The collective bargaining agreement is the DNA of the NBA. It is a vast tangle of rules governing how teams are assembled, how players are retained and moved, and how the monies generated by the game are divided and transferred. At the heart of the CBA is the salary cap, the primary mechanism by which the CBA shapes the league.
The CBA and its salary cap have never been more dizzyingly complex, and, ironically, understanding them has never been more important. Having some knowledge of the CBA and the cap is really the only way to grasp the reasons behind the multitude of moves made by the NBA’s 30 teams.
The idea of the salary cap is quite simple; it is the maximum amount of money NBA teams are allowed to spend on players. The reality is that it’s less a line in the sand than a complex thicket of rules and exemptions dictating how, and by how much, a team can exceed that amount (currently set at $63.05 million), penalties for exceeding the figure, and the personnel moves available to teams dependent on their salary position relative to the cap.
To understand the CBA, interested parties can turn to the actual document. It’s 337 pages divided into 33 sections of by-lawyers/for-lawyers verbiage. Reading the CBA and understanding it is fine if you’re the kind of person who likes arcane contract structures described at novel length with dry Ikea instruction manual prose (sans illustrations). The CBA doesn’t even get around to defining the salary cap until page 111, such is the density of the compendium.
For example, page 234, Article XII, Section 2, outlining (I think) player options.
The other piece of the puzzle necessary for understanding today’s NBA is contracts. Unlike the CBA, contracts are rarely directly divulged — either by teams or players. So, how do fans and many not-that-well-connected reporters get their NBA salary info?
That’s where 29-year-old Englishman Mark Deeks and his increasingly essential blog, Shamsports.com, comes in.
The thing that interests me about Mark Deeks is that he even exists.
Imagine spending a dozen hours or more a day researching and watching the NBA in a country where the games come on at midnight and end at 7 a.m. and basketball is so disregarded that your home country cut the funding for its Olympic team. That should give you an idea of how unusual Deeks’s rise to prominence is.
He’s a self-made, self-employed lay-expert in the most confusing and misunderstood area of a sport that is barely more than a fringe curiosity in his home country. Somehow, Deeks, originally from “a small village in the English countryside that no one has ever heard of,” has managed to cultivate a web of contacts that give him not just salary information, but incentives, trade kickers, cap percentages, and all the cascading minutiae that goes into the NBA contract sausage.
During the NBA season, an average day for Deeks goes like this: Wake at around 2 p.m. Catch up on social media, emails, and the Internet. Write for several hours. Pick up his girlfriend from work. Maybe fill in at his old job, teaching an after-school science program. Then, when game time rolls around at about midnight, it’s taking notes and monitoring the discussion on social media until six or seven in the morning. Sleep. Repeat. “I have no concept of mornings or weekends.”
“I’ve been fascinated by the fact that it seems like he has better contacts than a lot of us,” said Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, formerly of the L.A. Daily News and the New York Times. “There are plenty of guys who have been covering this league for years, who don’t have the info he has.”
Deeks’s interest in the mechanics of team-building predates his basketball fandom. Like any kid growing up in England, his first sporting interest was soccer. Even at that early stage, his tastes tended toward statistics and the movement of players from team to team in the transfer market. “When I was growing up, there was a craze for collecting football stickers,” Deeks said. “The sticker books themselves came enclosed with some player statistics. Poring over them, and over some football reference books I was bought, really added fuel to the fire. It was perhaps the earliest sign of this love of process.”
When Deeks first discovered basketball, around age 13, that affinity for process carried over. As the game became easier to follow from across the Atlantic, Deeks was drawn deeper and deeper into the kind of sports fandom that walks the line between obsession and what some in his life might even deem unhealthy. And that’s if they even understood it at all. “My family haven’t really got a clue,” Deeks said. “My nan occasionally asks how ‘the netball’ is going, which is nice of her.”
In 2001, Deeks got the Internet, allowing him to converse with fellow hoops addicts from around the world. One of those people, from Wisconsin, would mail him VHS tapes of the Chicago Bulls. “I know a lot more about Trenton Hassell’s entry passing than I really need to,” Deeks said in an email.
A few years later, NBA and NCAA games were being televised live in the U.K. The hook was set.
He started his website in 2005 as a basketball forum, partly out of frustration with the day’s similar offerings. The name ShamSports comes from a childhood nickname. Deeks admits to hating the name, but after so many years, there’s really nothing to be done. “I’ve come too far with it to change it now.”
ShamSports’s early forum format didn’t attract enough posters to create a vibrant community. As Deeks’s analytical style matured and began to emerge in his writing, the site morphed into something resembling what it is today: a platform for his dense, analytical explorations on various NBA team-building arcana and — the thing most people visit ShamSports for — contract information.
So how does a guy living in rural England, thousands of miles and an ocean away from the natural networking orbits of NBA beat reporters, manage to develop the contacts necessary for obtaining granular contact info?
Deeks is (rightfully) vague about his exact methodology. “My stock answer to this question is to always claim I root through Danny Ainge’s bins, so let’s stick with that. (I don’t, though.),” Deeks said in an email. “I am often amused by how people ask me, via the Internet, how I know these things. The clue is in how you asked the question.”
