Posted Oct 17 2011 7:12AM
NEW YORK -- I sincerely apologize.
With all the tweets you have to read these days, I don't recall the author of this particular one, written last week, and it would take way too long to find it. So, my apologies.
But this guy -- pretty sure it was a guy -- had it nailed.
Now is the time, he wrote, when everybody who hates the NBA becomes an expert on the NBA.
They are coming out of the woodwork now, people who troll pro basketball websites to say, over and over, how much they prefer college basketball, and this is why. Everything David Stern said he wanted to avoid at all costs -- the millions in salaries and revenues lost, the cutting of part-time employees on teams around the league and the thinning of the league office itself, the ease with which people have, again, cast his players in the worst possible light, greedy and thuggish, stereotypes on speed dial -- has now come to pass, in brutal, nasty and short fashion.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, damage-wise, if the lockout continues, and at some point, the graph line of whatever the league's owners ultimately get in these negotiations is going to cross the line of the disgust that diehard fans feel, and the disinterest that potential fans will express by spending their money and time on other pursuits, and the lousy play that will accompany whatever shank of a season ultimately is played in 2011-12.
The commissioner and the executive director of the players' union have been at this for two years now, two years of talking about how pleasant and different these negotiations were compared to 1998, and they pick last week to break out the language of conflict and no surrender, and the season bleeds away, and they both point accusatory fingers at the other.
Here's what's driving me crazy hearing about the "gulf" that exists between the two sides. Take amnesty -- the ability of a team to nuke a "toxic" contract such as Eddy Curry's and get it off of its books. The league and players agreed to this in 2005, and several teams took advantage. Now the sides are talking about allowing it again -- maybe with the twist that the contract would not only be removed from luxury tax consideration, but come off the cap altogether, giving teams that are jammed up more room to operate.
This is what Billy Hunter said on WFAN about the union's amnesty proposal: "One of the things we've come up with in the negotiations is what we call a 'stretch' provision. And a stretch would allow a team to now stretch the money, the payment, over a long period of time. So if they decide to cut a guy, they can pay him over 10 or 12 years as opposed to paying him all in one lump sum."
And this is what Stern said on WFAN the next day about the league's amnesty proposal: "We've said if you have a player who's not performing, rather than get stuck with him and thereby not allow yourself to improve, you can waive him and you can spread his payments over twice the length of his remaining contract, plus one. And it will count against your cap in that way."
That is not a gulf! Or a lake. Or a creek, even. That's an eddy you can hop over in your sneakers.
So now it is up to a mediator named George Cohen, seemingly respected by anyone in sports who's ever had a conflict in the last two decades, to try and draw a royal flush, make the 7-10 spare. It's late in the game now, very late, because the whispers are that the owners are ready to administer the coup de grace to this season if the players don't take 50 percent, and the players are adamant that 50 percent is out of the question.
The commissioner was vociferous in his defense of his owners during our conversation in New York last Thursday.
"People say, 'Well, they bought a sports team; they should expect to lose money,'" he said. "No, they shouldn't. Because when you spend the amounts of money that these teams now cost, and the losses pile up because the players' salaries have gone up from a billion that we were arguing about in 1999 to $2 billion plus, I'm not going to say. 'Oh, we shouldn't make a profit; the goal here is to break even.' Wrong."
No one disagrees with that. Even Hunter doesn't disagree with that. His argument is that the players alone shouldn't provide the margin by which teams can be profitable.
There is another leg to the league argument, of course, and that is that it must alter the CBA to ensure that more teams can have a chance to win titles. Some folks agree with that contention, saying the league has become a collection of haves in Miami and L.A. and Chicago whose advantages will only grow with time because of their ability to go into the luxury tax year after year to acquire and to keep players.
This argument, though, ignores six decades of history.
The Lakers and Knicks and Celtics have always had a leg up on their competitors. The NBA has always been a league of dynasties, with few teams able to break through and challenge the hegemony of the dominant franchises.
