots to preserve the league. That won’t necessarily happen without spending limits. But as Megdal’s story details and the Liberty’s flight violation really shows, tension is growing between the owners who want to spend more and those who don’t.

There are potential solutions, including:

  • The next CBA could include a luxury tax/greater revenue sharing between teams. That could make it more palatable for big-spending owners to spend more while the more-frugal owners keep up. However, that would limit the amount of new money going toward players, instead redirecting it among owners.
  • Owners who can’t or won’t afford to spend more could be ousted. Franchises in markets that can’t sustain keeping up with the heavyweights could be contracted.
  • Players who want better treatment and big-spending owners can push for rule changes, even if every team would take advantage of the flexibility.

There’s a never-ending push for the right balance on these types of issues. The WNBA clearly hasn’t found its equilibrium yet.

Tyreke Evans reinstated by NBA after ban due to drug violation

Tyreke Evans in Indiana Pacers v Detroit Pistons
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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Just a season removed from a strong year with the Grizzlies and still having averaged double digits with the Pacers, Tyreke Evans appeared set to get a somewhat lucrative contract in 2019 free agency when the NBA dismissed and disqualified him for a drug violation.

Now reinstated, Evans will finally get a crack at free agency.

NBA release:

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association today granted the request of Tyreke Evans to be reinstated as an NBA player, after Evans was dismissed and disqualified from the league on May 17, 2019, for testing positive for a prohibited substance under the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program.

Pursuant to an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, Evans is now an Unrestricted Free Agent who may negotiate over the terms and conditions of a Player Contract with any team, and who, subject to other applicable CBA rules, may enter into a Player Contract with any team beginning 12:00 p.m. (ET) on Friday, February 18, 2022.

Hopefully, Evans’ reinstatement indicates he’s doing better.

His road back to the NBA isn’t necessarily paved from here, though.

Evans’ last season in the NBA was the worst of his career. He has been out of basketball is now 32. He missed the NBA’s signing bonanza earlier in the season.

Still, perhaps the 2010 Rookie of the Year who can play all three perimeter positions could help a team. He’ll at least have a chance to earn a contract now.