Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lockout Thoughts

I've followed the lockout in depth, especially at all the crucial periods. I watched my twitter feed for seven hours during a Greyhound trip during one negotiating session, another time vigorously through class when the meeting passed through the 5pm "ultimatum" deadline, and again when the players announced they were rejecting the League's final proposal.

And I kept thinking, "something's got to give."
Or somebody.

But they never did. Both the owners and players are locked into a long debate. The league will never admit it was wrong, and it will never admit that they asked for too much, or were too harsh in their demands and ultimatums.

The players seemed destined to be the side to awkwardly "say sorry" and take the hit for both sides by taking a deal neither side was happy with. But in an argument that had gone so long the source of the bitterness was lost, the players instead showed their pride instead of bowing to an easier solution.
And really this should all be over by now.

If David and Billy got along, and the NBA and PA worked together and set their egos and personal agendas aside to create a better league they should have been able to put in at least a temporary (say, 2-year) deal that would save the season and allow the negotiations to continue behind the scenes without destroying the on-court product.

But that could never happen. Both sides have their heels dug in and are looking for leverage to "win" the lockout by not only getting the better deal, but making the other side suffer and make concessions.
 David Stern, Adam Silver, Billy Hunter, and Derek Fisher
The players and the owners could never have the same vision for the League they want to create,
underlining the negotiations is the nature of the League itself. Stern and many of the smaller-market owners want to create a league with more parity to allow all teams a chance to compete for championships. This is however, against the historic and fundamental nature of the NBA. The NBA has always been a league of dynasties, from the Celtics and Lakers of the 60s and 80s to the 90s Bulls, to the 2000s Lakers and Spurs. The NBA has never been about parity, and that is deeply rooted in the ability of its star players to dominate.

In basketball there are only five players on the court at any given time, less than any other major team sport, and it also lacks designated positional play where one player is only expected to do one thing. Rather, the opposite is true. A great basketball player is able to dominate the game by doing everything well, by being a rare combination of skills that allow them to play every position, defend every position, and be a triple-double threat.

A single player changes the dynamic of a game more than any other sport, so when LeBron decides to move from Cleveland, or Carmelo insists his way out of Denver, teams are at the will of their players. They have recognized recently through free agency and future impending free agencies that players control the league.

And owners don't like that.

The proposed new deal would help tie franchise players to a team, increase the length of contracts they are able to offer, and dramatically restrict player movement which puts the power back into the hands of the owners. It would also penalize the teams that go over the salary cap every year, and promote teams spending up to the cap to stay competitive rather than tanking the season and saving money while doing it.

In previous labour negotiations of past decades, the players fought for free agency which was granted to them. The players also fought for a fair share of the total revenue earned by the NBA. By the owners demanding players give up some freedom of movement, and asking them to change their share of the revenue from 57% for the players and 43% for the owners to a 50-50 split, the owners had everything to gain and the players little, other than a fair deal and their jobs.

If you can't hold onto a big name player, it takes savvy business decisions, promotion, investments, coaching and building a solid roster to succeed in a small market. The NBA itself is not struggling. It is highly successful and as popular and valuable as its ever been. Some teams are losing money, but overall the NBA is making lots of money no matter how they try to spin their financial situation. The new deal would bail out bad owners by giving them (among other safety nets) an amnesty clause to waive one player on their roster, somebody they made the mistake of overpaying.

There are many, many sub-issues including rookie contracts, draft age, drug testing, contraction, salary cap format, and a players retirement fund, but the fundamental debate is about who controls the league, and how the balance of power should be set.

Some people were thrilled to see the latest deal be rejected because it threatened the NBA that we love. This is the league with the crazy free agency, and trading deadline, the constant speculation of where the next superstar is going to bring their talent, and players dictating when and where they will be traded. While this league has been fun the past few years, it's agony for Magic fans now as it was for Cavs fans a few years ago. And no, it's not fair to watch Chris Paul valiantly struggle and not be able to win no matter what he does while stuck in a small market, but something has to change to allow teams like the Hornets to build around their star without worrying that he'll leave anyways. The league needs a little more parity to increase competition in a long regular season, and enliven teams that perennially visit the draft lottery.

This lockout is about the balance of power for the future of the league.
What kind of league do you want to see?
Are you loyal to a specific team, or a specific player?

A top-heavy league creates dramatic playoffs and Finals, but for the have-nots it's a hard experience to sell for fans hungry for success. The NBA is at an impasse and it's not just about money or player contracts, both sides are trying to reshape the game.

This lockout will last until the owners and players can find appeasement or at least a happy medium, and just get back to playing.

This lockout will last a long time.

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