Are NBA Restricted Free Agents Losing Leverage?

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Are NBA Restricted Free Agents Losing Leverage?
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Leverage is hard to come by in NBA restricted free agency.

For the players, that is. Teams have plenty of it. They are the clout-carrying figures of this entire process, manipulating the outcome from start to finish. 

Players can and will assert authority, but the impact they have over conclusions is minimal. As we're seeing now in the curious cases of Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, it's virtually nonexistent.

Restricted free agents are nearly powerless, and now more so than ever before, their futures lie outside their realm of control.

 

Established Precedent

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This isn't any different from years past in so many ways. The crux of restricted free agency remains the same: Players are free to seek out contracts from other teams and put pen to paper on offer sheets. Once they do, their incumbent clubs have 72 hours to match said offer sheet, giving them final say.

There isn't much else players can do. They sign offer sheets, then wait. Sometimes they'll speak, trying to sway the outcome, like in the case of Eric Gordon. 

Back in 2012, Gordon inked a four-year, $52 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns, all while hoping the then-New Orleans Hornets wouldn't match.

"As for now, I don't know what's going on," Gordon told reporters at the time. "(If the Hornets match) as of right now, I'd be disappointed."

"I don't think there is," he would add when asked whether New Orleans could do anything to change his mind.

Well, the Hornets matched, because it was their right to do so. They retained a disgruntled player because they could. It didn't matter that Gordon clearly wanted to play in Phoenix or that he was spewing hot fire all over the organization, essentially demanding New Orleans let him go. 

Signing an offer sheet didn't grant Gordon leverage, as he came to find. All it did was set his market value.  

That's a common misconception of this whole process. Offer sheets aren't leverage. They're price tags, and price tags aren't leverage. They're just price tags. 

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Price tags only become leverage if they're blatant overpays structured in such a way that deters teams from matching. That's how the Dallas Mavericks pried Chandler Parsons away from the Houston Rockets. 

 

"The contract (Parsons) got...the Mavericks are a smart organization," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told KBME-AM 790 in Houston (via The Dallas Morning News). "They obviously wanted to get him...that structure of that (contract) is literally one of the most untradeable structures I've ever seen."

Parsons got a three-year contract worth more than $46 million from Dallas that was loaded with provisions to keep Houston away. Usually, though, good luck finding that type of deal if you're a restricted free agent. 

Overpaying players, backloading pacts and including insane trade kickers have never been considered good practices. They're harder to move this side of the collective bargaining agreement, where most teams are wary of their spending and how it relates to the luxury tax.

One of the few executives bold enough to ignore financial prudence—Morey—(see Jeremy Lin's and Omer Asik's poison-pill pacts) was just burned by this against-the-grain logic.

Mostly, there's (usually) little point in dangling said pacts. 

The Rockets' decision not to match came as a surprise. They were supposed to match. They were supposed to retain Parsons. 

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Hibbert's 2012 foray into restricted free agency is another example of a player's lack of leverage.

Whiffing on Chris Bosh forced their hand, but the Rockets' initial intent is why many teams won't even bother handing out offer sheets to outside restricted free agents. 

Consider the case of Roy Hibbert in 2012. The Portland Trail Blazers were all set to give him a max offer sheet, then didn't because as Ric Bucher—then of ESPN The Magazine and now an NBA analyst for Bleacher Report—pointed out they knew the Indiana Pacers would match.

Tying up cap space in a player they weren't going to land would preclude the Blazers from pursuing other free agents. That's the downside to these offer sheets: Once teams sign a player to one, said player counts against their books, curbing their spending power until a resolution is reached.

Fast forward to present-day procedure, and things haven't changed. 

They're worse...for the players.

 

Modern-Day Problems

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Flight risks aren't as likely to sign offer sheets with other teams, a fear borne out by the Gordon situation and one that is dictating the terms of Monroe's restricted free agency.

While being interviewed by blogger Aime Mukendi Jr., Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski Woj-bombed all over Mornoe's ongoing soap opera with the Detroit Pistons:

Detroit has tried to help [Monroe] with some sign and trade possibilities around the league. Monroe doesn’t really have a great interest in going back and playing with the Pistons. ...

