How the Pacers May Have Turned Courtesy Into a Competitive Advantage

Pacers owner Herb Simon advises Indiana’s front office to not chase other teams’ restricted free agents. If Roy Hibbert had been playing for the Raptors for the past four years, for instance, the Pacers likely would not be looking to sign him. Simon’s policy is probably not an absolute prohibition. The Pacers did, for example, talk to Hornets restricted free agent and Indiana native Eric Gordon this summer.

The semantics aren’t really important, however. The outcome is that the Pacers have not signed many (any?) restricted free agents away from other teams in the past decade. (I honestly haven’t looked at every transaction but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.)

The rationale behind this, as has been speculated in the media anyway, is like a cumbersome wallet: three-fold.

The first reason is rooted in logistics: doing so needlessly ties up precious cap space. If the Pacers were to sign Gordon to an offer sheet, the Hornets would have three days to match the offer to retain their shooting guard. And that would mean that the Pacers would miss out on not only Gordon but all the other players they could have sought during this waiting period.

Second is the financial consideration: you have to overpay in order to pry a talented player away from the team he has been playing for. Since the incumbent team holds all the cards (meaning, they have the right to match an offer), you must pay the player a salary higher than that team thinks the player is worth. Different people can have different opinions on value, of course, but a small-market team like the Pacers really can’t make a habit of running around throwing above-market prices for players.

Third, and what I believe is most important to Herb Simon (a man I’ve never met, it must be noted), is the social aspect: chasing other team’s restricted free agents is not gentlemanly.

Herb tries to run a first-rate organization that maintains a certain level of etiquette with other teams even amidst the cut-throat competition — both athletic and financial — they all engage in. There is no reason not to at least call up Eric Gordon and see what thinks about playing in Indiana, but unless the kid fell head-over-heels in love with the Fieldhouse and told you he couldn’t envision ever playing anywhere else, you put aside your desire to attain him and dop your cap to the Hornets. “‘Tis your honor to offer Monsieur Gordon a deal, governor,” you might say, mixing your French and British nomenclature. And you do this because it is the same courtesy you would like to be shown by them if your positions were reversed. Basically, when you go after other team’s free agents just to drive up the price — or just engage in any permitted-but-distasteful business dealings — you may be inviting similar harm back upon yourself in the future.

Since the Trailblazers immediately offered Indiana restricted free agent Roy Hibbert a max contract offer on day one of free agency, it may seem as though Simon’s position does little to actually deter other teams from meddling in his franchise’s affairs. Then again, and we’ll get to this more later, the Blazers’ approach to the Hibbert offer has contrasted their somewhat-more-sordid dealings with one of their own restricted free agents.

Team owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, somewhat ironically, is reportedly less than pleased with Minnesota and their GM David Kahn, who got Trailblazers’ restricted free agent Nic Batum to agree to a sizable contract. This comes just three years after the Blazers made an front-loaded contract offer to Jazz restricted free agent Paul Millsap, which included a somewhat toxic salary cap hit for Utah were they to match (which they did). It’s hard to really feel for Portland, who have pledged to retain Batum by matching the Wolves’ offer, when they cry foul at Minnesota after what they did to Utah.

And this isn’t just a Portland thing.

Similarly, those in New Orleans probably aren’t thrilled with the Phoenix franchise right now. The Suns will reportedly sign the Hornets’ most marquee free agent since Chris Paul to a max offer sheet after convincing Gordon that he would rather go play in the desert rather than the Crescent City. Business is business and all, so grown men should be able to reconcile, but the fact that the Hornets now have to bring back a player who publicly said he wanted to play elsewhere may have may some minor repercussions in terms of how number-one pick Anthony Davis feels about being teammates with Gordon or how fans of the team feel about cheering for him.

The most glaring current example of a team that gives as many cares as a honey badger, however, may be the Rockets and their GM Daryl Morey.

In recruiting Bulls backup center Omer Asik, the executive who Bill Simmons calls Dork Elvis structured a contract offer that includes a salary spike from roughly $5 million in year two to almost $15 million in year three. This was allowable due to an arcane stipulation of the collective bargaining agreement, dubbed “The Gilbert Arenas Provision” (which you can read about here). And the result is that, if Chicago matches the deal to retain Asik, they will be staring down an unfavorable salary-cap situation three years from now. It’s been called a “poison pill” added to the deal that helps weaken the incumbent team’s bargaining position and, presumably, pisses them off.

Then, a few days later, Morey did the exact same thing to the New York Knicks, offering Jeremy Lin a similarly structured contract. While the Bulls are owned by penny-pincher Jerry Reinsdorf and will likely let Asik — a nonessential player to Chicago — walk, the Knicks and their devil-may-care owner/cable magnate/guitar hero Jim Dolan will reportedly match any contract “up to $1 billion” for their point-guard sensation. Since such an offer would not be permitted under NBA bylaws, it’s safe to say Morey’s contract-structure gambit will not deter the Knicks from re-signing Lin.

