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Danny O'Neil covers the Seahawks for The Seattle Times.

July 6, 2012 at 10:04 AM

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NBA's poison-pill provision a reminder of Seahawks' Hutchinson debacle

Poison pill.

Only one of those words contains four letters, but for a Seahawks fan, they're as profane as any expletive after the offer sheet Minnesota used to pry guard Steve Hutchinson out of Seattle in 2006.

Nothing was quite the same for the Seahawks after that.

In fact, the Seahawks were so salty at the way the whole thing went down, they responded by signing Nate Burleson to a similarly jerry-rigged offer sheet in what amounted to a game of contractual spitballs.

But then something funny happened after that: No teams used those poison pills despite the fact it seemed to be a technique that was kind of ingenius, albeit a little underhanded, for swiping a restricted free agent out from under another team's nose.

I bring this up not to be a muckraker getting anyone riled up about the past, but because of what is currently happening in the NBA. You remember that league, right? Round ball, incredible athletes and a commissioner who showed no qualms about giving Seattle the business end of the stick. Well, free agency is underway in that league, and restricted free agents like guard Jeremy Lin and big man Omer Asik have agreed to offer sheets that were engineered to make it more difficult - i.e. more economically painful -- for their former teams to match.

Yes, poison pills are all the rage in the NBA right now.

The reason is complicated, involving hilariously complex elements of the NBA salary cap like "Early Bird" exception and the "Gilbert Arenas provision". Neither of those terms are made up. They both actually do exist and come into play.

Here's the Clift Notes version of what has occurred. The Houston Rockets have an offer sheet that the Bulls' Omer Asik has agreed to that will pay $24.3 million over three years: $5 million next season, $5.2 million in 2013-14 and more than $10 million in 2014-15. Under the terms of the NBA's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Houston can average the salary-cap impact of that deal, meaning if Asik joins the Rockets, he would count $8.1 million against the team's salary cap for each of the next three seasons.

Pretty straight forward, right? Well, here's the twist. The Bulls now have the choice to match the Rockets' offer sheet and retain Asik, but should Chicago match it, the salary-cap accounting is different. Instead of averaging the total money in the contract over the length of the deal as Houston would do, the Bulls would face salary-cap charges in the amount Asik receives in salary. So three years from now - when Asik is in the final season of the deal - he would count more than $10 million against Chicago's salary cap should the Bulls match.

That fact is very important in a league where teams have to pay a luxury tax. Chicago is a team that will have one of the higher payrolls given all the talent it has from Derrick Rose to Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. The idea of retaining Asik by matching the offer sheet - as constructed - will create more financial danger for Chicago.

It's not just the Bulls that have that reality, but the Knicks, too, after the Rockets had him agree to a similarly back-loaded contract.

And while I know the talk of Early Bird rights and Arenas provisions is fascinating for the salary-cap wonks out there, the question is what this is doing on a football blog.

Well, two things: 1) We are in the absolute dead zone for NFL news. Jaywalking would almost merit a post; 2) It shows that NBA teams - specifically Houston - is a little more ruthless at exploiting salary-cap loopholes than what we saw in the NFL after the Hutchinson debacle.

After all, the Seahawks didn't want to lose Hutchinson, and they always thought if worst came to worst, they could choose to match any offer he received. But when that offer came through, Seattle was placed in the position of having to guarantee the entire $49 million sum of the contract to retain him.

Whether you want to call Hutchinson's offer sheet with Minnesota a technique or a trick, the reality is that it did not become standard-operating procedure in the NFL. The only other time it was used was by the Seahawks against the Vikings in what was more a gander trying to get back at the goose than a new way of doing business.

There were restricted free agents who were switched teams after that such as Wes Welker going from Miami to New England, but teams did it via trade, not trading contractual spitballs. No one used that poison-pill technique, something which has now been written out of the NFL entirely under the new collective-bargaining agreement.

Now, some of that was because teams were aware of that you couldn't rely on the opportunity to match an offer sheet to retain a restricted free agent. Teams protected themselves by making sure they would receive compensation in the form of draft picks. If Seattle had named Hutchinson a franchise player, the Seahawks would not have lost him the way they did.

But another element of this was that teams did not opt to travel that route in poaching restricted free agents. They didn't keep exploiting that loophole, a kind of restraint that NBA teams don't seem to be exercising in their current environment.

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