1670...
NEW TGS HOOPS COVER STORY: 2011-12 HOOPS TIPOFF...SORT OF
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Perhaps there is a chance the NBA will end its lockout by the time this publication reaches the marketplace.

But there's also a chance it won't.

We can't say the four-month-plus NBA lockout has caught us by surprise. Nor do we imagine it has stunned anyone else who has been following this story that in fact has been developing over the past few years. We made a point in one of our earliest TGS Hoops issues last fall that basketball fans would be well-advised to enjoy the NBA while they could in the 2010-11 campaign, because a nuclear winter of pro basketball labor strife was looming around the corner.

The specifics of the NBA lockout have been addressed on these pages, those of our website at www.goldsheet.com, and countless other media sources. Although we at TGS Hoops were one of the earliest publications to warn about the looming NBA labor crisis over a year ago.

The main topics, including percentages of revenue (or, to be more precise and use the latest in pro hoops nomenclature, "Basketball Related Income," otherwise known as BRI), the "Larry Bird Rule," mid and low-level roster exceptions, luxury taxes for higher-spending teams, etc., have been hashed and re-hashed several times. We suspect that whether a deal gets done or not in time to save whatever is left of the 2011-12 NBA campaign is going to come down to a battle of wills and personalities that to this point has been about as sensible as the audience voting on an episode of Dancing With The Stars.

In a nutshell, however, the battle lines were drawn long ago by both sides, with the players loathe to give up any gains from past Collective Bargaining Agreements, while management seemed hellbent to restructure the entire compensation arrangement, which has almost always resulted in significant concessions to the players in past negotiations.

Management's reasons, if they were to be believed, were based on pure economics. Too many teams were bleeding money, and ownership was determined to stop it as best it could.

Players, of course, rejected out of hand the concept that the majority of owners were hemorrhaging cash. And that interpretation fracture has been almost irreparable from the start of serious negotiations many months ago. Influential agents, led by Leon Rose and a handful of others, have also been accused of pulling strings in the background.

Tactics and personality clashes, however, have become issues as big in this debate as the "Basketball-Related Income" and "Larry Bird Rule" topics.

Not to mention societal stereotypes that have seemingly been at the core of some of the resistance by players to acquiesce to ownership. More on that in a moment.

Recent developments in the labor impasse have included a series of miscalculations by players, management, and even commissioner David Stern, whose trademark ruthless tactics have yet (as of late Thursday) to solve this long-standing impasse between the players and management.

Not that Stern hasn't pulled from deep in his bag of tricks. Playing an intimidation game that he has perfected over the years, Stern has been able to herd enough of the owners to agree to give ground to the players on some substantive issues, such as the percentage of BRI. Ownership did not come up with the idea on its own to move the needle from the 47% offer to players to the 50% Stern believed would consummate a deal.

By all accounts, however, the players originally misread management's olive branch as a sign of weakness, even though the owners have already succeeded in significantly altering the debate to where the players were ready to accept a 53% number for themselves. That's a significant drop from the 57% of BRI the players received in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Stern believed that management need not run up the score on the players and hammer out lopsided victories on every bargaining point. No reason to turn the proceedings into a basketball labor version of Tom Osborne's old Nebraska Cornhuskers pulverizing the likes of Kansas and Iowa State every year.

Stern also miscalculated that the players would gladly concede the 50-50 split Stern believed he could deliver in October, when there was still an outside chance the full 2011-12 NBA schedule could be saved. The commish must have been borrowing from the George W. Bush Iraqi playbook, believing he would be greeted as a liberator by the players. But a series of exchanges with a few of them, specifically Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, was an indicator that Stern could not bully the players as he could some of the management team.

Owners, however, are no more ready to give the players 53% than they are to grant a franchise to Billings, Montana. Even getting them to think about a 50-50 split required all of the weapons in Stern's arsenal.

