Can NBA put cap on early exits?


It was a question that left Chris Webber thinking long and hard: Had there been a cap on NBA rookie salaries when he left Michigan after his sophomore season, would he have been inclined to stay in school for one or two more years?

Here's what Webber was left to consider, hypothetically -- a first-year contract worth $74 million over 15 years, such as the one he signed as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, or a deal under a rookie cap that might earn a top pick maybe $12 million over three years.

A decision worth $62 million.

"Regardless of that situation, if you're in the top five, you have to come out," Webber, now with the Washington Bullets, said this week. "Because you risk that whole season of maybe getting hurt or something freaky happening. My feeling is that if you're a top-five pick, you're not going to get better in college."

Webber's choice was easy, because owners were compensating rookies handsomely when he came out of school in 1993. Yet it's a decision that appeared to be agonizing for Maryland sophomore center Joe Smith, the national Player of the Year, who last week announced during a tearful news conference his decision to leave school and turn pro.

Smith left the door open for a return to Maryland, if the NBA and its players union reach a new collective bargaining agreement -- one that includes a rookie salary cap -- before the June 28 draft.

The league and the players association have gone without a new labor agreement this season, operating with a no-strike, no-lockout agreement.

Charles Grantham resigned Friday as the players association's executive director, a position he had held since 1988. He was replaced by Simon Gourdine, who served as the union's general counsel.

Talks are continuing, and players are hopeful that an agreement can be reached in the next several months.

"I've spoken to [players association president and former Maryland star] Buck Williams, and he's assured everyone that everything is going as planned," said Doug Overton, the player representative for the Bullets. "Those guys are really experienced guys. Simon Gourdine has been involved for years and he knows what needs to be done."

There has been a spotlight on the rookie cap issue this season, as veteran players such as Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley and Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone have spoken out about the exorbitant salaries being awarded to unproven players.

"There's very strong feelings on the top, strong feelings from both sides that a salary cap needs to be in place," said Overton, who heard a lot of the arguments in February during a meeting of player representatives during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. "A lot of the veterans are very concerned."

Bullets rookie forward Juwan Howard, who signed an 11-year, $36 million contract as the fifth pick, benefited from the lack of a rookie salary cap.

"I consider myself a veteran now, but I don't agree with a cap because everyone should be compensated fairly," Howard said. "It's not our fault that the market is as high as it is. I think as the rookies get paid more, it'll only help the veterans."

If the door gets closed on big paydays for rookies, Smith will have up to 30 days after the draft to announce his intentions to return to school -- as long as he doesn't hire an agent.

"I think a guy like Joe, he's definitely a top-five pick and he's not going to get any better next year," Webber said. "I think he would end up leaving, anyway, regardless of the situation. I think it would be more of a decision for guys drafted 10 and under, who might benefit from an extra year."

North Carolina coach Dean Smith was a strong proponent of the 30-day change-of-mind rule that went into effect before last year's draft. Smith said that the rule allows a player to make a more informed career decision.

But Bullets general manager John Nash, who is in Phoenix scouting seniors playing in the Desert Classic, disagrees.

"We're unhappy because we don't see the benefit to the player," Nash said. "We're not unhappy with the rule. It's just a rule we don't think serves the player all that well."

That's because a player who gets drafted, then changes his mind and goes back to school, does not get a chance to better his position by re-entering the draft. The rights to that player are maintained by the team that drafted him until one season after his senior class graduates.

Thus, Voshon Lenard, who declared for the draft after his junior season at Minnesota -- and then changed his mind and returned to school -- remains the property of the Milwaukee Bucks, who drafted him last year with the 46th pick overall in the second round. The same holds for Charles Claxton, who returned to Georgia after he was selected by Phoenix in the second round with the 50th pick.

"If a player thought he was a first-round pick, and was picked in the second round, maybe he can go back to school and prove his worth and get the guaranteed money," Nash said. "[Lenard and Claxton] certainly didn't hurt themselves, because they would not have gotten anything.

"But for a top player to return to school with a cap in place, he'd just have to deal with the cap sooner or later."

Howard didn't have to face the cap when he came out of Michigan last year, after his junior season. But even if he had, Howard, like Webber, says he still would have opted to play in the NBA.

"If it were in place, it would have just been a standard I would have had to live by," Howard said. "But stay in school? No, because I felt the three years I had at Michigan were enough. I had a great college career.

"I was blessed with the opportunity to play in the NBA, and it was a dream that I always wanted to accomplish," Howard added. "A rookie salary cap would not have weighed in my decision at all."

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