Wilson Chandler signed a deal to play overseas during the NBA lockout, like a few dozen of his fellow players. (For a full list of those players broken down by contract status, check out Ridiculous Upside's comprehensive docket.) Chandler's deal is different, though: he signed in China. China has banned opt-out clauses for locked-out NBA players, and has further banned the signing of players under NBA contract. Chandler is a restricted free agent. When he signed the deal in China, he signed it for the whole year. If the lockout ends next month, he's not coming back to experience restricted free agency without breaching his contract or reaching a buyout.
Wilson Chandler has nothing to do with the Sacramento Kings. No one has suggested the Kings would target him, not with John Salmons in place. But Chandler offers a precedent for restricted free agents: he was willing to roll the dice and make some money in China. Will our restricted free agent -- Mr. Marcus Thornton -- eventually do the same?
You see, free agents have the Chinese market all to themselves right now. There are another dozen jobs there. There aren't that many NBA free agents who would fit over there. I could imagine our old friend Carl Landry taking a gander, maybe even Darnell Jackson. Guys like David West (recovering from injury), Marc Gasol (Spanish-born), Nene (focused on a big NBA payday) and Tyson Chandler (ditto) aren't going to China. It'll be guys like Landry, like Chandler ... like Thornton.
Imagine Thornton made the jump Chandler has just made. Imagine the lockout does end before the season is lost. One of the two biggest questions the Kings face is how Thornton, Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette will work together in the backcourt. (The other huge question is how DeMarcus Cousins will develop in his second season.) That question about our backcourt? If Thornton's in China and Fredette is thrust into a starting role -- or worse, the Kings are forced to go buy a shooting guard on the free agent or trade market -- we'll be as confused as we are now. We consider Thornton a piece of this puzzle, a vital cog in the eventually dominant machine. We don't want to see him go, and if this were a normal season, we'd be convinced he'd stay.
But it's not a normal season, and Chandler's precedent presents the first real challenge to our vision of the next season. Will it happen? I don't know. Thornton hasn't made much in his NBA career, and if things continue to look bleak in the NBA and a Chinese club offers $2-3 million for a year's work (that's what Chandler's making), could you blame Thornton for taking it?
There's one more concern Chandler brings up to the front burner: how will restricted free agents be treated if the season is lost?
It's an interesting question. I mean, players under contract are going to effectively lose a year off of their contracts. It's not as if the teams are going to shift the players' 2011-12 salaries to '12-13 and go from there. Unrestricted 2011 free agents will join unrestricted 2012 free agents. Deron Williams and Chris Paul are not going to now be signed through 2013. The NBA isn't going to completely torch contract law.
So what happens to '11 restricted free agents like Chandler and Thornton? You've got to imagine that the union -- and those RFAs themselves -- would push to become UFAs in '12. And that's a dead-easy "concession" for the league to make. And that f--ks teams like the Kings.
Restricted free agency is a lovely little salary depressant at the margins we're looking at. In Thornton's case, were this a normal season, it'd probably save the Kings $2-3 million a year, maybe more. (I'm spitballing, but it's easy to see how a team like the Wolves would shove $8-9 million at Thornton before the Kings could react. That doesn't happen much in RFA.) Ignoring how a new CBA will depress salaries across the board, having Thornton as an RFA under a new system in '11 would be much preferred to having him as a UFA in '12.
Just another reason to root for an end to the lockout. As if we needed more.