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How Mid-Level Exception may again haunt Knicks

Chauncey Billups during the teams workout in preparation

Chauncey Billups during the teams workout in preparation for tomorrow's playoff series opener against the Boston Celtics. (April 16, 2011) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The Knicks may have been responsible for turning the Mid-Level Exception from a valuable tool that allowed a team over the salary cap to still make improvements to its roster to a dangerous weapon of mass destruction that needed to be idiot-proofed. And as a result, the MLE is now one of the major reasons why we may not have an NBA in 2011-12.

Isiah Thomas threw the full MLE at center Jerome James, who had one decent playoff series in an otherwise underwhelming career, and then followed it up with another full MLE to Jared Jeffries, a capable defensive player, but one who was so limited offensively he is a liability as a regular. And the MLE was not intended for role players deep in the rotation.

Now it wasn't only the Knicks who abused the MLE. Coincidentally, small-market teams desperate for stricter controls over spending (you know, that "competitive balance" thing?) such as the Memphis Grizzlies (Brian Cardinal) and Milwaukee Bucks (Drew Gooden) made dumb decisions with the MLE. The Toronto Raptors gave it to one-dimensional player Jason Kapono.

Perhaps the best usage of the MLE came early in its existence, in 2002, when the Detroit Pistons used it to sign Chauncey Billups, which turned into a championship move. 

But mistakes of the past aside, the owners in the revised proposal to the players offered a watered-down version of the MLE, with various levels. The full MLE ($5 million) was only available to teams that were not over the luxury tax threshold, meaning they were over the cap but not above the tax level. For teams above the tax level, there was a limited exception at three years, $3 million and then for teams just under the cap there was also an exception for two years, $2.5 million.

This was one of the items on which the owners felt they moved closer to the players wishes. But, along with several other issues in the system, it was clearly not enough.

As a result, there may not be an NBA season as the union has been dissolved and the players are now abandoning collective bargaining for antitrust litigation.

So many of you have asked what it would mean for the upcoming NBA Draft if there is no season. Basically, how would the NBA determine draft order without a season to establish standings and lottery placement?

In 2004-05, when the NHL lost an entire season, the league held a 30-team draft lottery after a new CBA was agreed upon. That was a big year, with phenom Sidney Crosby, a once-in-a-lifetime player similar to LeBron James, as the big prize. The league decided to include all 30 teams in the lottery and weigh the team-by-team odds based on playoff appearances in the previous three seasons and first overall picks over the last four years.

The Rangers, Penguins, Sabres and Blue Jackets were the only teams without a playoff appearance or a first overall pick in that time period, so each had the best chance to win: 6.3 percent. There were 10 teams that met at least one of the criteria and those teams had a 4.2 percent chance. The remaining 16 teams had a 2.1 percent chance.

The lottery stayed true to form as the Penguins won the drawing.

In the NBA scenario, there are five teams that would meet the criteria of no playoff appearances and no first overall picks: the Warriors, Timberwolves, Nets, Kings and Raptors.

After that, there are two teams that have failed to make the playoffs, but did have a first overall pick -- the Clippers and Wizards -- and then seven teams that made the playoffs only one time in the last three years and have not had a first overall pick -- the Bobcats, Pistons, Rockets, Pacers, Grizzlies, Bucks and Knicks.

Yes, the Knicks. Though they would not have a great chance at the first overall pick, they would have a shot at a top 10 pick in this scenario.

But here's where the MLE comes back to haunt the Knicks. Isiah's decision to give all of it to Jeffries in 2006 motivated Donnie Walsh to want to move it off the books in 2010 to open up enough salary cap space to target LeBron James in free agency and still have enough room to add more talent around him. So off to the Houston Rockets Jeffries went for Tracy McGrady, along with the 2011 and 2012 first round picks.

Before you put your fist through the computer screen, you should know that Walsh had the sense to make sure the 2012 pick is lottery protected from first overall to No. 5. So if the luck of the draw finds the Knicks in the top five, they will keep the pick (and the Rockets then get the 2013 pick).

Now the Rockets traded their 2012 first round pick to the Nets for Terrence Williams, so it is possible that Houston could be completely shut out of any first round pick. Their pick is protected through the top 14, however. So to be shut out completely, the Knicks pick would have to fall in the top 5 and the Rockets' own pick would have to land at No. 15 and up. Nightmare scenario for GM Daryl Morey and hardlining owner Les Alexander.

In case you're wondering, after the Pengiuns, the 30-team NHL lottery did not heavily favor the teams with the best chance. The second overall pick went to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, which were in the second group. In fact, five picks from No. 2 to No. 8 went to teams in the second group. And three of the top 10 went to teams in the latter 16.

So there's a chance the Knicks could wind up with a very high pick in the 2012 draft, with a shot at young, talented bigs such as Anthony Davis or Andre Drummond. Or the Rockets could wind up with two lottery picks in this draft, if the Knicks fall outside of the top five.

Yes, Isiah and the MLE. The gift that keeps on giving.

New York Sports