Dirk, Yao Can Strike First in Collective Bargaining War
As such, the calculus of players with contract options has changed dramatically. Of course, players like LeBron James -- a 25-year-old looking for opportunity, whether that be through a superior supporting cast, an elite sidekick or big city lights -- would have opted out of their 2010-11 contract options regardless of the labor situation. For young players worthy of no-doubt max contracts, you opt out every time you get the opportunity -- it's the only way to get your salary as high as possible under the NBA's payscale rules.
But it's different for aging stars. Dirk Nowitzki, for instance, turns 32 before the start of free agency. Including the postseason, he's logged 37,000 minutes of NBA play. Is he worth another five or six years at $20 million a season? Is he worth another $80-100 million?
Mark Cuban may have to ask himself that question this summer. Nowitzki has an early termination clause, one which, if invoked, would forfeit his $21.5 million salary in 2010-11 but place him in unrestricted free agency during a summer in which some eight teams have $20 million of cap space.
Is it a risk for Nowitzki? On its face, sure. No matter what he does this spring, Dirk won't eclipse LeBron or Dwyane Wade as the undisputed prizes of the free agency period. Chris Bosh, the top big man available, is some seven years younger than Dirk, and few teams (perhaps not even Dallas) would pick a more expensive, older Nowitzki over the Raptor talisman. Nowitzki would be a top-5 free agent, no doubt, but he wouldn't be the first player the Knicks, Nets and Heat chase. He'd be a back-up plan, like Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire.
But if money and long-term security is the issue, 2011 looms too largely to ignore. Contract lengths could be sliced, if the owners get their way. Contract amounts will be shredded. Even the guaranteed contract, that hallmark of NBA labor relations, that thorn in just about every owner's side, could become extinct. If Dirk takes his $21.5 million from Cuban and waits to become a free agent in July 2011, he'll be casting his dice into the unknown.
Nowitzki and Yao Ming, a player in similar circumstances, though 29 years old with a $17.7 million salary slated for 2010-11, don't seem like particularly militant NBA players when it comes to labor relations, and in fact each has a dear relationship with his employer. The union, in other words, couldn't have picked two worse candidates for the role of financial freedom fighter. Nonetheless, this is the best chance NBA players have to stick it to owners before the owners try to turn the knife. The owners won't be playing nice next July. Why should Dirk and Yao make things easy for them now?
It makes perfect financial sense for Dirk and Yao to opt out and enter free agency. But more than that, it could serve as a rallying point for all players, who need to show that they too can play hardball.