1950-1960: Minneapolis Lakers, four of 10 titles
1960-1970: Boston Celtics, nine of 10 titles
1980-1990: L.A. Lakers, five of 10 titles; Celtics three titles; Detroit Pistons, two titles
1990-2000: Chicago Bulls, six of 10 titles; Houston Rockets, two titles
2000-2010: Lakers, five of 10 titles; San Antonio Spurs, three titles
You'll notice the 1970-1980 decade is missing. That was the only period in league history that can truly be considered democratic. Eight different teams won championships: the Celtics, Knicks, Bucks, Lakers, Warriors, Blazers, Bullets and Sonics. That would seem to be the kind of parity the league is now seeking. And the league was so popular that its Finals games had to be shown on tape delay. To be fair, there were other factors at play then -- the league was overwhelmed by the perception of white fans that its black players were all on drugs, for one. But the bottom line is the bottom line -- in the most egalitarian 10-year stretch in league history, no one watched on television, and people hated the on-court product.
In the NBA's 60-plus years of existence, seven franchises: Boston, the Lakers, the Bulls, the Spurs, the Philadelphia/Golden State Warriors, the Syracuse/76ers franchise and the Pistons -- have won a combined 53 titles. Read that again: seven of the league's franchises have won more than 80 percent of the league's championships. If you're judging competitiveness by championships won, the NBA has never been competitive.
Personally, I'm fine with that. The NBA is no different from baseball (the Yankees have almost one-fifth of all of baseball's world championships in their storied history), or hockey (the Canadiens have one-fourth of the National Hockey League's titles in the Stanley Cup era) or the NFL, where the Steelers, Cowboys, 49ers and Packers have almost half of the league's Super Bowl titles since 1966.
But maybe the league doesn't literally mean compete for championships. Maybe it is referring to having the opportunity to make the playoffs on a regular basis.
Since the last lockout (1998), though:
• The lower-budget Spurs have made more postseasons (13) than the Lakers (12);
• The Jazz have been in more playoffs (9) than the Knicks (5);
• The Pacers have been in more playoffs (9) than the Bulls (6);
• The Hornets have been in just as many playoffs (8) as the Celtics.
But that's not the point, the league argues. The point is that smaller-revenue teams can't spend the kind of money necessary to build championship-caliber teams. They have two choices, each bad: go more and more into hock to keep the players they have, or give those players away for pennies on the dollar to the big boys, like Memphis had to do with Pau Gasol, and fall further behind.
Of course, it was the Gasol trade that allowed the Grizzlies to rebuild in three short seasons, to the point where they made the playoffs this season, beat San Antonio in the first round and almost beat Oklahoma City in the second. And OKC has managed to put a pretty good team around Kevin Durant without breaking any banks; to the contrary, the Thunder have structured contracts with Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins that go down in the years to come, not up, freeing up funds that can be used to extend Durant and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
How did Sam Presti do this? Ouija board? Short-selling on the stock market?
He did it the same way R.C. Buford did it in San Antonio, and the way Joe Dumars did it in Detroit when he built a champion in 2004 out of parts other teams didn't care for, and the way Donnie Walsh did it in Indiana for, oh, 20 years, and the way Kevin O'Connor does it in Utah this morning. Draft the right guys. Sign the right guys. Trade for the right guys. And pay the right guys the right amount of money.
"Dance with me here," the commissioner said Thursday. "You're smarter than I am, as a general manager, and you have $45 million of salary. And I'm not so smart, I have $110 (million), but I hire a decent general manager. Over time, do you think you could compete with me?"
Do the big market teams have a financial advantage? Yes. They always have. But states with no income tax have an advantage over states that do. And states near water have an advantage over states that are landlocked. And states with mountains have an advantage over states that are flat, not that there's anything wrong with flat.
It is not easy to build a contending team in a small market. But it is not unknowable. It does not require magic or spending seven years in medical school.
For its part, the union sticks to 53 percent, insisting that the owners wouldn't really torch a season for three lousy percent (the same three percent it cannot possibly give up, by the way), and it continues to hold out that it can preserve some form of the mid-level exception, and argues that the supertax will destroy free agency movement among the big spenders.
