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With a New Deal, NBA Avoids 'Abyss'

Labor agreement, which needs to be ratified, alters age limit, rookie scale and salary cap.

June 22, 2005|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — After vowing to make a deal last winter and taking a month off to blast each other this spring, the NBA and the players' union resumed talks last week, settled their differences in four days and announced agreement on "key principles" Tuesday.

A contract has yet to be drafted, but unless new problems surface, the lockout scheduled for July 1 will be averted.

"I guess the two of us needed to ratchet up the rhetoric," union director Billy Hunter said, "and we decided it was time to back away from the abyss and decide if we really could do a deal."

A deal would guarantee labor peace for six years with minor changes from the current deal. The most controversial essentially raises the minimum age from 18 to 19, which would prevent American high school players from entering the draft, as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James have.

Now an 18-year-old who wishes to turn pro would only have the option of playing for the NBA's development league, known as the NBDL. In the NBDL, according to present rules, he could be paid as much as $24,000, plus housing and transportation.

"This will encourage our scouts to spend time in D-league gyms rather than high school gyms," NBA Commissioner David Stern said.

Other key changes:

* The rookie scale would be lowered from five seasons to four, with the last two at the team's option. After four seasons, an unsigned player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

* Players in their first two seasons can be sent to the NBDL, as baseball teams send players to the minor leagues. The minimum age in the NBDL will be reduced from 20 to 18.

* Players will be subject to four random drug tests a season. Under current rules, they're tested once, in training camp.

* The maximum length of contracts would be lowered from seven seasons to six.

* The cap on annual raises, which is now as much as 12.5% a year, would be lowered to 10.5%.

* Rosters would be expanded to 15, with 12 players designated as "active." In past seasons, teams have kept extra players around by claiming fake injuries.

The deal also increases the salary cap from about 48% of revenues to 51%, and guarantees the players 57% of revenues.

The agreement still must be ratified by the league's Board of Governors and by the union at its annual meeting in Las Vegas next week. Because of the time needed to put the agreement in writing, the start of the free-agency signing period has been moved from July 14 to July 22.

The change in minimum age means U.S. players will have to wait one year after their high school class graduates before they can become draft eligible. International players will have to turn 19 by the end of the calendar year in which they become draft eligible.

Laker forward Lamar Odom, drafted No. 4 overall by the Clippers as a 19-year-old in 1999, recently said he was "a little sensitive" about creating a minimum age of 19 for U.S. players.

"I would like to see any kid 17 or 18 years old be able to come out," he said. "I think it's part of our history as a nation. Kids that are 18 can work, could go to war and fight. I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be in the league.

"Some of the older players, I think it might protect them, but I'm all about the youth movement. I'm all about making it better for the next of kin. I think they should at least have that right. If you feel like you're a player that might get pushed out, don't hang out, don't drink, sleep well and an 18-year-old won't take your spot."

Laker forward Caron Butler, who was 22 when he was drafted after his sophomore year at Connecticut, said he thought 19 was a little high.

"It's hard to question the age limit with Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, those types of guys coming in and playing so well straight out of high school," he said.

The agreement replaces the deal reached in January 1999, after a 7 1/2 -month lockout cost the NBA its distinction as the only American major league that had never lost a game to a labor action.

This time, Stern and Hunter wanted to avoid the disaster that had just befallen the NHL, which canceled the 2004-2005 season and is still without a labor deal.

Still, negotiations dragged until Stern broke off talks May 18, charging that agents had pressured Hunter into backing off things he already had agreed to. Hunter, an African American, called it a racist ploy that suggested he was a puppet for the predominantly white agents.

Nine days ago, Stern tried to appeal to the players over Hunter's head, warning them to avoid "a tragic mistake ... of epic proportions."

On Friday, five days after Stern's warning, talks began again and sped swiftly to an agreement.

With the deal, the Lakers can begin trying to reconstruct their roster for a second run under Coach Phil Jackson.

They have three picks in Tuesday's draft, some trade possibilities with as many as seven players entering the final year of their contracts, and, although they won't be major players in free agency, their mid-level and veteran's exceptions are available.

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