Free-Agency Dispute Has Ramifications for Knicks

The case concerns what are known as Bird rights, which allow a player to re-sign with his team without regard to the salary cap. The league contends those rights are lost when a player changes teams through waivers. The union is challenging that interpretation.

If the union prevails, the Knicks would be able to re-sign both Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak, their top free agents, despite cap constraints. They would also retain a $5 million salary slot — known as the midlevel exception — for use on another player, possibly J. R. Smith, who can opt out of his deal.

But if the union’s challenge fails, the Knicks will probably lose Novak and possibly Smith when free agency opens in July. And they will have little ability to sign a significant free agent like point guard Steve Nash once they re-sign Lin.

The union, which filed a letter Monday seeking arbitration, hopes to have the matter settled by the time free agency opens July 1. The union and the league must first select an arbitrator.

The case could also affect J. J. Hickson of the Portland Trail Blazers and Chauncey Billups of the Los Angeles Clippers.

At issue is whether a player retains his Bird rights when he changes teams through a waiver claim, as Lin, Novak, Hickson and Billups did this season.

The union contends that a player claimed on waivers should retain all contractual benefits, as he does when he is traded. The league disagrees, citing a specific clause in the labor agreement that indicates Bird rights are lost when a player is waived, even if another team claims him.

“We are confident that our interpretation of the agreement is correct,” said Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman.

The union declined to comment.

Although — named for the former Celtics star Larry Bird — have been in place for years, this specific dispute had not arisen. For one, N.B.A. players are rarely claimed off waivers. And most waived players are not valuable enough for a team to invoke their Bird rights to keep them.

That changed in rather dramatic fashion this season when Lin and Novak — who were both playing on minimum contracts — had breakout seasons for the Knicks after being claimed on waivers in December. Both could receive lucrative multiyear offers this summer.

If Lin and Novak are determined to have so-called early-Bird rights, the Knicks could pay each one a starting salary up to the league average, about $5.3 million.

Without those rights, the Knicks could offer only small raises, unless they used a cap exception, the midlevel ($5 million) or the biannual ($1.9 million).

The Knicks would almost certainly need the entire midlevel exception to sign Lin, which would leave them unable to compete for Novak and Smith.

Lawyers for the league consider the matter cut and dried based on definitions contained in the collective bargaining agreement. But experts across the league believed otherwise when the issue first came up. Three general managers asked in February all said they believed that Lin had retained his early-Bird rights.

The league then clarified its view, and the union began pondering whether to challenge it.

“I think we feel very strongly about the case,” said Novak’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, adding, “I don’t think the players association would go through the exercise if they didn’t feel strongly about the merits.”

A player earns Bird rights by playing for the same team in consecutive years: two years for early-Bird rights and three for full Bird rights. An early-Bird player is eligible for the average player salary, without respect to the cap. A player with full Bird rights can sign for up to the maximum salary.

Novak and Lin were in position to earn their early-Bird rights before they were waived last December, Novak by San Antonio and Lin by Golden State. (Lin was subsequently claimed, and waived again, by Houston, before joining the Knicks.)

Hickson and Billups had full Bird rights before being waived (Hickson by Sacramento and Billups by the Knicks).

In general, a player retains his Bird rights in a trade, because his contract transfers with him. The union contends that the same principle should apply when a player is claimed off waivers, because the contract is still in effect and — similar to a trade — the player did not choose his new team.

In the union’s view, Bird rights should expire only when a player clears waivers, because he is a free agent at that point who can choose a new team and sign a new contract.

The union contends that the entire rationale for allowing Bird rights to transfer was to protect players who changed teams against their will, a principle that could apply to both trades and waiver claims. (The section of the uniform player contract that deals with waiver claims, in fact, cross references the rules governing trades.)

So union officials believe the spirit of the rule favors them. But if the arbitrator goes by the letter of the law, the union will probably lose the case and the Knicks will probably lose some key players.

Clippers Halt Talks for Chris Paul

In the four days since Commissioner vetoed a three-way deal that would have sent Paul to the from the , there have been two sets of talks. They have involved 4 teams, at least 11 players, and the vice presidents Stu Jackson and Joel Litvin, who are essentially acting as general managers for the Hornets, a team owned by the league.

The outcome: No deals yet. Paul remains in the Hornets’ training camp.

That leaves Stern, in a dual role as commissioner and de facto New Orleans owner, obliged to keep his staff — now effectively the Hornets’ staff — looking for a deal as Paul’s free-agent clock ticks.

The unusual situation started when the league took over the Hornets last December, buying out the distressed owner George Shinn.

At the time, Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Lakers, and a longtime critic of the league office, raised the issue, noting Paul’s impending free agency.

“When Chris says he has to be traded, how’s that going to go?” Jackson asked. “Someone’s going to have to make a very nonjudgmental decision that’s not going to irritate anyone else in the league.”

The league took over effective control in these new talks, and Hornets General Manager Dell Demps, who made the doomed deal with the Lakers, has been reduced to passing proposals back and forth between the Clippers and N.B.A. officials.

The Clippers were ready to give up their star guard Eric Gordon, center Chris Kaman and Minnesota’s unprotected No. 1 pick in the June draft.

But at the end of negotiations between the Clippers and the N.B.A. officials, it seemed the Clippers would also have to give up two more young players, Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. To the league’s surprise, Los Angeles would not part with Bledsoe.

Instead, the Clippers claimed the former Knick Chauncey Billups off waivers, perhaps in anticipation of ultimately trading a point guard or two.

