Stage set for fight over rookie salaries


The National Basketball Association collective bargaining agreement expires in 1994, but battle lines are already being drawn over the salary cap and escalating rookie salaries.

General managers were particularly peeved this season when six of the league's 11 lottery choices were not with their respective teams on opening night. It was not until last week that two of the selections -- center Luc Longley of Minnesota (seventh) and forward Brian Williams of Orlando (10th) -- came to terms.

The four top picks -- forward Larry Johnson of Charlotte, guard Kenny Anderson of New Jersey, forward Billy Owens (traded by Sacramento to Golden State) and center Dikembe Mutombo of Denver -- will earn between $2.5 million and $3 million per year.

Guard Terrell Brandon of Cleveland, the 11th and last lottery choice, signed a five-year deal worth $6.9 million. No wonder the NBA executives would like to initiate a wage scale for rookies.

"It's crazy now," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash, who preferred trading the Bullets' lottery pick (eighth) to Denver to obtain point guard Michael Adams. "With rookies, you're betting on the come. At least with veterans, you have an idea of their worth."

Added Dallas Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju: "Salaries for rookie have grown out of proportion with the rise in the salary cap [now $12.5 million]. The negotiation process has changed dramatically. It's not healthy.

"NBA rookies are like oil deals. They all look terrific and look like they have tremendous potential, according to the agents selling them. But they all don't prove to be as good as first presented. That's why you have to be careful."

Ten years ago, Sonju signed Mark Aguirre, the No. 1 pick in the draft, to a five-year deal with Dallas worth $2 million. This year, Johnson stung the Hornets for a six-year package worth an estimated $20 million.

Even general managers without lottery picks voiced their displeasure. Said New York Knicks general manager Dave Checketts: "Everyone recognizes it's a huge problem. When I saw the Nets' Derrick Coleman [the No. 1 pick in 1990] redoing his contract, it brought the madness home. Restricting the entry of players is a union issue, but spending all this money on unproven guys is crazy."

But don't bet on any drastic changes in 1994. The agents and players' association want to maintain a free market in bidding for rookies.

"The owners want a wage scale for rookies, but the draft already acts as a wage scale," said players' association executive president Charles Grantham. "The top pick gets around $3 million, and then it keeps trickling down. Isn't that a wage scale?"

Said Nash: "The agents use the rookies' salaries to help bargain contracts for the veterans. They say, 'If this kid, who hasn't proven anything, can get millions of dollars signing his first contract, how can you shortchange my guy, who has put up solid numbers for X years?' "

Only one agent, Keith Glass, who represents four Orlando players, seemed to question the excessive pay given to high draft choices.

Said Glass: "Rookie salaries are out of line. Sure, I'd love to negotiate for the No. 1 pick next year, but it's not good for anyone when rookies are trying to extract every drop of blood from the teams."

Orlando general manager Pat Williams had the final word. Question: "What do you have when you've got an agent buried up to his neck in sand?" Answer: "Not enough sand."

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