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updated: 10/11/2010 7:55 AM

Solving the NBA's labor problems should be easy

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There has been a storm cloud hanging over the NBA for the past several months, and I'm not talking about LeBron James' management team.

With the current collective-bargaining agreement about to expire, the league is facing the very real threat of a lockout next year.

Let's face it, the lockout of 1998-99 worked well for the owners and they might be eager to try it again.

From the perspective of what's best for the league and its fans, the upcoming labor negotiations should be easy. In fact, let's just solve it right here, right now.

First of all, the owners have no business crying poor after the ridiculous amounts of money they rained on free agents this summer. Joe Johnson getting $119 million from the Hawks, Drew Gooden $32 million from the Bucks and Darko Milicic $20 million from the Timberwolves are just a few examples.

So instituting a hard salary cap that can never be exceeded just doesn't fit. Does the league really want the Lakers to have to get rid of Pau Gasol if they want to keep Andrew Bynum?

Probably not. The talks need to focus on these three issues:

- Early termination for underperforming players.

Many players are given the option of ending their contracts a year early. That's what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did, while Carmelo Anthony can do the same next summer.

So why shouldn't teams have the right to end contracts a year early if the player isn't worth the salary? The savings would have been enormous if teams could have canceled $20 million salaries for Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis in recent years.

Commissioner David Stern mentioned this topic in a recent interview with New York writers, spinning it toward a need to give fans hope and not leave teams "doomed by their past mistakes.

This plan seems fair enough. If a player wants back on the open market, he can opt out. If a team doesn't think the guy is worth his salary, it cancels the contract. If both sides are happy, they finish the final year of the deal.

- Much stronger limits on annual raises.

As it stands now, NBA teams are allowed to give their own free agents 10.5 percent raises and other team's free agents 8 percent raises. This might be the No. 1 cause of ticket inflation, growing the players salaries at a rate that far exceeds most fan salaries.

Here's a new plan: 4 percent raises to a team's own free agent, 2 percent raises for another team's free agent.

I've heard an agent argue that no one is pointing a gun at the owners' heads demanding they give players maximum raises, so why change it? The other side of the argument is teams know they have to overpay to reel in a quality free agent.

To their credit, the Atlanta Hawks set out to keep their best player this summer, but knew if they didn't give Johnson the maximum salary and years, some other team would.

Thanks to those 10.5 percent raises, Johnson will end up making close to $24 million in the final season and even he probably would agree that's a ludicrous figure.

- Do something to even the playing field for small-market teams.

Not sure exactly what kind of revenue sharing goes on in the NBA now, but there needs to be more of it. The league has been wildly profitable for owners working in Chicago and Los Angeles, while franchises in smaller cities are facing serious economic issues.

The math is pretty simple. Build a nice season-ticket base and an NBA team needs to convince about 250,000 people to attend one game a year and it has a full house.

In a metropolitan area of 8 million, that's not too difficult. In Memphis and New Orleans, it's a challenge. At the same time, the Knicks and Lakers can charge far more for tickets than they can in Indianapolis and Sacramento.

Pacers management is clearly to blame for the team's high payroll and low victory total. But it's sad to read news that the city of Indianapolis agreed to give the Pacers a $30 million subsidy over the next three years to run Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers already paid no rent and kept all revenue from Conseco.

Teams in larger cities would be a better choice to help fund the Pacers, not local taxpayers. Now that the NBA has 30 teams, there are few attractive options for relocation (Seattle is open but still needs a new arena) and we might see a team fold if the league can't find help for the smaller markets.