Still, it makes you wonder whether such behavior will have long-term effects on the Rockets’ dealings with other franchises in the future. Through less-than-gentlemanly business dealings, is Morey — and others like him — burning bridges?

Morey’s franchise currently looks more like a commodities exchange than a basketball team so it’s unlikely that any of these negotiations — and the scorn they may have created — will cause the Rockets any pain this summer. And hell, if Daryl doesn’t parlay all these random, unconnected moves into anything meaningful that helps win basketball games in the next year or two, he might be out of a job before any related harm could come his way.

But if you’re in this for the long haul, perhaps Herb Simon’s strategy makes more sense than bridge-burning?

This article by Mike Tokito of The Oregonian discusses how both the Hibbert and Batum negotiations are playing out and how etiquette seems to be more apparent in one than the other. (My emphasis added.)

The Blazers’ two ongoing restricted free agent dealings offer a contrast in how to behave.

Portland wasted no time zeroing in on their big free agent target, Pacers center Roy Hibbert. On Sunday, the first day teams could start negotiating with free agents, the Blazers came to an agreement with Hibbert on a four-year, $58 million offer sheet.

It was a clean, efficient effort by Portland. GM Neil Olshey went in, got the offer, confirmed it for reporters, then zipped his lip.

The Pacers are doing what they’re supposed to, mulling other options (i.e. Chris Kaman) and debating whether Hibbert is worth a max deal. What we haven’t seen is any unnamed sources putting out rumors of Hibbert wanting or not wanting to stay. We have not seen Hibbert’s agent, David Falk, say much at all. Falk has decades of experience, with a client list that included some dude named Michael Jordan.

Portland’s other restricted free agent transaction, involving Nicolas Batum, has been different. On Thursday, the Timberwolves agreed to a four-year, $45 million offer sheet with Batum on the same day that Batum and his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, met with Blazers officials in Portland.

Ndiaye, whose client list is headed by Batum and includes Timofey Mozgov and Rodrigue Beaubois, told the Associated Press that he wants the Blazers to either not match the offer sheet or execute a sign-and-trade. Olshey had already dug in, saying the Blazers would match any offer sheet and would not be doing a sign-and-trade.

Ndiaye also told the AP that Batum feels Minnesota’s offense, under Rick Adelman, would be a better fit for his client. Ndiaye said Batum felt constrained offensively in Portland.

“He was never himself,” Ndiaye said. “He has mentioned this in the meeting. He said, `I just want to be me. I don’t want to stand in the corner. I’m a player with movement. I was locked up in the corner.’ So he has expressed that for sure.”

It would be nice to hear from Batum himself, but he has kept quiet, leaving fans no choice but to believe his agent is saying what Batum feels and not just trying to manipulate his way into a better deal.

In the end, the two different approaches won’t have any effect on where each player winds up.

Portland has restricted-free-agent rights to Batum so even if he signs an offer sheet to play in Minnesota, all Portland has to do is match the offer and they will employ his basketball-playing services for the next four years. Indiana is in the exact same position. When Hibbert signs a deal to play in Portland on July 11, the Pacers — if they so choose — merely have to match to keep Roy in Indianapolis.

But one will be a much more seamless process than the other.

Pacers fans — particularly those who come to every home game for free to cheer in the Hibbert-created Area 55 section of the Fieldhouse — will not have to erase the memories of hearing about how their favorite player tried to abandon them. Nobody has gone around spouting off rhetoric about how Hibbert, in his heart of hearts, wants to play next to LaMarcus Aldridge to form a young Twin Towers offense that would grow together and create major matchup issues for the rest of the league for the next half decade. No, even those who have been paying close attention during the offseason will just hear the news about the Pacers matching the offer to bring back a foundational center who they have been saying for months would remain in Indiana. There will be no awkward re-integration, fan animosity or public comments that either party will have to walk back from all summer.

And this is because everyone involved — Herb Simon, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard in representing the Pacers; Roy himself and his agent David Falk for Hibbert; and Neil Olshey and Paul Allen for the Blazers — have acted like gentleman.

Now, most deals in the NBA have always been handled this way. So it isn’t as if Indiana is establishing some unexpected precedent while making it’s largest free-agent decision since Jermaine O’Neal. But in dealing with the Pacers, and in dealing with with Herb Simon, everyone seems to almost always handles business like a gentleman.

And there is probably a reason that the 78-year-old billionaire who bought the team along with his brother, the late Mel Simon, in 1983 always receives such courtesy.

He has spent the last three decades earning it.

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