Posted Dec 8 2011 9:09PM
NEW YORK -- One-hundred-and-sixty-one days after the NBA's labor lockout of 2011 began, it ended.
Both the owners and the players ratified a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday that will allow training camps to open Friday, trades and free-agent signings to officially trigger and, soon enough, a 66-game, 2011-12 regular season to begin. After a few back-to-back-to-back games, the five months or so of wrangling and hissing will be in everyone's rear-view mirror, with lockout jargon such as "BRI," "disclaimer" and "how U?" largely forgotten.
And yet, on day No. 161, as NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver brought the deal home (along with their desired "robust" revenue-sharing pact among teams) by a 25-5 vote, the buzz through the league seemed all too familiar: The Lakers. Chris Paul. The Knicks. Dwight Howard. Leverage. The rich getting richer. Small markets held hostage.
Meet the new NBA, same as the old NBA? It wasn't the sort of backdrop the owners -- and the fans who believed them in their pursuit of both financial and competitive equity -- had in mind 161 days earlier.
"We'll see," Silver said after the formal news conference ended. "I'm happy that people are back to talking about basketball.
"Superstars under any collective bargaining agreement will always have tremendous leverage in this league. Because an individual player can be so impactful on any given franchise. But we'll see, we'll see how it plays out. I think it's very difficult to predict behavior under new [CBAs]. Especially within the tax scheme that we have."
So the next 24-to-48 hours might not be the best test of the new labor deal's effectiveness?
"No," Silver said. "With a new deal that's either six or 10 years, I wouldn't look to a 24-, 48-hour period. ... Remember, there's a two-year transition with the old $1 tax in place. We'll see."
Stern -- who, at 69, acknowledged that this would be his final labor negotiations -- was asked if his legacy could wind up being more Lakers-Celtics Finals (based on the trade rumors that serenaded the deal's ratification). "I don't believe in legacies," the commissioner said. "We had a deal we had to make."
They did get it done, in time to save Christmas -- in fact, to bulk up the national TV slate on Christmas Day from three to five games -- and with enough calendar left for 66 games, a considerable boost from the 50-game schedule cobbled together after the lengthier, costlier 1998-99 lockout.
And the owners did significantly address the financial losses they were incurring in the previous CBA ($300 million in 2010-11) by reducing player compensation by 12 percent. That amounts to nearly $300 in the first year of the deal and $3 billion over the pact's full 10 years (though either side can opt-out after six).
The vote taken at the owners' Board of Governors meeting at a midtown Manhattan hotel wasn't unanimous. But Stern said he was gratified that the "nay" votes didn't break down according to market size or any other particular pattern. A simple majority was needed.
Said Silver: "For those teams that decided to vote against it, I think in part they wanted to make their positions known to the other owners. Some teams that expressed dissatisfaction with some aspects of the deal voted for it. ... I'm sure virtually every team in the room was unhappy about some aspect."
About an hour before the owners' vote was announced, NBA players approved the deal. The National Basketball Players Association reported that more than 200 players cast ballots via email between Wednesday evening and Thursday afternoon, and that "86 percent" of them voted for the deal.
Given some of the alleged free-agent signings and rumored trades -- the three-team blockbuster between L.A., Houston and New Orleans, with Paul, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin among the pieces in play, was the gaudiest -- the CBA's hard-fought system issues seem to many to have tilted heavily toward the players. Granted the split of basketball-related income (BRI) remains a zero-sum game, with the players' share locked into a band of approximately 49-to-51 percent.
The idea behind the competitive balance issues, though, was that the less glamorous teams, the non-traditional powers, would have talent steered toward them, rather than feeding their top players to the same old franchises. So what happened?
Stern stressed two things: Give it time. And follow the money. With a revenue-sharing system that will more than "quadruple" the transfer of money to needier franchises -- from about $40 million annually in the past to as much as $196 million in 2013-14, the commissioner said -- more teams will have the funds to compete for players. What once was a $5 million bump now will top $20 million for some clubs.
"It's a fair agreement, we believe, that had many compromises from both sides," Stern said. "While it's not perfect, the deal addresses significant issues on both sides in a very productive way, we believe."
Stern also cited shorter contracts and a much stiffer luxury tax on the biggest spending teams as mechanisms whose value will be known over time. As for star players eventually moving -- or forcing their way -- to markets they prefer, that isn't likely to change. Or make-or-break this deal, according to the commissioner.
"I believe in free agency," Stern said. "We have a deal where a player who has completed his time at a team under a contract has a right to go someplace else."
The Paul trade scenarios were particularly interesting in tandem with the new CBA, since the Hornets currently are owned by the league. Silver was asked how 29 owners, many of whom fought against small-market teams losing their stars, could approve the powerful Lakers landing the NBA's best pure point guard (and stripping one of New Orleans' top assets).
"It's not in a trust," Silver said. "Ultimately the buck stops with the league office. But we rely on the management -- [Hornets executives] Jac Sperling, Dell Demps, Hugh Weber -- to make decisions that are in the best interest of that franchise. But ultimately the decision rests with the league office. The final, final say."
Guess what? Soon after Silver spoke, ESPN.com reported that a group of owners protested the proposed Paul deal and convinced Stern to intervene, possibly blocking the transaction.
Other items of interest from ratification day:
• Stern said that in the revenue-sharing formula, the most any one team will contribute in a year will be $50 million. The biggest payout will be $22 million, with "six teams, I think" getting more than $16 million. Fifty percent of money collected in luxury taxes will go into the pot, he said, and teams paying big tax bills still will kick in their full revenue-sharing amounts.
• While Stern did say "I'm not planning on being here" for the next CBA talks, neither he nor Silver shared any details of a plan of succession.
• There were times, both league execs said, when they never figured they would get a deal or a season. For Stern, the "darkest feeling" came 30 minutes before they actually got a handshake deal Nov. 26. Silver said his pessimism peaked the day the union announced its disclaimer and the players began antitrust litigation.
• So what saved things? "There was a sense from both sides that this could easily spiral out of control," Silver said. "There was some movement in quarter-inches on both sides. And again, an assessment from both sides that there wasn't a lot more to give or get, short of Armageddon. Both for the players and for us, it was going to become increasingly unpredictable in figuring out what the behavior was going to be from the other side."
• Stern said his "over/under" would have been about eight owners voting against the deal. If, of course, he was a gambling man.
• As has been reported, the entry age for college players will remain 19-and-one-year-after-high school. Drug testing will not change this year either. But the ability of teams to assign players to the NBA Development League has been expanded to three seasons.
• What sort of residue can people expect between the players and the owners? Between the NBA and its fans? Of the former, Silver said: "It's at least my sense that we came together at the end ... From talking to players, reading what they're Tweeting and blogging, etc., my sense is guys are ready to get back to basketball and there's not a lot of bitterness."
As for the fans, Silver said: "It's incumbent on us and the teams and the players to demonstrate to fans that we are thankful and appreciative for their support. That we're sorry for the inconvenience that we caused. And that we're mindful that we're an entertainment product and we're completely dependent on their interest to drive this game, the players' salaries and ultimately to continue to build the sport -- which is what I look forward to turning back to."
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