The bottom line is that a hardline group of owners (including, apparently, Charlotte's Michael Jordan) is not blinking at Stern's thinly-veiled threats of "knowing where bodies are buried" and is pushing for management to pull back from the 50-50 offer and begin a series of take-it-or-leave-it proposals to the players. Although the most-recent developments before we went to press indicated that, for the moment, at least, management has authorized Stern to help broker a settlement that would include a revenue split in the 50-50 range. How long the owners decide to grant Stern this leverage remains to be seen.

There are some insiders who believe the best chance Stern and the owners have of getting a 50-50 BRI deal with the players would involve an old negotiating ploy in which management draws a harder line in the 47-48% range. The thought goes that enough players would realize the direction things were headed and would quickly agree to 50-50, putting the ball back in management's court. Related issues in the CBA would all figure to fall in line quickly once the BRI issue settles.

We are not big fans of Stern and have not approved of his tactics and management style for years, but believe he has been the only adult in the room for most of this exercise. Although overestimating his intimidation tactics (especially with the players), Stern is also working from a different vantage point than the other parties in this debate. He seems to be the only one looking at the bigger picture of the NBA brand as a whole, and has been told by enough sharp advisors that these days of a wobbly economy are hardly the best time to sabotage a product.

Stern, and apparently only Stern among the actors in this production, sees the dangers of the NBA's corporate sponsors going a full year without pro basketball and perhaps realizing that they could live easily without it. Not to mention the mostly corporate-types who fill the luxury suites at NBA arenas across the land. It is hardly etched in stone that those sorts will pick up where they left off before the lockout and automatically begin to direct their dollars into the NBA once more. Such a scenario can mostly be avoided if the NBA gets back to business sometime soon, but risks permanent disruption if associated with a fully canceled season.

Potential cracks in the side of management, however, seem small compared to what might be going on in the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), where director Billy Hunter has been playing a dangerous political game with his constituents, and where agents hover in the backgorund.

Many suspect that Hunter's unwillingness, at least thus far, to consider any management offer in the 50-50 range is based in the fear of being labeled a "sell-out" to owners by the players, perhaps jeopardizing his cushy gig in the future. Meanwhile, league player rep Derek Fisher of the Lakers has been caught in the middle, maneuvering around Hunter, several high-priced stars who have interjected themselves into proceedings, and the rank-and-file of the players' union that is anxious to get back to work and would reportedly gladly settle for a 50-50 deal in order to get the paychecks flowing again.

(Fisher's calm, articulate, and measured demeanor, by the way, has been one of the most enlightening side developments of the entire fiasco. Most believe "D-Fish" indeed has an extremely bright future in his post-playing days, where his options, whether they be in the NBA front office, politics, or elsewhere in the business world, seem to be unlimited.)

There is an underlying current among some of the players, however, who believe this is their time to show who's boss and draw whatever lines are to be drawn in the sand. This was best illustrated by the likes of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the latter wearing a backpack, parachuting into one of the more-serious discussions last month after Stern first floated the possibility of a 50-50 deal, and announcing that the players were not going to budge, with Garnett staring down the opposite side as if they were fighting him for a rebound, not negotiating the future economic course of the league.

To assume that racial stereotyping isn't part of the overall equation would be a mistake, too. It is said that the majority of mostly African-American players view this entire dialogue in societal terms and relates ownership to the white establishment. Even Michael Jordan, an NBA owner these days and most definitely not white, is considered a "sell-out" by some of the players, the majority of whom also having applauded LeBron James for his ill-advised "Decision" last summer, failing to note the poor taste of that endeavor. This mindset is also part of the resentment of Stern, who is Jewish. The combination is a potentially-toxic one and, according to many, has been an underlying motive in the resolve of many players not to give in to earlier management offers.

NBA insiders suggest the ethnic and religious components of the debate, though a bit hard to quantify, are very much part of the equation, and part, if not much, of the of the animosity that exists on the players' side. The NBA labor force is 75-80% African-American, while Jordan is the only non-white among the 29 NBA owners (the New Orleans Hornets have no official owner at the moment, being run for the time being by the league).

For those who can't accept the above, consider the recent comments made by NBPA counsel Jeffrey Kessler, who interjected a heavy dose of race into these comments that appeared in the Washington Post.

