The Portland Trail Blazers, twelve games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies in the standings, are closely monitoring the Grizzlies’ next couple games. They aren’t doing so out of fear that Memphis is a threat to their possible playoff spot in 2009, but rather because they are a threat to their off-season free agent possibilities.

Back in 2004, the Trail Blazers signed Darius Miles to a six-year contract, but their relationship soured quickly when Miles clashed with then-coach Mo Cheeks. Miles was eventually suspended by the team for cursing at Cheeks. Physical problems prevented Miles from living up to his promise for the team over the next few years, and Portland decided to arrange for an independent physician to analyze Miles. While the physician declared Miles’ injuries to be career-ending, the loss of Miles did not relieve Portland of their obligation to pay him the remaining $18 million left on his contract, even though insurance reportedly will cover a large chunk of it. It did, however, clear that money off of their payroll for the purposes of calculating how much room they have left under the NBA salary cap. More room under the salary cap means greater freedom to compete in the free agent market for players.

Miles, however, has been attempting a comeback, which could reduce the Trail Blazers’ offseason flexibility. If he plays in ten games this season for any NBA team, his contract is included in Portland’s salary cap calculation. Trail Blazers President Larry Miller fired off a letter to the general managers and team presidents around the league warning them that signing Miles to a contract “for the purpose of adversely impacting” Portland’s salary cap position would violate a “fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer,” and create liability to Portland for “tortuously [sic] interfering with the Portland Trail Blazers’ contract rights and perspective [sic] economic opportunities.” Miller threatened litigation against any team that “engages in such conduct.”

While we all might like to see what a suit filed for “tortuous” interference looks like, and even though it looks like Miles will play his ninth and tenth games of the season this week for the Grizzlies, this dispute is not likely to end up in a courtroom. First of all, Portland would have to prove that Memphis has signed and is playing Miles for the purpose of adversely impacting Portland, which they would be hard pressed to do. Miles was unable to make the Boston Celtics, but the Celtics are the NBA champions and a very deep team; if they were intrigued enough by his skills to keep him around for a few months, it’s likely he could benefit a team like Memphis. Also, Miller would have to demonstrate that there is such a thing as a fiduciary duty between and the other NBA teams, even though they regularly compete with each other to attract free agent players such as Miles.

Andy Veit

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