The star players have reiterated 53 percent to their rank-and-file brethren, including at last Saturday's exhibition game in Miami featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"That's what we was basically trying to tell them," Wizards guard John Wall said Saturday night, after the D.C.-Philly exhibition in Washington. "If you're going to start losing money and losing games and worrying about that, then you might as well just take the 50-50 deal now. But if you can wait out and take it, then go with that 53 percent. But if you're going to start complaining after these two weeks, then you might as well just take the 50-50 and don't lose no money or no games. That's the main thing. When we was talking, we said we've got to stick with this, and if they come asking us, that's the number."
If there was some give from owners on the system, you hear, if the "supertax" could be eased or modified, there are more than a few players who'd be willing to talk about 50-50, or at least something well below 53. Which begs the question: Are the owners looking to make a deal, or bust this union?
"It ain't really about the number 53," Wall said. "That's a great number; that's where we want to stay. But it's about the system, how they try to do the system -- hard cap, extra two years on your rookie contracts. For the young guys, that's really hurting. Like I said, we want to play basketball. But it comes to the money at some point. And the veteran guys have played years. They say, 'We'll take 50-50,' because they've already made what they needed. They're not thinking about us. So we're just really thinking about the young guys."
But 50-50 is a hard lift for Hunter, maybe impossible at the moment. His problem is that he doesn't have a couple of months to hold out and, maybe, work that revenue sharing fissure among the owners out into the open.
If the players were to swallow 50-50, though, no matter what they got on the system side, it would be criminal for the owners not to accept, and would provide overwhelming evidence that this is less a negotiation than a shakedown. That would be a $280 million per year giveback by the players compared to the previous collective bargaining agreement, $1.96 billion over the life of a seven-year deal -- and that doesn't even count the escrow system that has returned another billion from the players to the owners in the last six years. The league says it lost $300 million last year. It would get 93 percent of that back from the players in a 50-50 split.
The frustration among players is growing.
"We've just gotta get something done, man," Kevin Durant said Saturday. "It's starting to get out of hand."
"Hopefully, we get something done, man, and hopefully the owners help us out a little bit," Durant said. "We kind of went off of what we wanted to do and we gave up some things, sacrificed some things. And I feel like they ain't helping us out. They ain't meeting us halfway with it. I mean, I think we're not willing to do anything just to get a deal but we want to get a deal. I think we want to stick at 53, but they gotta do something. It's like they're not leaving off of, I think, 47. They're not leaving off of that. And in a negotiation, you've got to give a little and take a little, I think. They've gotta help us out. I've heard a lot of people say we're fighting to get more money, and it's not like that."
No, they are fighting for principle, and that may be worse if you want to see basketball. The players have a pair of threes and the river is about to show. They could fold the hand, take their big losses and live to fight another day, wait until the time when they have the leverage and the owners do not. Or they could stay in and fight and go Mutually Assured Destruction with the owners. They would survive that. So would the owners. So would the game. But it would take a long time for fans to forgive. Or forget.
Two years, and they're still trying to spin everyone like they're Tai Babalonia.
There are a lot of smart people in the room. That's the problem. There have been dozens of proposals, counter-proposals, good ideas, not so good ideas, but there has always -- there had always -- been the notion that there was a solution out there.
And now ... I just don't know. I don't know if there's a willingness to solve the problem, rather than win the fight.
Interesting tidbit from Lawrence Katz, the lawyer handling the union's National Labor Relations Board case against the NBA. In discussing possible decertification by the union, Katz said he believes that the NLRB -- which would handle any decertification vote by the union if such a vote were authorized by union members -- would not approve the vote.
"They would block any decertification petition," he said.
The decert talk has cooled in recent weeks, but if union members decided they wanted to dissolve the union, they would need 30 percent of their members to sign a petition declaring they want an election to decertify. The NLRB would then hold a hearing to determine if an election was warranted. If it approved, the election would proceed, and a simple majority of union voters voting yes would decertify the union. (A tie would also mean decertification, because the union would not have received a majority of votes.)
Yet Katz says the union's pending complaint against the NBA would make decertifying an impossibility.
"The vote on decertification is a vote controlled and run by the NLRB," he said. "In my opinion, they could not process the petition for a vote because of the pending petition."
Meanwhile, the union's complaint with the NLRB against the league grinds on, just as the league's NLRB complaint against the union and its lawsuit filed in federal court in New York continues.