They’ve talked with Atlanta, I believe they talked with Phoenix for a while. Portland had some interest early on, but those teams moved on. They could have signed Monroe to an offer sheet but Detroit would have likely matched it.

Could Monroe have signed an offer sheet before now? Without question. Why didn't he? For the same reason interested teams would have been hesitant to give him one: Detroit is expected to match.

And because the Pistons are expected to match, Monroe is better off getting the Pistons to entertain sign-and-trade possibilities. But that once again puts him at their behest. They have't traded him; Wojnarowski says they value him too much and haven't found an offer to their liking. 

Situations like these make signing an offer sheet a deterrent. Think about that. Seriously, think about it.

One of the few rights restricted free agents have is one that some—like Monroe—must avoid if they're dead set on finding exits, a tactic that's not guaranteed to work. In Monroe's case, all it's done is kill whatever market he had.

Waiting this long has removed options. Even if Monroe wanted to sign an offer sheet, most teams have already spent themselves out of his price range, leaving him further indentured to Detroit and its agenda.

Enter Bledsoe.

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Bledsoe continues to realize how much leverage he doesn't have.

Mini-LeBron's return to Phoenix was once considered a formality, and it still is, though for vastly different reasons. 

Things have soured between Bledsoe and the Suns, according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes. The Suns are offering him four years and $48 million; Bledsoe, meanwhile, is seeking a max contract, which has put this relationship on the "express lane to being ruined."

If we're to assume the Suns hold firm in their offer—likely—Bledsoe can only hope to find a contract worth substantially more.

Which he won't.

Deep into free agency, finding teams willing to tie cap space up in a player they won't have isn't the main issue. Finding teams that have the means to offer anything is Bledsoe's greatest challenge.

Only one team has that kind of financial wiggle room available and, well, let's just say the team in question isn't in the market for players who help win games:

"That external offer isn't coming, and if it somehow does, it won't be high enough for the Suns to balk at the price," Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley writes. "The Suns don't want him to go anywhere, and they have the power to make sure he stays."

The Suns, thanks to the rules and regulations of restricted free agency, have all the power.

 

Where Are All the Options At?

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What are players like Bledsoe and Monroe supposed to do when it comes to this? Ink an offer sheet that allows them to be locked down at a discount? 

Not going to happen.

Restricted free agents only gain control by accepting their qualifying offer, playing next season out and entering the following summer as an unrestricted free agent with the power to sign anywhere they want without regard for their current team. Or, like The Washington Post's Thomas Johnson hammers home, they can try to broker short-term deals:

For Bledsoe, an alternative option could be to follow the lead of free agents LeBron James and Luol Deng and sign a two-year deal, with a player option for next season. In that scenario, Bledsoe would become a free agent in 2016, when the cap is projected to increase considerably due to a new media deal.

Both of these suggestions are "solutions" to the quandaries restricted free agency presents. But they are not without risk.

Players stuck in this charade aren't graying veterans. They're 20-somethings coming off rookie deals looking to secure their financial futures. Playing through another season or signing a two-year deal sounds good in theory, but if they get injured during that time, boom goes the dynamite, down goes their stock, buh-bye goes their lucrative payday.

Do restricted free agents now hold less leverage than ever?

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Power plays are clearly dominating the restricted-free-agency conversation now. Teams—both incumbent and otherwise—understand the stakes and effects of offer sheets and the benefits of staredowns. And it's now so bad that the lone right restricted free agents have—offer sheets—is one they either can't or won't exercise.

“First off I’m going to let my agent handle it,” Bledsoe told Alabama 13's Kyle Burger. “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using a restricted free agent against me. But I understand that.”

Likewise, the Suns understand the extent of their power, as does every other team who is or will find itself in identical situations. 

Where restricted free agency once gave players some freedom, it now has them superglued to a wall, between a rock and a hard place, their feet bound, their hands tied, their future at the mercy of someone and something other than themselves.

 

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