Around 2008, Deeks became aware that “people of importance” were paying attention to his work. The first contract he ever received from a source with “verifiable, indisputable accuracy” was the 2007-08 rookie deal of Sasquatch-like Bulls big man Aaron Gray.
With accurate player contracts and an ever-growing understanding of the CBA, Deeks began, bit by bit, to establish what is now a functional grasp of the league’s economic structure. It’s a grasp that many people who know way more than I do characterize as being on par with the very best CBA/salary cap minds around, even those working for NBA teams.
“There are lots of people who know the salary cap and can understand how it works,” Grantland’s Zach Lowe told me at summer league. “A lot of people can say, ‘Oh, Dallas is using the taxpayer midlevel exception; Phoenix is the trade exception that they had left over.’ But there’s really only a handful that can project five or six moves ahead, with the cap for all 30 teams in the league, and Deeks can do that. That’s what separates him.”
A good illustration of this is a series of articles written by Deeks at ShamSports revealing what appeared to be, and indeed was, a mistake in Zach Randolph’s contract with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The odyssey began when Deeks realized the fourth year of Z-Bo’s four-year, $66 million extension, was (1) a player option, and (2) had a guaranteed salary lower than that of the previous year.
In an unnecessarily long run-on sentence, Article XII Section 2 of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement states that player option seasons cannot contain a level of guaranteed salary smaller than that of the preceding season. [Section 1 says the same about team options whilst exempting rookie scale contracts.] The problem is that this is exactly what Randolph’s contract calls for. Were Randolph to have an Early Termination Option, however, this would be allowed; the salary can go down in the season immediately following a declined ETO. But it isn’t a season immediately following an ETO — it is a player option year. This differentiation, rarely important, is here vital.
Randolph’s final year, then. should not be valid in its current form.
Deeks’s conclusion was essentially either the NBA will alter the contract to abide by league rules, or it won’t, so let’s wait and see what happens.
A few days later, Deeks discovered that Tim Duncan had recently signed a contract with a structure similar to Randolph’s — having a player option year with a lower salary than the preceding year.
Per official league salary figures, Duncan’s new contract, signed this month, calls for salaries of $9,638,554 in 2012/13, $10,361,446 in 2013/14, and an even $10 million in 2014/15. The final year is a player option year, NOT a year immediately following an early termination option (again see previous post), and thus the salary in the 2014/15 season should not be any lower than the $10,361,446 of the season before it. It appears, however, that it is.
Fast-forward two years, and Deeks found that the league did indeed alter Duncan’s contract in accordance with its own CBA. (The CBA: so complicated even the Spurs and the league office get confused.)
It now appears — and once again, has been confirmed by multiple parties — that Duncan’s 2014/15 player option has been modified so that it no longer contains a salary lower than that of the previous season. Specifically, it has been made to match it – Duncan’s player option, should he exercise it, now calls for a $10,361,446 salary as opposed to $10,000,000.
With the offending year of Duncan’s contract changed, that left the question of why Z-Bo’s player-option year had not been changed.
Apparently the reason why Duncan’s contract (which he has opted into, thus transitioning this whole endeavour from being an interesting aside into something with a palpable if not exactly massive affect on the NBA landscape) was modified, but Randolph’s was not, is because Randolph’s was “too old”.
This does not however mean that the fact it was signed under the 2005 CBA (and not the 2011 CBA like Duncan) played a part in this differentiation. Instead, I am told it instead merely means they took that as a legitimate reason for looking the other way, through avoiding the issue altogether, rather than having a technical reason for addressing it in this way. So, yeah.
All of this had, and still has, some pretty interesting implications. If Randolph opted in, he’d certainly be justified in going after that missing cash and having his deal redrawn just as Duncan’s was. Randolph ended up opting in and signing an extension, but at the original lower salary figure. How can the NBA resolve two contracts with the same problem in two entirely different ways? “That doesn’t logically stack up, yet it seems to be the position they’ve taken,” Deeks told ESPN Radio’s Chris Vernon on the latter’s Memphis radio show.
There are other sites offering salary information that update faster than ShamSports — HoopsHype is perhaps the most popular. But none are more accurate. Beck has sources for salary info and told me, “I know for a fact when HoopsHype is wrong … I’ve had to correct my own coworkers at times because they used [HoopsHype], and I advised them to use Sham instead.”
For all of his self-taught facility with the CBA and salary cap, Deeks bristles a bit at being thought of as just a cap guy. “I am interested into whatever leads to building the best basketball teams possible,” Deeks said. “There are many such things that go into building a team, and I am interested in them all.”
In a way, Mark Deeks has a wolf by the ears. He’s invested years of his time building himself into an expert on the CBA. But where, exactly, does one go from there? From a small English town to the one place where that skill is actually valued?
Deeks is open about wanting to find a job in an NBA front office. Many people I spoke to think it’s possible. “When people ask me if I know anyone,” said Larry Coon, who runs cbafaq.com, “I tell them Deeks.”