The union filed the complaint in May, claiming the league was not negotiating in good faith on a new collective bargaining agreement. The complaint was amended in July after the league canceled the Las Vegas Summer League. The complaint has been investigated by the NLRB's New York office and has been passed on to the Washington, D.C. bureau.
No date for a decision has been announced; if the NLRB decides to file the complaint against the NBA it could then ask a judge to end the lockout.
What team(s) benefits most from a shortened season?
I am, officially, sick of writing about BRI and the "system." So let's speculate. When this lockout ends, who will be most prepared to take advantage of it? Perhaps it's better to start with who will not benefit from it.
1) Teams with new coaches. Beware the three-game win streak early in the short season; it will be the ultimate in fool's gold. There will be many nights when superior talent simply wins out because no coach has been able to spend much time with his players this summer and there will be nights of horrendous defense. But that will change, even with a sprint to the playoffs; ultimately, teams that know one another through years of shared experiences will turn the corner.
Makes it tough for: Toronto (Dwane Casey), Detroit (Lawrence Frank), Minnesota (Rick Adelman)
2) Young teams. With next to no practice time available in the next few months the already steep learning curve for rookies, undrafted free agents and other newbies will be near impossible to navigate with a short schedule. In 72 hours, you could be guarding Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Jason Kidd, with no rest. If you're new to class, it's going to make for a great education. And a lot of losing.
Makes it tough for: Cleveland (two first-round picks), Washington (ditto), L.A. Clippers
3) Older teams. There are only so many jumps in a pair of legs, and when those legs get north of 30, making them go back-to-back-to-back can take them places they don't want to go ... like an MRI tube. Forget off days between playoff games; there may be a couple dozen off days all year in a truncated season.
Makes it tough for: Boston, San Antonio, Dallas, Lakers
4) Teams in transition. Even good teams that have a lot of new pieces will find it hard to incorporate them in such a short period of time.
Makes it tough for: Denver (lost Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, acquired Andre Miller), Milwaukee (traded for Stephen Jackson; traded away John Salmons and Corey Maggette), Portland (traded Miller, Rudy Fernandez; uncertain about Greg Oden's role or his future)
And that leaves teams like the Heat, Bulls, Magic, Thunder and Hawks -- teams with young stars and veterans who've been together for at least a little while. Who knows if I'm right? One sprained ankle changes everything, of course. And Kobe is itching for another run. But I suspect these are the kinds of teams that are going to be around in late May. And if I write one more sentence about luxury tax thresholds, I'm gonna be sick.
You can have George C. Scott. "Patton" wouldn't have worked without the riveting performance of Mr. Karl Malden as Omar Bradley. From Gueipin Xi:
I watch your reporting all the time. But I have to disagree with you on your last report regarding the importance of "Superstars".
They are in general terribly over-rated. As a matter of fact, every championship is won by a team effort. I can list the examples, and you probably know more than every one of us.
I think that's one of the problems with NBA. The players (especially "superstars") got too much ego and paid too much, and they do not work or think like a true team (with the owners, in this case). When they do the opposite, they usually win a title, like coach Rick Carlisle said in the last season, "stay humble and stay hungry".
Thanks for your attention to my comment as a basketball fan.
No question, teams (or "organizations," as former Bulls GM Jerry Krause infamously put it a few years ago) win championships. But just about every team that's won a title in the last 30 years has had a superstar lynchpin. Maybe you'd say the '04 Pistons didn't have a bona fide supe, but that's about it. The Celtics started with Larry Bird; the Lakers with Magic; the Pistons with Isiah; the Bulls with Jordan; the Rockets with Hakeem; the Spurs with Duncan; the Lakers (again) with Shaq and Kobe. You have to have a great player as your foundation, and then you build out, adding the role players and glue guys that can take a team the rest of the way. And, frankly, under the current system, one could argue -- and Dwyane Wade has -- that the game's superstars are underpaid. How much would LeBron have gotten last summer on a truly open market? A hundred and fifty million?
Should five percent appear too small/Be thankful I don't take it all. From Dan Lea:
When teams go over the salary cap and have to pay luxury tax, where does the money to pay the tax come from and who is it paid to? Just curious.
