SEATTLE – The weeks pass, becoming months, and still the talks continue.
The Seattle SuperSonics, led by general manager Rick Sund, on one side. Ray Allen and his agent Lon Babby on the other. At issue, Allen’s future with the team after this season when his current six-year contract worth approximately $69 million expires.
Allen, a four-time NBA All-Star, would like to see a new deal in place before the league’s Feb. 24 trade deadline. Which means, he said, ”it’s getting close to crunch time.”
As the Sonics continue their surprisingly successful march through the 2004-05 schedule – Tuesday’s debacle vs. Denver notwithstanding – the issue of Allen’s future hangs ominously over the team. He is obviously Seattle’s best player. He is in the prime of his pro career. And he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
The Sonics, it would seem, can ill afford to let Allen escape. For them, though, the good news is they can offer him more money than most rival teams. Also, Allen has said he prefers to stay with the Sonics.
Both parties, then, have incentive to reach an accord. All that remains is to get it done.
Other than Allen, neither side is saying much about the negotiations, and even his remarks are vague. Still, various pieces to the puzzle are emerging, allowing us to see how the process is unfolding.
First, Sund and Babby have been holding occasional talks about a new contract since late last season. Those initial conversations were broad, but have undoubtedly grown more specific of late.
Sund was on Seattle’s recent five-game road trip to the East Coast, and when Babby showed up the two men met. Babby is due to be in Seattle later this month for additional discussions.
There probably is no dispute about the length of the new contract – a five-year extension, the longest allowed by the league’s current collective bargaining agreement. The debate, then, will center on the usual topic of money.
If Allen was to get the maximum contract allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, it would be in the neighborhood of $100 million. A nice deal for him, of course, but really too high for a player his age since he turns 30 in the coming offseason and the new contract will take him to age 34. Typically, guards like Allen are productive in those years, though not as much as earlier in their careers. And their production often wanes with each passing year.
If the contract is to be less than maximum, then, the two sides need to settle on fair market value. And to do that, recent contracts for players of comparable talents and ages can be used.
Maybe the best example would be the free-agent contract Steve Nash signed with the Phoenix Suns last summer – six years at around $66 million, though the last year is not guaranteed. It is a useful comparison because Nash and Allen are both among the top five players in the NBA at their positions. Like Allen, Nash turned 30 the year he got his new contract.
Given that Allen is already part of a Seattle team on the rise, his next deal probably exceeds what Nash received from Phoenix. Figure a package of around $70 million, perhaps slightly more, over five years.
If Allen and the Sonics can agree, a new contract could be signed at any time. If not, the Sonics could use the time up to the trade deadline to arrange a deal with another team, though that other ballclub would certainly want assurances of getting Allen signed to a new contract before going ahead with the swap.
It is also possible that nothing will happen before the end of the season. The Sonics could still ink Allen then, or they could arrange a sign-and-trade deal with another team and get a good player in return. Or Allen could simply sign with another ballclub, though only two or three teams are expected to have sufficient space under the league’s salary cap to give him the kind of contract he is seeking.
Another variable is the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the season. The new agreement, whenever it is reached, could change the parameters of allowable contracts. The Sonics are likely talking to the league, trying to get a sense of how those negotiations are going and whether it would be more prudent to sign Allen now or to wait. Just as Allen and Babby are no doubt talking to the players’ association, asking the same question.
Sund and Babby, meanwhile, are tight-lipped about their ongoing talks. Asked this week about the negotiations, Sund said only, ”Out of respect for the organization and for Ray and for everybody, I’m not going to comment on it, other than to say that I’m happy we’re still talking.”
As for Allen, he continues to enjoy what could be his most successful season, both individually and as a team member, even as he waits and wonders about his future.
”Call me weird, but I really don’t stress out about it or worry about it,” he said. ”From my perspective, the only way I can look at it – and the only way I have looked at it – is to know that I will be playing basketball next year. And I’ll either be doing that here (in Seattle) or somewhere else.”