Dampier's odd contract makes him NBA's 'Dust Chip'
Rod Higgins was general manager of the Golden State Warriors in 2004 when he helped negotiate what seemed like a routine sign-and-trade deal involving center Erick Dampier.
Six years later, Higgins is on the other side of the country in a new job as GM of the Charlotte Bobcats. And now he holds what's become one of the most valuable contracts in recent memory - the last year of Dampier's unique, voidable $13 million deal.
Dubbed the ''Dust Chip'' because a team can trade for Dampier, then waive him and his contract will disappear like a cloud of dust, it's considered gold for teams like the Bobcats seeking salary-cap relief. The 35-year-old veteran has become a get-out-of-jail-free card, a way to achieve financial flexibility and avoid the choke-hold the luxury tax presents.
''It is quite interesting, being with Erick on the front end and the back end of this deal,'' Higgins said, breaking into a chuckle. ''I've also changed teams to get that done.''
Higgins' cell phone is busy these days. Starting Monday, 60 days after the Bobcats acquired Dampier from Dallas, the Bobcats can package his contract in another multiplayer deal. It's a chance for the Bobcats to hand off Dampier's contract to another team seeking to reduce payroll and get a key player in return.
That means just two weeks before teams open training camp, Dampier has no idea where he'll play this season - or for what salary. It's all because he failed to achieve the playing-time clause in his seven-year, $73 million deal last season, making the last year non-guaranteed.
It's a rarity in the NBA, where almost all contracts outside of fringe players are fully guaranteed.
''For me, it's just limbo,'' said Dampier, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in May. ''I don't really know what's going to happen.''
Trading Dampier is a complicated proposition, though, and the Bobcats may not fare any better than Dallas did.
The Mavericks had dreams of using Dampier's contract to obtain LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, but that didn't pan out. They instead sent Dampier to Charlotte for center Tyson Chandler in a five-player deal that was hardly a blockbuster.
There has been reports the Bobcats could even acquire Denver forward Carmelo Anthony in a Dampier deal, or at least a starting point guard to replace departed free agent Raymond Felton,
But Higgins is lowering expectations. While saying there's no ''drop dead date'' to get a deal done, they may end up simply waiving him.
''The conversations have been had around the league,'' Higgins said. ''I don't know if there's going to be anything that subsequently gets done.''
That's because the main motivation for Charlotte owner Michael Jordan is to get under the league's luxury tax threshold of $70.3 million. Having a payroll above that figure triggers a dollar-for-dollar tax, something Jordan has no desire to pay with the Bobcats losing tens of millions annually.
Once Dampier is off the books, the Bobcats would be about $5 million below the luxury tax, so they won't take back more than that in salary in any deal for Dampier. That makes a blockbuster deal difficult unless it's a multi-team trade.
But there is motivation for a team that's already into luxury tax territory. Acquiring Dampier for equal salary and then waiving him would save $26 million this season, his salary plus the tax. So Higgins expects to be busy starting Monday - all because of a contract that couldn't be duplicated today.
In 2004, the luxury tax wasn't in effect every season and teams could re-sign their own players to seven-year deals, one year longer than allowed in the current labor contract.
Entering free agency after averaging a career-best 12.3 points and 12 rebounds, the Warriors packaged Dampier in a trade with Dallas that involved eight players and two draft picks.
Dallas agreed to a seventh-year for Dampier, but only with a playing time requirement. Dampier had to log 2,100 minutes, or an average of 30 minutes over 70 games in 2009-10, to make the $13 million due in the final season guaranteed.
Slowed by a balky knee, the 6-foot-11 Dampier appeared in only 55 games last season and played 1,280 minutes. Suddenly, an aging, unspectacular player had become the ''Dust Chip.''
One of Charlotte's options for Dampier was to waive him and re-sign him for less. But while Dampier said in July the Bobcats would get ''the first opportunity'' to re-sign him, he turned down a $2.2 million deal. It was all Charlotte could offer because it was over the cap and had used $3.5 million of the $5.7 million midlevel exception to sign guard Shaun Livingston.
So now the Bobcats will likely either trade Dampier or release him. And the move will be made by Higgins, who never would've guessed he'd be holding such a valuable chip six years ago.
''That contract,'' Higgins said, ''is probably one of the most valuable contracts in the league.''