ORLANDO, Fla. - A Cleveland Cavaliers game-day practice was ending earlier this month in Detroit, and Jeff McInnis was looking for a little action from former Juneau-Douglas High School star Carlos Boozer.
McInnis' North Carolina Tar Heels were playing Boozer's Duke Blue Devils that night, and a wager was at hand.
"Not too much," Boozer cautioned while in negotiations for the sum. "I don't have that much money."
For many fans, that might sound like ridiculous elitism. Boozer doesn't have trouble making the mortgage payment every month.
But this is NBA basketball we're talking about and, in those terms, Boozer is a pauper. McInnis makes roughly six times what Boozer pulls down. Teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas makes more in four games of work ($600,000) than Boozer will all season ($563,000).
It won't take Johnnie Cochran to win an argument that Boozer is already one of the game's best power forwards and that he's woefully undercompensated for it. The heartwarming side of Boozer's story is that he's risen to this status from being a lowly second-round draft pick. The reality is that he's still paid like an also-ran.
Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson landed a whopper deal with Boozer, signing him to a two-year contract with a team option for next season that will pay him the NBA minimum. Next year, he's slated to make slightly less than $700,000.
But Boozer, his agent (Arn Tellem), and the Cavaliers are all thinking ahead to a potential deal this summer that could keep him in Cleveland far into the future.
"Let's talk about money," Boozer was asked last Friday morning at the team shoot-around in Orlando, Fla., before the Cavaliers beat the Orlando Magic in overtime that night.
"That's always a good conversation," he said.
The complexities of this issue are massive and so are the stakes. Keeping Boozer, who was averaging 14.8 points and 11.2 rebounds at week's end, for the long haul is nearly as vital as making sure LeBron James is around, too.
"Of course it is something I think about. There's people doing what I'm doing that are making eight or 10 million a year," Boozer said. "I want to be able to take care of my family. I want a big house. These are things I dream about. These are things that have always motivated me."
Here's the nuts and bolts: The rules surrounding the collective bargaining agreement say that if the Cavaliers want to give Boozer a rich contract this summer to reward him and keep him for years to come, they will have to decline their team option on him. By doing so, that would put Boozer out on the open market as an unrestricted free agent and there are a dozen teams that could pay him more than the Cavaliers.
That would be a bad short-term business move, considering the club could have Boozer as a great bargain for next season, too, and then he'd be a restricted free agent. Then they could match any offer for 2005-06, the salary cap be darned because of what's called "Bird rights." Making him fulfill his contract is the best course of action by the book.
What Boozer and his agent are proposing is to make a handshake deal where he would agree to a new contract that the Cavaliers can afford under next year's cap and then sign it moments after becoming a free agent, forgetting the open market. This is a way for Boozer to get his millions now instead of two years from now.
In return, the Cavaliers would likely pay him less than they would by giving him his millions in two years. It is also a risk that Boozer wouldn't bolt for more money somewhere else this summer. Not only that, but such unspoken deals are technically illegal under NBA rules and the Cavaliers could be punished for such an infraction.
"Absolutely, that is something I am willing to do. I am an honorable person," Boozer said. "We have a great foundation here. My wife likes it here. I like it here. I am fine with sharing the spotlight with LeBron. Everything is going in the right direction for me. I think there is a big possibility to get something done this summer. This stuff that we're talking about will probably be worked out before next season."
Boozer wants fans to know that he's not complaining about his pay, he's not demanding a raise or threatening to hold out. If the parties can't come to terms this summer, which is likely for a deal this complex, Boozer will honor his commitment and wait for his money.
"I'm making a lot of money compared to the average person, but in the NBA it is chump change, especially the way I'm playing," he said. "I feel like I am going to get what I deserve. That contract I signed got me motivated. Right now I'm going on the right path and I want to keep it that way."