You're mixing up terms a little, Dan -- the cap limit is not the same as the luxury tax threshold -- but I think I understand your meaning. When teams exceed both the cap and the tax threshold they have to pay a dollar in penalty for every dollar they exceed the tax threshold. The money comes from the teams that exceed the threshold and is either distributed to teams that stay under the threshold (each team under receives a 1/30th payment from the pool), or is kept by the league for "league purposes" that could include investments in new projects or payments to teams that are losing money as part of the NBA's current revenue sharing plan.
From Gareth Davy:
I wanted to comment on your response to the question below about players salaries. Although I look forward to reading your column each week and appreciate your thoughtful insights into basketball and whatever other tid-bits come up during the week, I think you've gotten this one very badly wrong.
DA - "They make more money in one contract than most of the rest of us make in a lifetime, true. But their work life is much shorter -- four years, five years, and that's it. So they have to make as much as possible during that small window, because it has to last them a long, long time."
Yes some players only last a few years in the NBA but if they earn what I understand to be the league minimum of half a million a year (please correct me if that's inaccurate) then over a short four-year career that's $2,000,000!!!!!!!!! After tax, living expenses, a nice car and maybe even an apartment they would still have about half a million dollars left to put themselves through college in order to work and earn money for the rest of their lives.......just like everyone else. Only they've had the priceless experience of playing professional sports for a few years to go along with the significant financial head-start they now have on the rest of the population. And four years at $500,000 is at the very low end of the spectrum....the so called rank and file mid-level exception guys obviously make massively more than this.
Most people have at least two or three careers in their working life these days so why should it be any different for sports stars???
Very rarely would a basketballer (or any sports person) injure themselves so badly in their career that at the age of 25-35 they could no longer go on and become a banker, accountant, baker, tv presenter, social worker, school teacher, lawyer, optometrist etc.
I've been a landscaper for 10 years but my body has now given out due to an illness so I'm re-training as a writer which is less physically demanding. It's a nuisance to be sure but their [sic] are a hell of a lot of people even in the rich western world still worse off than me.
I truly think players need to take some of their millions of dollars and buy themselves a little perspective if think they are somehow being hard done by. Like I said, I am genuinely a fan of your work but absurdly misplaced sympathy and misinformation like the kind you have written only reinforce the disgraceful notion that getting paid a lifetime's wage in a few years somehow disqualifies you from being able to earn anything for the rest of your life - if anything it's a distinct advantage.
You make two points -- one about money, one about flexibility, Gareth. One at a time. First, the minimum salary varies depending on how long you've been in the league. For a rookie it was, indeed, just under $500,000 this past season. It rises on a sliding scale for each year you've been in the league, up to $1.399 million if you're a veteran player with 10 or more years' experience. And the mid-level exception, based on the "average salary" as the league defines it, was $5.7 million. But many argue, as my man Aschburner did skillfully recently, that "average salary" is a misnomer, and what you really should use is the median salary -- the point at which half of the players in the league earn more, and half, less. Under that definition the NBA players' median salary is more like $2.3 million, Asch wrote. By any definition, though, NBA players do, indeed, make more than most of us will ever make in a lifetime of work.
Second, I am not arguing that they don't have a head start on everyone else. I am arguing that a) anyone who undergoes a significant financial cut in salary has to make major adjustments, and b) your world is not the world of many NBA players. Many times, they are not only the primary source of income for their immediate families, but for their extended families as well. And I use the term "family" loosely here; that can include friends, friends of friends, neighbors, etc. With that many people looking for help, $500,000, before or after taxes, doesn't go as far as you think, and is why so many guys wind up blowing through their career earnings. Sure, they can say no, but that's not as easy as it seems from the outside. And, of course, they are not prohibited from getting another job or switching careers when they're done playing; that's what the vast majority of them do. I am just saying a lot -- not all, but a lot -- of them don't have that financial cushion when they start their next working life that you think they have.
