Friday, January 9, 2009

A little upset with the Blazers

I've written bits and pieces here about the unique situation involving Darius Miles and the Portland Trailblazers, but here's a quick recap: Miles was under contract with the Portland Trailblazers, and contracts in the NBA are guaranteed, so despite the fact that Miles has not played with the Trailblazers for a while, he is still guaranteed $9 million this season and $9 million next season. All teams will insure themselves when they sign big contracts, so the fact that Miles has been out injured for 2 years hasn't necessarily hurt the Trailblazers financially, since the insurance company pays his salary. However, Miles's salary still counts against the salary cap, and therefore as long as his contract lasts, the Trailblazers have to consider his salary when determining how much they can offer to potential free agents. However, last season, the Trailblazers asked the NBA to provide an independent doctor to examine Miles and see if he could ever play again, and the doctor determined Miles to be medically unfit to play again. Miles still gets paid what he's owed from his contract by the team's insurance policy, but what changed after the medical exam was that the Blazers were able to take Miles' salary out of their salary cap calculations. That's because league rules allow for exceptions to the salary cap when a player has a career-ending injury. That cap space, and the ability it allows the team to go after free agents, is huge for an up-and-coming team like the Blazers. To make sure that teams don't take advantage of such rules, the league specifies that if a player, after having been deemed medically unfit to play, comes back and is able to play in at least 10 games, then his salary goes back on the team's books.

All well and good. And the Trailblazers are, rightfully, a feel-good story of the NBA, having completely rebuilt and turned around a team that was struggling through smart moves in the draft and smart trades. GM Kevin Pritchard deserves tons of credit for the amazing job he's done.

However, there's one little problem: it turns out that Miles may still be able to play. How do we know? Because he actually has played, in 2 games this season as well as 6 games in the preseason. And if Miles is healthy enough, and teams think he's good enough, to cut it in the league, then he has every right to pursue employment without regard for Portland's cap space and plans for future team-building. That stuff is not his responsibility.

So I'm a little annoyed at how many stories there are insinuating that teams might sign Miles and play him for a few minutes just to hurt the Blazers.

Lots of teams that are down and out have contracts they'd love to be rid of. I'm sure no one in Sacramento likes the fact that Kenny Thomas's contract is stopping the Kings from making all the moves they might otherwise, and similarly in New York with Jerome James's contract. The league is littered with busts, bad signings, and so forth, and the NBA happens to be structured in such a way that it puts teams on the hook for their own mistakes. So Portland thought they'd wiggled through a loophole with regards to Darius Miles, and so sped up the rebuilding process.

I don't feel sorry for them now that it might turn out that that loophole has closed. And I really find this whole business of threatening to sue distasteful. As one of a huge number of players who are working hard to try to make it in the league, Miles should be insulted that his efforts have been reduced to some paper-shuffling conspiracy plot. It's like finding out the person you've been dating has just been seeing you to get back at his/her ex, except way worse.

And it's not just the current lawsuit threats. In the offseason, as well as the start of this season, there were reports that Blazers officials were trying to spread the word that Miles is a horrible character. As a fan of the league, I find that petty and insulting.

And I don't hate the Blazers. Not at all. I'm as impressed as anyone with the moves they've made and how quickly they've returned to relevance. But in basketball, like everywhere, great powers are often built on questionable moral choices, choices which come back and force the power to re-examine itself. It sounds ironic, but Darius Miles has become the conscience of the Trailblazers. Please, Trailblazers, I want to keep liking your team, so please do the right thing here. And the right thing here, is to get out of the way and let the man pursue his career.

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