"To present that (the management's latest offer) in the context of 'take it or leave it,' in our view, that is not good faith," said Kessler, who also represented the NFL players in their recent labor dispute. "Instead of treating players like partners, they're treating them like plantation workers."

The slavemaster argument, however, is a tough sell for the players, whose average salary is reportedly around $5.15 million. Although in different circumstances, such tactics might not be the worst way to curry public favor, especially if the players had a respected voice such as Jim Brown or Dr. Harry Edwards to forward their arguments. Ownership would also recoil at such unwanted labeling. But that ship sailed out long ago, as public opinion is not going to have much compassion for the plight of the players, black or white, because of their through-the-roof compensation.

For what it's worth, we have always suspected that this NBA lockout is not going to go the direction of the NHL back in 2004-05, when their pro hockey counterparts lost an entire season to labor strife.

Unlike their NHL brethren, many of European origin and able to return to their homelands to play while the NHL was locked out seven years ago (indeed, 381 hockey players were employed abroad during the NHL lockout), the majority of NBA players have no such options. Especially with the overseas basketball market having mostly dried up, and, in Europe, at least, with restrictions on the numbers of non-EU players to begin with.

The players and management both know what eventually happened in the NHL, too, when owners were able to ram a more favorable deal (for them, at least) down the throats of the players in July of 2005, six months after players turned down what would have been a more favorable deal for them. Which is why a hardline group of NBA owners does not seem to mind the idea of making the players sweat for as long as possible, and even blowing up the 2011-12 campaign if necessary, to get the sort of deal they want.

Still, there seems to be a willingness, helped by Stern's influence, to avoid that worst-case scenario, which is why we think there is the possibility of settlement very soon. Enough owners have been convinced by Stern that the best interests of the game are not served by hammering the union into submission and perhaps costing the league the entire season. As we see it, the proverbial ball is in the players' court now to move the needle a bit more on their end to come to some resolution before more, if not all, of the 2011-12 season is lost.

If something doesn't get done by this weekend, many expect the NBPA to file for decertification, a process that would take 45 days. In the interim, players and management could continue to negotiate, although with the knowledge that the season would definitely be lost if no resolution were forthcoming in that 45-day window. We would be stunned if no settlement were reached, probably very early, before that hourglass empties in mid-December.

Still, that the NBA labor impasse has reached this stage is a pock on both the owners and players for not hammering something agreeable to each party over the past twelve months. Neither side is capable of generating much sympathy from the public, which is why the North American sports audience has mostly given a collective yawn at this labor battle. The real victims of the NBA lockout are those on the periphery who either earn their entire or supplemental incomes from the business of pro basketball. Vendors, team employees, and others whose livelihoods depend on the NBA filling the nights for six-to-seven months of the year are the ones really getting hurt by this mess.

We have always wondered why some sort of sliding scale could not be put into effect regarding the BRI, wherein the amounts of the players' cut could escalate if certain revenue benchmarks were reached. Concessions by management on that issue, however, might not be enough to satisfy the players unless they get some relaxed restrictions on the luxury tax and roster exceptions. Most observers, however, believe those latter points can be more easily resolved once the BRI formula is agreed upon.

As in most labor disputes where rational thinking has been discarded, the impasse will only end when one side decides to cry "Uncle!" and surrender. By the looks of things, the players are much closer to reaching that stage, especially as the rank-and-file begin to miss paychecks.

We cannot speak to the internal machinations of the NBPA, and what might happen in NBA clubhouses to those players who want to get a deal done as soon as possible, but our sources tell us they believe the vast majority of NBA players would be willing to move forward on a 50-50 BRI basis and risk the scorn of being called a "sell out" by the likes of Kevin Garnett, who already has enough money to last ten lifetimes. But we suspect the rank-and-file players have begun to exert a lot of pressure on Hunter and Fisher to get a deal done, and soon.

Look for this thing to end soon enough for the NBA to get back to business sometime in December, probably in the later portion of the month. We'll likely have a shortened pro basketball season, which is better than no season at all.

Until then, however, thank goodness we have college hoops!

Return To Home Page