2010 NBA Offseason: Free Agency Rumors Are Fun, but Lockout Still Looms
On July 1, 1998, NBA owners—tired of the petulance displayed by players of the Bill Simmons-titled "too much too soon" era—began a lockout that lasted 204 days and cut the 1998-1999 season nearly in half.
The owners' reasoning behind locking out the players, besides the aforementioned petulance, was that the previous collective bargaining agreement so heavily favored the players that owners were losing money hand over foot.
While you may roll your eyes regarding the notion that multi-billionaires were willingly throwing away money on a yearly basis, the owners were wholly in the right regarding their claim that player salaries had overtaken league revenue. (In 1998, player salaries accounted for 57 percent of basketball related income—a figure nine percent greater than what the previous collective bargaining agreement called for.)
In addition, there were no true individual player contract caps or any real structure regarding rookie salaries similar to ones we see today.
Because of that, and the NBPA's (National Basketball Players Association) notion that they should be paid more not less, a lockout was inevitable.
As with all lockouts we have seen throughout the history of sports, massive amounts of public conjecture sprouted in order to win in the hallowed "court of public opinion".
NBA owners ran (in the court of public opinion) on the pillar of overpaid players bringing down the league by making owners raise ticket prices for a product not producing at the level fans were normally accustomed to.
The players, on the other hand, had no true rallying cry other than "The owners don't actually lose money; they're lying to you."
And, as always, the court of public opinion came back with the same verdict: We don't care. Get back on the court.
Despite our cries for a return to action, the NBA lockout of 1998-1999 was decided in an actual court room—not our vastly overrated court of public opinion.
You see, while the lockout ended on January 20, 1999, arbitrator John Feerick determined the "winner" exactly three months earlier he ruled owners did not have to honor guaranteed contracts during a lockout.
Because regardless of any public bravado on either side (whether it be about fans, retired player benefits, etc.), all labor disputes come down to one thing: cold hard cash.
With star players losing upwards of $20 million after Feerick's ruling, it was only a matter of time before Players' Association Executive Director Billy Hunter caved to the owners' demands.
When the players and owners finalized the CBA, the owners got nearly everything they asked for: max contract values for all players, a rookie pay scale, limited Bird Rights, and a strengthened salary cap.
The players, on the other hand, got the only thing that ever mattered in the first place: their money.
In the end, the lockout did nothing for the average fan other than create possibly the worst NBA season in history. After sitting for over 200 days, players were out-of-shape and teams seemed to have lackluster chemistry on even their best nights.
It took the league nearly four years for attendance numbers and television ratings to stabilize to pre-lockout averages.
And, as the NBA is in the midst of another Golden Era in which ratings are soaring and the 24-hour news cycle is covering every step LeBron James makes, we are on the precipice of another lockout.
While the Billy Hunter and David Stern still have a full year to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, it appears that both sides are resigned to a work stoppage.
Why, in the midst of the league's most successful season since the Jordan Era, would a work stoppage even be considered—let alone be nearly certain?
Well, the answer is quite simple. And it actually begins with the owners' "win" in the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Before the 1998-1999 NBA "season", there was a clear division of labor salary-wise (for the most part) in the NBA: Great players were paid exorbitantly. Good players were paid handsomely. Mediocre players were paid middlingly. And bad players were paid scarcely.
When the Collective Bargaining Agreement placed limits on how much a team could spend on an individual player, its purpose was to sharply curb spending by lowering top-tier player salaries.
In the end, limiting elite player salaries simply allowed for good players to be paid like superstars, middling players to be paid like All-Stars, and bad players to be paid like solid role players.
In fact, 14 of ESPN's "20 Worst Contracts in NBA History" have been signed since finalization of the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement—and ESPN published that list before Gilbert Arenas decided to become Omar from "The Wire" and every contract signed in the summer of 2009.
(Note: I dare you to find five good values from the entire 2009 Free Agency Period.)
With the Free Agency Bonanza of 2010 just in its infancy, I am sure we are on the verge of witnessing some incredibly incredulous deals.
Just 24 hours into free agency, we have already seen the following horrible contracts: Darko Milicic (five-years/$20 million) , Channing Frye (five-years/$30 million) , Amir Johnson (five-years/$34 million) , Rudy Gay (five-years/$80 million) , and Joe Johnson (six-years/$119!!!! million)
Quick, name me one player from that list who is remotely worth his contract.
You can't because all deals agreed to on the first day of free agency were incredibly irresponsible and borderline idiotic.
So why is it that incredibly successful business men (despite what you may think of the owners as individuals, only incredibly savvy business men/women make enough money to buy an NBA team) are so incredibly irresponsible when running an NBA team?
Because they can't help themselves.
You see, what makes these men so successful business-wise (aggression, uber-competitiveness, etc.) is what also makes them horrible owners.
The same over-competitiveness which vaulted their businesses, television networks, or incredibly dubious Soviet ascensions into prominence is the same over-competitiveness which makes James Dolan give Eddy Curry $60 million.
That is why the NBA's most successful owners are ones who surround themselves with incredibly intelligent basketball people and leave the day-to-day business to their henchmen.
Because the owners are quickly realizing the err of their ways in the wake of America's worst recession since the 1970's, they want vast changes made in the next CBA.
And, as it currently stands, the players have no interest in heeding to all demands set forth by the owners and have begun preparing for the NBA's second lengthy work stoppage in the past 12 years.
So while you are enjoying the multitude of NBA rumors this off-season, be prepared for a 2011 off-season in which multi-billionaires/millionaires will plead to you once again in the court of public opinion.
A year from now, I justask that you remember the following when you're a juror in the court of public opinion: Owners aren't locking out players to lower ticket prices for fans. They aren't locking out players because the current CBA swings the money pendulum too far in favor of the NBPA. And owners certainly aren't locking out players to create a better NBA product. They're simply locking players out to save themselves from themselves.
And this time, it's about time we start caring.
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