Weekend Winner: Free Agents Breaking The Bank

In sports, everyone is a winner-some people just win better than others. Like NBA free agents, who are just flat out getting paid. I thought we were headed for a work stoppage? Actually, that's probably why these contracts are flying.

By now everyone knows about the big deals. $100 million for Amar'e, $120m for Joe Johnson, $80m for Dirk, $61m for Paul Pierce. But those were inevitable; those teams had to make their moves, whatever the cost.

No, it's the middle-of-the-road guys (and a couple dead-enders) who are raking in the truly eye-popping contracts. It's five years and $34m for Amir Johnson, who's started 29 games in his career. It's four years and $15m for Chris Duhon, who lost a starting PG role in a Mike D'Antoni system to someone who just left the NBA. It's four years and $20m for Darko Milicic, who's Darko Milicic.

You really have to wonder who these teams were bidding against. Which team only offered Darko $4 mil per? Who would only go to four years for Drew Gooden?

In the end, it's a product of so many teams having cleared cap space for the magic summer of 2010, and needing to spend it one way or another. But what's that I hear? It's the slow rumbling of a potential labor stoppage next year, after which some owners are convinced they won't even have to spend what they just handed out.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires next year, and with the league in the red at the same time we're days away from $1 billion in free agent dollars being promised in a single week, I'd say the ball's in the owners' court. Changes are a-coming.

The first and most obvious is a drastic cutting of salaries. It won't be in the tens of millions per team like after the NHL lockout, but it will be significant. And if it comes via a hard cap, owner are more willing to shell out the big bucks now, knowing they won't have to do it again for a long time.

The second and most likely to happen change will be in the structure of rookie contracts. If the owners get their way, not only will they have an escape clause after two seasons to cut dead weight, but they'll be able to keep their young players on the rookie scale for an extra year, postponing their first free agencies. Don't underestimate the savings that combination could generate.

But the most interesting potential change to the CBA, and the one that would change the NBA as we know it, could be the elimination of guaranteed contracts. The union will fight this one to the end (it could be the sticking point that causes the work stoppage), but David Stern and the owners would absolutely love NFL-style contracts, where if a player is injured or can't otherwise perform, say goodbye to that long-term deal.

The Knicks are being blasted for giving $100m to someone who had microfracture surgery, and a history of eye injuries. He gets hurt? Cut him loose. Let's say Joe Johnson doesn't live up to expectations for his max deal. The Hawks just bring him in to the front office one July, and tell him he needs to restructure his deal to help the team get back under the cap.

Five years is a long way away, especially with labor issues coming to a head in just one. No one's ever accused NBA executives of planning for the future, but this might be one instance in which they're opening up their checkbooks knowing that those checks won't be cashed.