Listen to Jayne. For God's sake, listen to Jayne. From Jayne Wing:
My husband and I fell in love with the NBA 3 years ago and have gotten League Pass all 3 years. My husband is disabled and I have been laid off for 8 months and just got a job last week. We had been discussing what we could give up to get League Pass this year. But as we sit and watch the players and owners fight over their millions, we are now discussing the fact that we may just give that money to another more worthy organization that really could put our $200 to good use, like our church. Granted, $200 is not a lot of money to many, but to us, it would mean giving up several movies or eating more pasta dishes. Would any of the players or owners be willing to give up the equivalent of that? (Keep in mind, we may have the money to do a movie occasionally if we go during the week and don't get pop, popcorn or candy.)
Can the NBA really afford to get the fans like us frustrated? Is it really worth it? I am sure both sides have legitimate issues, but come on -- figure it out and let's get playing!
This is the fan you are pushing away, commissioner Stern. This is the family that loves the NBA, but is getting tired of waiting, Billy Hunter. You can argue about principles and opportunities to make profits all you want, but you are ticking off (and "ticking off" is not the phrase I want to use here, but this is a family website) thousands of fans like Jayne and her husband, who have fallen in love with the game we all fell in love with -- the artistry, the improvisation within structure, the toughness and heart and beauty of it all. And they're finding something else to do. And it's so, so sad, because you had them, and now, you're losing them.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and Occupy Wall Street throw rugs and sleeping bags to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, interesting or snarky, we just might publish it!
9,217 -- Season tickets sold in New Orleans for the Hornets, according to Hornets chair Jac Sperling, who also told the New Orleans Times Picayune that there are up to eight different groups that are being vetted to buy the team from the league.
15 -- Years that Comcast-Spectacor owned the 76ers before the sale of the team was finalized last week to a group led by financier Joshua Harris.
108 -- Days since the lockout began.
1) I think Nolan Smith is going to be a pretty good player in the pros. Watched him Saturday night go against Kyle Lowry, and Lowry schooled him a couple of times, but Smith didn't back down and he didn't get embarrassed out there.
2) The very interesting life of Wayne Lebeaux, former Celtics equipment manager, now road manager for Bruce Springsteen.
3) During the lockout we've been showing some of the most memorable basketball movies on NBA TV. And I love "The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh." But let's expand the playlist a little, ladies and gents. How about a little "He Got Game," or "Love and Basketball?" "Hoosiers?" Maybe "Cornbread, Earl and Me?" No "Eddie," though.
4) Good luck to the Rangers and Cardinals in the World Series.
5) The official dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington on Sunday provides yet another opportunity to thank a man whose sacrifice is directly responsible for creating the opportunities so many of us have been blessed to have. Thank you, Dr. King.
1) If the season (or, at least, the season from mid-November through Christmas Day) is in the balance this week, can't the Board of Governors' meeting wait a few days while the league and the union give it their best shot in front of George Cohen Monday through Friday?
2) Not sure "bow down" is a phrase that will compel the players to accept your advice, Dennis.
3) The phrase "this is bizarre, even for boxing," doesn't have any real meaning, does it?
4) Condolences to the family of race car driver Dan Wheldon, killed Sunday in a horrible accident at the IndyCar race in Las Vegas. I've covered one Indy 500, and the matter of fact way the drivers faced possible death or serious injury was incredible. It was part of their job, the way a bad student evaluation might be part of a professor's. They were amazing people to interview. I pray the Wheldon family can find some measure of peace.
Hey LeBron, what's one thing most people don't know about you?(How much I miss my fans in Ohio/Cleveland)
-- LeBron James (@KingJames), Wednesday, 6:14 a.m., responding to a Tweeter's question, and causing jaws full of cereal, orange juice, toast and pancakes to fall wide open throughout the Buckeye State.
""The reason I came here is I'm trying to resolve the NBA lockout. We need our basketball."
-- President Obama, at a re-election fundraiser in Orlando last week attended by Doc Rivers, Grant Hill and Vince Carter.
"I couldn't read a book, use the computer, watch TV or have a conversation because I would have terrible headaches. I just stared at the ceiling, but that also gave me headaches because you start thinking too much."
-- Bucks guard Carlos Delfino, telling HoopsHype about his two and a half months on the shelf last season after suffering a concussion.
"When you go buy a Bentley, you know it's not a Volkswagen. When they signed him, they knew what they were getting."
-- Former Knicks forward Charles Oakley, telling the New York Post that he doesn't think much of current coach Mike D'Antoni's system.
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