Why everyone excited over the NBA amnesty clause is bound to be disappointed


As the new NBA season gets under way, it’s time to start thinking about the new NBA amnesty provision, which allows teams to waive a player and strike that players’ payroll liability off its books. I’ll play a little devil’s advocate here and think about it from both sides: positive and negative. First up is negative.

When thinking about the amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement, Detroit Pistons fans all know the names. Richard Hamilton the malcontent. Charlie Villanueva with the deficient defense. Ben Gordon making big money for little production. But fans in Motown and  across the NBA should stop holding their breath about the possibility that exercising the amnesty clause is going to instantly remake their team from contender to pretender.

The simple fact is, most teams aren’t even going to use the clause in the first place. Remember, we’ve been down this road before. In 2005, the NBA had an amnesty clause. They called it the “Allan Houston Rule” and guess what, Allan Houston wasn’t even one of the players cut under the amnesty provision.

The amnesty casualties in 2005 were small-time players or players that had already played their last  NBA game by the time they were cut. While prognosticators throw out names such as Marvin Williams (Atlanta), Baron Davis (Cleveland), Al Harrington (Denver), Gilbert Arenas (Orlando) and Rashard Lewis (Washington), the most likely scenario is that one or two big names will get the axe, a few no-name players who are true dead weight see the door and a large majority of teams choose not to use the clause at all.

In 2005, 18 of the 30 NBA teams exercised the option to cut a player under the amnesty rule and not have the player’s salary count against the salary cap. It was hardly a murderers row of NBA difference makers.

As USA Today summarized at the time:

"Rather than saving almost $40 million, New York opted instead to release forward Jerome Williams to avoid $21.3 million in luxury taxes that would have been due over the next three seasons.Dallas worked into the night trying to find a trade forMichael Finley, who is owed $51.8 million over the next three seasons. But the Mavericks ended up releasing the 10-year veteran instead.In all, teams saved more than $212 million in future tax payments by waiving 18 players. Among those let go Monday were Fred Hoiberg of Minnesota, Ron Mercer of New Jersey, Calvin Booth of Milwaukee, Troy Bell of Memphis and Clarence Weatherspoon of Houston.Several teams made moves to clear tax obligations for players who left their rosters long ago. They included Alonzo Mourning (Toronto), Vin Baker (Boston), Derrick Coleman (Detroit), Wesley Person (Miami), Eddie Robinson (Chicago) and Howard Eisley (Phoenix).Players previously released under the amnesty program included Doug Christie (Orlando), Aaron McKie(Philadelphia), Brian Grant (Los Angeles Lakers) andDerek Anderson (Portland).Teams whose payrolls exceed $61.7 million for the upcoming season will have to pay a dollar-for-dollar tax on the overage. Among them are the Indiana Pacers, who waived retired guard Reggie Miller to save $6 million in luxury tax costs."

While at first blush, the latest amnesty clause would seem to make it more likely that a team will use the provision, it might, in fact, have the opposite effect.

Unlike in 2005 when waiving a player only meant that the player’s salary wouldn’t count against his former team’s luxury tax, this provision seems to wipe the players salary off the books altogether. This might make fans think that it makes using amnesty a no-brainer. Waive someone now, create a bunch of cap room and then you can sign a player in the free agent market that can propel your team to the playoffs. Huzzah!

Think again. Remember, whomever gets waived will still be paid his salary by his former club. We are all well aware the league has spent the past year crying about their woeful state of poverty and how nearly every team in the league is losing money.

With a new CBA that favors the owners that might change and but if you think that a team like Washington is eager to waive someone like Rashard Lewis, you’re crazy. Remember,  the new CBA also calls for teams to spend at least 85 percent of the salary cap for the first two years of the deal.

Looking at Washington, that means that if the Wizards waived Lewis to get out of his $21 million salary, the team’s payroll would go from $40 million (not counting signing recent draft picks) to $20 million. If the Wizards must pay 85 percent of the expected $58 million salary cap, that means they must spend $49.3 million. After signing the team’s three draft picks, that leaves approximately $25 million that has to be spent to fill out the roster and reach the salary floor. Plus, the team will have to reach into its pockets and still pay Lewis his $21 million this year. For a team that was only No. 17 in attendance in the league, paying $70 million on a rebuilding squad that has little chance of being very good is too much to expect.

So what criteria would a player have to meet to make it likely that a quality, big-money player like those names being thrown around would be amnesty claused?

First, the player would have to play for a fairly big-market team with deep pockets. The team needs the money to pay the contract but also would use the money freed up to reach the salary floor and possibly beyond. The player must also have absolutely no value to the club. Sure there are plenty of useless players in the NBA, but if we’re limiting amnesty to big-money teams it becomes much less clear. The big-market teams are all mostly on the upswing right now.

Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles all make money and have title aspirations. But they are also least likely to use the amnesty clause. The teams already spend so much money that releasing even a dead-weight player like Jermaine O’Neal makes little sense. The move wouldn’t bring Boston under the cap so they could sign free agents and for teams chasing a title, victory comes at the margins. Sure O’Neal is a shadow of his former self but he is also 7 feet tall and could play 15 valuable minutes a night and get that key block or key rebound in the playoffs. That means another title in Beantown.

So if small-market teams can’t afford to use the amnesty provision on their highest-paid busts and big-market teams won’t gain the salary cap flexibility to make up for the loss of even a marginally contributing player, then who exactly is going to use this amnesty clause? Expect a lot more names like Fred Hoiberg to appear on the amnesty list and not names like Rashard Lewis.

What does that mean for the Pistons? It means that there is a plausible scenario where it is just as likely that Jason Maxiell gets the amnesty boot as it is a member of the trifecta of Hamilton, Gordon or Villanueva.