Adding to the whirlwind of nonactivity, the , who have said they would take offers accommodating Dwight Howard’s demand to be traded, went back to saying they will do all they can to keep him.

“We have to continue to do what’s right for this organization to win a championship, and the first piece of that is keeping Dwight,” the Magic chief executive, Alex Martins, said at the team’s practice site in Orlando.

“And we’re doing everything we can to ensure that we do that. Our fans need to make sure that we show him the love.”

Howard went back to his “I love Orlando” mantra, however qualified.

“I love this city and there’s no place I’d rather be than Orlando,” he said. “I just want to make sure that we have the right things here so we can win a championship. And I’m all about change. If you’re willing to change and willing do what it takes to win, then you’ve got me.

“You only get one time around the track. There’s no reset button. You don’t want to miss out on any opportunity to win. You’ve got to do what it takes to win.”

Howard and Paul have spurned extension offers, alerting the Hornets and the Magic to the risk of being left with nothing if they let their stars walk away next summer.

Paul has given the Hornets three teams he is willing to go to.

¶ The , his original favorite, no longer have the maximum slot they were expecting to have last season, when Paul joked about forming a new big three with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, in a toast at Anthony’s wedding.

¶ The Lakers, Paul’s second choice, made an offer, but were shot down by Stern on Thursday. They tried to rework the three-team deal with the Hornets and the Rockets, but suddenly dropped out. Talks between the Lakers and the Magic were brief and came to nothing.

¶ And the Clippers, No. 3 on Paul’s list, had their deal fall through Monday.

Everyone can start over from the beginning on Tuesday.

Howard Beck contributed reporting.

Knicks Have Options at Point Guard With Bibby on Board

in a sign-and-trade deal with the Dallas Mavericks, pulled on a white jersey and worked with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony for the first time, pledging afterward that the Knicks would be much tougher defensively.

“If the effort is there, everything will come after it,” Chandler said with a smile. “We’re going to learn and figure it out, but the effort is already there.”

The most interesting and intense matchup Sunday was between Toney Douglas, who essentially became the starting point guard when the Knicks waived Chauncey Billups to create salary-cap room for Chandler, and Mike Bibby, a 33-year-old point guard who says he simply hopes to fit in.

, signed Sunday with the Knicks, his fourth team in the last year. Bibby has 407 playoff assists (or 398 more than Douglas) and was acquired by Miami late last season to nudge the Heat through the playoffs.

“We still think he’s got some gas left in his tank,” Coach said. “Obviously, he’s a very smart, good-shooting point guard, and there are not many guys who can come off the bench and give us help. He’ll know his role, and he’s looking forward to it. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Although the Knicks have time to make more moves, D’Antoni sounds as if he intends to see what Douglas can do. Bibby is, for now, an insurance policy, as well as a tutor to Douglas and Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ first-round draft choice. Team officials say they are interested in bringing back Jamal Crawford, but payroll constraints make a reunion unlikely. Crawford, who has played for Atlanta for two seasons, is seeking more than $5 million per year, but the Knicks have only a $2.5 million cap exception, which is limited to two years.

A sign-and-trade deal for Crawford is also problematic, because the Hawks do not want to take back salary and the Knicks have few pieces they can trade. Team officials insist they will not trade Douglas to get Crawford.

Shumpert signed Sunday, as did the rookie center Josh Harrellson, acquired from New Orleans. Terms were not disclosed. The Knicks also re-signed Jared Jeffries, the 6-foot-11-inch reserve forward who is in his second stint with the team.

Bibby’s playoff run in Miami did not go well. He started all 20 of the Heat’s playoff games but averaged only 3.6 points and 1.1 assists in 20.8 minutes as Miami lost in the N.B.A. finals to Chandler and the Mavericks.

Between postpractice shooting sessions, Bibby said he had nothing to prove: “Ever since I came in, people have doubted me. I’m going on my 14th year, and I don’t care what you guys say, and I don’t care what anybody says about me. I’ve always been like that.”

He added: “I’m going to go out and do whatever it takes to help the team win. If they ask me to stand on the sideline and cheer, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m here to win. I’m going to play the role they want me to play.”

D’Antoni made a point of saying that the Knicks would not have waived Billups, enabling them to pick up Chandler, if D’Antoni did not have confidence that Douglas would be able to jump in as a starter.

Douglas has experience as a starter, having replaced in the playoffs last season. D’Antoni also said, again, that Anthony would be counted on to distribute the ball more in the Knicks’ pick-and-roll sets.

“My teammates, they have my back, and that’s all I need,” Douglas said. “Myself, I have confidence.”

When told that there was a perception that the Knicks did not exactly have a point guard now that Billups was gone, Douglas replied: “That’s people’s opinion. Everybody’s going to have an opinion, that’s how I see it. I don’t listen to none of that. I just come in and work out every morning for practice, and I get better.”

A minute later, he said: “We’re going to have a fun year off the court. I can already see the bond, even though we got two new guys coming in. Our goal is not just to make the playoffs. Our goal is a championship. That’s what we’re looking for.”

D’Antoni said the Knicks still had a lot to work on before they open the regular season Dec. 25 against the Celtics — and for that matter, they have a lot to work on before they play their first exhibition game Saturday against the Nets. But they are stocked and determined.

“They know what’s at stake,” D’Antoni said, “and I don’t think they want to see an opportunity slip by without giving it their best.”