(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on August 11, 2011)
The NBA lockout is propelling toward a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lost season. Most of what I’ve heard and read about the pending and now ongoing lockout was that it was sure to be long and hard battle.
The optimist opined that we’d be lucky to duplicate the previous labor impasse 50-game condensed season back in 1998-99. The pessimist piled on and reported that the 2011-12 season is dead on arrival.
However, most of these speculations offer little analysis other than trying to figure out how many teams are losing money and how much. And I’m afraid that the constant chatter that the sky is falling may prove Chicken Little right.
It’s very well likely that many teams are struggling. But why are buyers lining up to recently purchase teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, and the players are almost universally expected to give up a lot?
The new owners are viewed as Warren Buffet acolytes pouncing on undervalued investments while the players have historically been savaged as spineless and short-term thinkers. This is the case despite that during the past few collective bargaining negotiations in 1998, 2005 and now there is still a sense that they got too much and must give back what they negotiated.
The NFL lockout was resolved seemingly on a few big issues. The football owners got back a few points in the split of the overall profits and hammered out a reduced rookie wage scale. The players got fewer training and practice sessions (that theoretically extend careers) and perhaps more guaranteed contacts.
The NBA lockout similarly can be reduced to a few issues. All the other maneuvering is posturing. The NBA suing on the grounds that players are not negotiating in good faith and the player statements about going overseas make the news but are not about to lead to a settlement.
We saw how the lawsuits entangled in the NFL labor dispute were seemingly easily resolved once the deal was near. And, the NBA superstar is not really en masse willing to risk guaranteed millions playing in less than stellar conditions. Nor or there enough teams with spots to offer particularly considering they could potentially lose signing others players by “renting” the superstars who would return to the NBA once the lockout is over.
The first vital issue confronting the NBA is the owners figuring a better way to share revenue. One reported discrepancy between what a top team can rake in for a home game versus a bottom earner is about $10 million dollars. That over a 41 home game schedule is a significant difference of $410 million dollars.
The NBA is not willing to split the loot more “fairly” throughout the league like the NFL though and would rather resolve the matter of revenue capacity by reducing player salaries. The league proposes to offer the drowning smaller market teams a rope in the form of the mere chance to maintain star players with a hard cap and financially driven measures restricting player movement.
Those who argue that player movement has destroyed franchises point to how the Miami Heat took two players from smaller markets in Cleveland and Toronto who then sunk in the standings and financially. But it’s a fiscal ruse to use the animosity the Superfriends engendered to yoke rising costs as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took less money to make it happen.
The NBA has always been a league dominated by a few teams like an oligarchy; financially and with finals titles. The Minneapolis Lakers dominated by fortunately having the first big man in George Mikan. The Boston Celtics quickly followed with its dynasty led by Bill Russell acquired via a trade in part because the St. Louis Hawks were reluctant to employ a black player.
The Lakers, by now in Los Angeles, reclaimed the torch back in large measure to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forcing a trade from Milwaukee. He had a preference for his hometown New York Knicks but was just as eager to return to the city of his beloved alma mater UCLA. The Chicago Bulls acquired Michael Jordan’s right hand man Scottie Pippen through a draft related trade powering it to six rings.
Then, the Lakers did it again through free agency by snatching Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando and pilfering Kobe Bryant from the rest of the league with the help of threats that the high schooler only wanted to play for the Lakers. Most recently, two former Celtics players in executive roles may have conspired to send Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett to Boston to swing the balance of power.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were acquired by their respective teams with slick moves. Boston’s Red Auerbach drafted Bird the year before he declared (since prohibited) and the Lakers traded an aging superstar for a number one pick that ultimately resulted in Magic’s selection.
My point is that the flow of players whether team or player fueled has been the legacy of the league. Yes, the current owners coming into the league within the past five-ten years, unlike the more established owners who got in the game with a few million and have had team values rise exponentially, face higher purchase prices and the potential to lose more money and faster than ever before and in turn want more certainty.
But it seems that the NBA would not want to chance parity as although the league in the 1970s ushered in a transformative style of basketball with the ABA player and esthetic that resulted in multiple teams winning titles, very few seemed to care. The star-ship model won out and seems here to stay.
However, there is hope. The players need to as partners with the owners recognize the long term multiple year contracts have not always worked out for the better of the league. Often, teams handed out five and six year huge guaranteed money contracts that quickly turned bad with years of dead weight due to injury, non-incentivised players or just bad decisions. The solution is having a maximum length of a contract as four years. A bad contract would not burden a team for that long and the player would still have future opportunities to subsequent deals.
Only narrowing the scope of the issues rather than stagnating on minor obstacles will stop the doomsday reports for the 2011-12 NBA season.