The Miles Saga

Despite the fact the we just saw the two best teams in the East play the other night, it seems that most everyone is more concerned with the curious situation of Darius Miles.  While you probably have heard about this issue, before we give your our take we’ll give you the quick rundown: 

-Miles is drafted out of high school in 2000 by the Clippers third overall.  With the Clipps, Miles starts off quite well and looks like a potential high yield prospect who could jump and defend but had some holed (he couldn’t shoot).  Miles did not improve in year two (2001-02) for the Clippers but was still a hot property.  The Clipps then traded him to Cleveland for 2002-03 season for Andre Miller.  The trade did not indicate that Miles’ stock had fallen so much as the Clipps trying to go for it with a bunch of potential free agents (Elton Brand and Lamar Odom) and a glut at the forward slots.  The trade worked out poorly for both teams but we’ll focus on the Miles side of the deal.

-Miles had knee surgery in the off-season before coming to Cleveland in 2002-03.  The recovery process clearly affected Miles, who stank for the 2002-03 season.  His scoring and rebounds were flat on a per game basis from the previous seasons (9 ppg and 5 rpg) but he shot 41% from the field, by far the worst shooting of his career (he’s a career 47% shooter).  Miles continued struggling with Cleveland in 2003-04 (9 ppg, 4.5 rpg but on 43% shooting) and was traded mid-year to Portland.

-On Portland, Miles somehow rediscovered his game.  He scored 12.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 28 mpg and shot 52% from the field.  He impressed management enough to earn a big extension in the 2004 off-season (six years and $48 million).  He followed this up with pretty decent stats in 2004-05 on Portland but had several incidents with management, most notably when cursed out coach Maurice Cheeks with a racial epithet.  Portland immediately regretted the contract and the Cheeks incident looked even worse because the team was having problems with image already.  In the 2005-06, Miles’ knee issues became too much.  Mileswas moderately effective when he played (14 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 32 mpg, 12.5 PER) but the knee sidelined him for half the season. 

-After 2005-06, Miles sat on the injured list for the next two seasons until the Blazers declared him physically unable to perform (pursuant to an independent medical examination) and waived him in April 2008.  Because this was an injury-related retirement, the Blazers received cap amnesty for his salary in 2008-09 and 2009-10 ($18 million total).  They still had to pay Miles but they had cap room and Miles did not count for luxury tax purposes (it’s not clear if insurance covered Miles’ contract).

-So Miles gets the money and the Blazers get the cap room and everyone lives happily ever after?  Not quite.  Last summer, Miles decided that since he was only 27 he was not ready to give up trying to play in the NBA.  After favorable workouts in the summer, Boston signed Miles for the 2008-09 pre-season and played him in six exhibition games before waiving him in late October 2008.  Miles was then signed by the Grizz in December.  He served a previous drug suspension at that time and then played two games (nine minutes total) before the Grizz waived Miles last week to ensure that they didn’t have to tender Miles a guaranteed contract (he could be re-signed later however).

-Miles had played a total of eight games in his comeback (between the Celts and Grizz) and is approaching the magic number of ten games under NBA rules, at which time Miles’ salary obligation would be reinstated to count against the cap and ruin Portland’s plans at getting a free agent next summer and impose the Blazers’ with a potential luxury tax penalty.  Rather than hope against hope for the small possibility that a team wouldn’t sign Miles for two games over the next two years, Portland became a bit pro-active.  They sent a letter to the NBA and all other teams threatening league actions if a team signed Miles, under the theory that such a signing could arguably tortiously interfere with Portland’s prospective business interests.  The Grizz, obviously intimidated by this threat, immediately re-signed Miles.

-Having covered all the prelims…what can we make of the actions of all the parties here?  Well, the Blazers are seeing their cap room chances going up in smoke and having to pay luxury tax to boot.  The letter was an attempt to dissuade the other teams from signing Miles under threat of litigation.  This strikes me as a silly strategy on several levels: 

-At first glance, Porrland’s claim of tortious interference with prospective business opportunities does not seem to fit this case.  This cause of action typically refers to situations where a third party induces a party to a contract to breach the contract in to damage that other party to the contract.  While this tort can theoretically manifest itself in other situations, this is probably not one of them.  Portland’s complaint is that it doesn’t want to be hurt by another member in the same joint venture.  The behavior complained of (a team signing and playing a presumably healthy NBA player) is not illegal or salacious and, in fact, completely in accord with the rules of the NBA.  So, it doesn’t seem that they would have a claim at the outset.

Of course we can slice the issues a little thinner than that.  There are two possible scenarios here to assess: (1) a team really wants to sign Miles to see if he can play or (2) a team signs Miles and plays him but its underlying motive is to hurt the Blazers.  In the first scenario, the team’s behavior is likely proper and the incidental effect that the Blazers are injured is beside the point.  Indeed, it seems that the Grizz have a bona fide reason for signing Miles (reports indicate that he was worked out by tons of teams in the summer and he looked pretty solid).  The fact that Miles might only be a bench player is besides the point.  If he can play in the NBA, then the Portland has no complaint. 

But what about scenario two, where Miles is signed primarily to kill the Blazers’ plans?  If a team were to sign a player solely to kill another team’s strategic flexibility, would this constitute a tort?  I tend to think not in almost any scenario.  In this case, Miles looks young enough and able enough that there is justification for the signing.  Could there be such a scenario where a player signing is a tort?  Perhaps, in the abstract, we could come up with a scenario that would fit in those bounds.  Hypothetically, suppose that the player at issue wasn’t Miles but someone who had been retired for years and could, in no way, play NBA basketball (indeed, we’ve seen signings of Keith Van Horn and Aaron McKie, who were both long retired last year for cap reasons).  That may change the analysis but even in that most extreme situation the team is still within the rules of the NBA and it’s kind of a close call.  No matter who the player is, the interfering team would still have to dress the player and play him in games, and this bona fide and legal act seems to cut against any tort claim.  Hypotheticals aside, I don’t think the actual facts of the Miles scenario are even close to suggest a whiff of tortious interference. 

-The Blazers’ letter, however, does create possible legal problems but they cut the wrong way.  Not only is signing Miles not likely tort from Portland’s perspective but it may actually be central evidence in creating liability for the Blazers.  Indeed, the letter is basically an admission that the Blazers are trying to squelch Miles’ career for Portland’s own benefit.  That fact is pattern much closer to a tortious interference claim for Miles.  On top of that, should Miles be shunned after the letter, I’m pretty sure he’d have a very strong collusion claim, where Portland and the entire NBA would be liable for damages (not much the public embarrassment such a claim could cause).  Indeed, these very problems may have helped spurred the quick reaction by Memphis in re-signing Miles almost immediately after the letter.  Portland was trying to protect itself here but the letter ultimately had did not protect them and made them look a little whiny.  At the end of the day, sometimes you just have to shut your mouth and bear the pain.

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