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The New Mid-Level Exception & Blazers C Greg Oden

This is a point I've referenced briefly on a few recent radio interviews but I'm struggling to remember if I've written about it. It's a fairly big deal for the Portland Trail Blazers going forward. Obvious disclaimer: until an agreement is reached this is all hypothetical.

The NBA's latest proposal to the National Basketball Players Association includes a reduction in size of the mid-level exception from $5 million to $3 million for teams that are above the luxury tax line and a reduction in length to three years. (Note: The mid-level in the last CBA was $5.8 million and good for five years).

At first glance, that might not seem like a huge deal, because there are a limited number of teams in the luxury tax and because a $2 million difference seems like nothing in comparison to a max salary, but there are certainly major repercussions from this anticipated change.

Take Blazers center Greg Oden. One oft-cited idea is that Oden might prefer to latch on to a contender rather than stick around in Portland long-term. Many major contenders -- including the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Orlando Magic -- are likely to be in the luxury tax territory once they fill out their rosters during the upcoming free agency period. 

Joining one of those teams would become, by far, the least profitable option for Oden. Under the previous CBA, Oden could have joined the Heat for a maximum salary of 5 years and $34 million; under the new agreement the maximum Miami or another luxury tax payer could offer him would be 3 years and $9.3 million (including raises, according to Storyteller). That's basically $25 million less total than they would have been able to offer previously. Of course they could re-sign him after the 3-year deal ended but playing at a subsidized rate for three seasons while banking on a big future payday would be a major, likely prohibitive, risk for Oden. By comparison, the $9.3 million over three years offer is just barely more than Oden would be making in the one-year qualifying offer the Blazers extended to him in June. 

Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald writes that the Celtics, once reportedly interested in Oden, now must scratch his name off their list for this reason.

The current package allows only teams under the salary cap to use a full $5 million midlevel exception. Capped-out teams would be allowed an annual $3 million exception. Sign-and-trade deals - the other lifeline for maxed-out rosters - reportedly will be allowed. So at least the path back to the Kevin Garnett well remains open.

Beyond that yellowed $3 million carrot, the Celtics would only have minimum veteran money to throw at free agents.

Forget the pricey free agent big men who could really help this team, such as Nene, Tyson Chandler and even Greg Oden.

Now, if Oden were to sign with a team that is above the salary cap but below the luxury tax line, Storyteller notes that he could receive a 4-year deal starting at $5 million under the NBA's latest proposal. Best case there: Oden could potentially make up to $21 million over four years. Again, a steep drop from the previous mid-level offer that would have been available to him.

It's worth mentioning that teams with that $5 million mid-level exception will likely find that they have the ability to sign better players than they have in the past, with the full mid-level serving as the magnet for free agents looking for the biggest possible pay day, and with less competition from tax payers. Back in the old days, agents dreamed about locking up players with the "Wesley Matthews Special": 5 years and $34 million. Now those numbers will be 4 years and $21 million and only available to non-taxpayers. That will mean real competition for newly-limited dollars for a player like Oden, as teams with full mid-levels realize they must use them wisely because it's a new, important competitive advantage. 

It's no secret, by this point, that the new CBA really tips the balance in favor of the incumbent team. The Blazers, as the incumbent, would have the ability to make Oden, by far, the best financial offer: 5 years and $79+ million (according to Storyteller). Would the Blazers go that high? It's incredibly unlikely, of course, but then again president Larry Miller is still in charge. But even if Oden insisted on the Blazers providing him an extra incentive to stay, it wouldn't be difficult for Portland to financially beat the best possible offer teams over the cap could make for his services. They could, for example, offer him 5 years and $30 million, and no team above the league's salary cap could come close to matching it.

That leaves only one remaining group of competitors for Oden's services: teams that have significant space under the salary cap. In other words, cheap (and, likely, poor-performing) teams that are usually the least likely to shell out big dollars for a free agent's services. Do you see one of the few penny-wise teams around the league hoarding massive amounts of cap space only to use a sizable amount to acquire Oden, who represents an obvious risk? It's possible, but I don't consider it particularly likely. If it happens, of course, the Blazers would retain the rights to match any offer. Oden would also have to sign off on going to a team that's likely in rebuilding mode, too.

The NBA's new proposal would amount to the league really browning up the "grass is greener on the other side" route for Oden. Competing for a title on South Beach sounds great until you realize you're taking a 66 percent (or more) pay cut to do it. If Oden wants some combination of competing in the playoffs and getting paid, it is about to get far more difficult for anyone to make a better case than Portland under the new collective bargaining agreement. 

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter