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Steve Aschburner

After thrilling Finals, NBA faces offseason of uncertainty


Posted Jun 14 2011 10:55AM

CHICAGO -- The final six offerings of the 2010-11 NBA cycle, starting back in October and wrapping up in June, were some of the most thrilling, competitive, fascinating and don't-look-away games we got over the past nine months. Even Miami Heat fans, disappointed by the outcome of The Finals, would have to admit that.

But you want something really exciting? A can't-miss live event and telecast for the pro basketball world and all the fans who inhabit it?

Tell us when the next game is. We promise we'll be there, in some way, shape or form.

Right now, though, no one knows when the next NBA game will be played. And the suspense, if it's not actually "killing" us, could wind up doing significant harm to the sport, to the league and to fan enthusiasm as we know it.

That unknown is just the tip of an iceberg of uncertainty, heading into the offseason of 2011, courtesy of the unsettled collective bargaining agreement between NBA owners and players and a looming lockout set to begin July 1.

Uncertainty isn't always a bad thing. Think back a little more than 11 months ago, when camera crews were staking out an office building in Cleveland, covering the LeBron James sweepstakes. Where was James going to go? Where would Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer and several more of the coveted free agents, Class of 2010, end up?

Whatever bad taste "The Decision," James' botched prime-time marketing ploy, left in the mouths of NBA fans, it might seem like a one-hour Valentine's Day card to hoops fans by the time this summer's NBA coverage ends.

Video crews and reporters again will be staking out corporate towers and board rooms in search of answers. Only this time, the untelevised hours that grind away without resolution of the labor talks could have us pining for James and Jim Gray face-to-face in a Connecticut gym as if they were Johnny and Ed sitting late-night in Burbank. (Or, updating, Franklin and Bash in some zany storyline.)

There are some parallels to the real world, though they're neither pretty nor encouraging. For the franchise owners, particularly those who bought into the league more recently, it's a little like the housing bubble in the U.S. economy. They no longer can count on automatic equity in a frenzied, nowhere-but-up market. Their operating losses aren't being offset by growth in the value of their teams, for themselves or for their heirs. The "next greater fool" isn't necessarily coming along to rescue them.

So pushing back on what commissioner David Stern has estimated to be about $300 million in combined losses, with 22 teams in the red, has to happen at the bargaining table with the single-greatest source of owner expense: player compensation. For the little guy, this is like squeezing a refinance out of Bedford Falls' Mr. Potter.

The players, on the other side, are facing a little of what so many folks in the workaday world have dealt with in recent years. Givebacks. Furloughs. Layoffs. Frozen pensions. Boosted contributions for benefits. Full-time work downgraded to contract or part-time. Only for the players, it might come in the form of shorter contracts, less guaranteed money, and the elimination of salary-cap exceptions in what could be a new hard-cap world.

It figures to bring, by the end, a downscaling in the standard of living. For those on the court as for those in the stands. (Though, y'know, not exactly the same).

One more real-world parallel headed the NBA's way, it looks like, could be a growing disparity between the haves and have-not's. The past two collective bargaining agreements were mindful of the league's middle-class players, serving them with cap exceptions, full and early "Bird" rights clauses and other provisions.

But owners have found that it's not so much the max-salary deals that financially strap their teams, it's the $30 million, $40 million and $50 million packages paid out to average or slightly better players. Most union members fall into that group, of course, which is how those deals get voted in.

But now those rank-and-file types might have to settle for a CBA that is worse than what they've had for so many years.

With labor talks scheduled for Tuesday and Friday in New York, with barely two weeks until the current CBA expires on June 30, time is getting short. Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver have said that the league already is taking revenue hits for 2011-12 from sponsorships, partnerships and season-ticket sales that are suffering from the uncertainty.

Last week in Dallas, they declined to talk about the public or image hits that the NBA might already have suffered from the outside world's perception of, once more, billionaires squabbling with millionaires. Once the Heat-Mavs Finals slips from front-page coverage and short-term memory, once the suits and the tough talk start to dominate what passes for basketball coverage, those hits figure to come fast and furious.

Once a lockout begins -- if things reach that point -- a rolling horizon will emerge, with postponements, cancellations and other schedule alterations phoned in weeks or months in advance. Summer league and rookie development will be the first to go, along with teams' ability to sign free agents, make trades and otherwise improve their rosters.

Then comes a hard look at training camps and the preseason schedule. Followed soon enough by (yikes!) the potential loss of regular-season games.

If the 1998-99 lockout becomes the model this time around, damage could be widespread. When that season was truncated to just 50 games, squeezed into three months from early February to early May, owners, teams and players all suffered. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost or had to be rebated by the teams.

GMs had to scramble to assemble their rosters, coaches had to scramble to ready their teams with a couple of weeks and just two tune-up games. This time around, there will be a bunch of new head coaches -- in Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Indiana, Toronto and Golden State -- hoping to install their systems and familiarize themselves with the players without being rushed.

Back in 1999, some players found their jobs were gone when the game came back. Others such as Shawn Kemp and Vin Baker found their games were gone or forever altered when the game came back, thanks to conditioning or lifestyle issues.

Some players were put in embarrassing situations, uttering awkward quotes, as their paychecks ran out, with their lavish lifestyles difficult to support and impossible to defend to working-class fans. Teams bent over backwards to woo back the public, using open practices and meet-and-greet sessions that largely disappeared in the 12 years since.

Dwight Howard applying pressure to the Orlando Magic to spruce up the roster for a championship run, lest he leave as a free agent? Good luck with that, since no one even knows what the new rules of the next CBA will permit. As it is, with $74 million committed to 2011-12 salaries and expectations for a cap lowered to maybe $50 million -- and possibly a hard cap at that -- the Magic might be stuck. And they would have plenty of company.

It all would be too bad, too, in an offseason so strong in momentum and popularity. What a perfect time to build on the highs -- in interest, in ratings, in drawing casual fans to the game -- of this season and postseason. What a perfect time, too, with the NFL in lockout, to capitalize on a more barren sports landscape in July, August and September.

All the warm-and-fuzzies that the NBA enjoyed, just counting from the outcry over "The Decision" to the images of Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban holding trophies high Sunday, could get lost soon enough if labor talks drag on. Or worse, stalemate.

James' summer of discontent could wind up being way too long. The Mavericks' ring ceremony and opportunities to step onto other teams' courts as the NBA defending champions are on hold, too.

So c'mon, men in suits, tell us when the next game is. It could be Cleveland vs. Minnesota, for all we care, in a mostly empty gym in South Dakota come October. Likely No. 1 draft pick Kyrie Irving vs. overdue Spanish backcourt sensation Ricky Rubio?

NBA fans would take it and run like thieves.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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