NBA Lockout: 5 Questions That Will Determine How Much Longer Dispute Lasts

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst ISeptember 16, 2011

NBA Lockout: 5 Questions That Will Determine How Much Longer Dispute Lasts

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    A disturbing, paralyzing turn in the NBA’s labor negotiations renewed rampant talk of a lost 2011-2012 season. A Thursday session in Las Vegas that could have represented a viable, welcome path to progress instead became the latest reason to draw another line in the sand.

    The players hoped small breakthroughs in discussions last week would yield more Tuesday afternoon. Yahoo! Sports Columnist Adrian Wojnarowski even suggested via anonymous sources that a few of them anticipated the completion of a new collective bargaining agreement in time to salvage the entire campaign.

    Then, the hard-line owners dropped another cruel hammer and told the crushed employees to keep dreaming.

    Perhaps NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter should have followed "The Sopranos" with more dedication. The critically acclaimed, now defunct HBO program taught valuable lessons about the costs of sparring with or infuriating the lead character or his family members and mobster allies.

    Tony Soprano did not compromise or demonstrate mercy when commandeering a bloodbath. Perhaps Hunter harbored excessive veneration for Commissioner David Stern and the bosses embroiled in this moribund stalemate.

    The two parties have failed to agree on the two most important issues—a hard cap and a potential redistribution of Basketball-Related Income (BRI). That mammoth gulf keeps this work stoppage conflagration burning when owners and players should instead find a way to extinguish the flames.

    How much longer will these men remain at dangerous odds? Here are five questions that will provide that coveted answer.

Which Union Cracks First?

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    The owners are counting on the disintegration of the players’ confederation. The hard-line bosses expect the athletes’ solidarity to crumble the moment they start missing paychecks.

    NBAPA President Derek Fisher and other union chiefs hope bickering amongst the big- and small-market owners will cause that alliance to shatter.

    Will the bench cogs and supporting cast members who need the money most demand surrender come October? Did they save enough to survive the duration of an extended lockout?

    Will Jerry Buss and Mark Cuban continue to support the mostly small-market cause when it threatens games and last season’s monstrous momentum? Will they decide they no longer want to push for a system that would dissolve their sizable advantages as profitable title contenders?

    No answer matters more than this one. History dictates that one side must break. The crippling difference here is that each side has taken extraordinary measures to prepare for this standoff.

    Fisher and Hunter implored players as far back as two and half years to start withholding earnings for a rainy day fund. The thunderstorm has arrived.

    The owners, driven to overhaul the league’s salary cap and financial structure, squashed newfound doubts about their dauntlessness with Tuesday’s “no thanks” response to an updated proposal with significant concessions. The moment of truth has arrived for these ruthless businessmen.

    Fragmentation on each side carries devastating consequences as well as promising possibilities. Enough owners could opt to break from the all-or-nothing stance and clamor for a speedier resolution. Or, on the disheartening flipside, such dissension might further enfeeble halted negotiations.

    If the players break first, maybe the union reluctantly signs off on a lopsided deal just to save face and the season. Or, on the disastrous flipside, it could trigger the risky option broached below.

    Is even more disagreement a good thing? This million-dollar query will dictate whether fans watch any NBA contests before fall 2012.

Will Players Association Bend to Agents’ Pressure and Decertify?

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    A union adjournment would prove catastrophic for owners, players and fans. It’s fair to wonder if these barking agents are just anxious to wield influence and deliver a resounding middle finger for the sake of notoriety.

    I cannot—even after examining decertification’s supposed merits—find one good reason to execute this nuclear action.

    The NBA is not the NFL. A strategy that flopped in that sport’s lockout will crash in a pathetic heap here. The NBA owners’ lawsuit, accusing the players of sabotaging good-faith negotiations with illegal tactics, will ensure that.

    It does not matter that all the evidence suggests the owners are the sole saboteurs. Hypocrisy and absurdity can win when propagated by astute billionaires. That litigation will prevent the players from securing a verdict in a favorable court.

    The union would disband in hopes its members and attorneys could convince a judge to declare the work stoppage unlawful. The owners channeled a Teddy Roosevelt philosophy in waving a bigger stick. No, you don’t. 

    This sentence in Sports Illustrated Writer Sam Amick’s Wednesday column should have been the headline: “some legal experts estimate that the move would likely wipe out the 2011-12 season while taking approximately two years to reach a resolution in court.”

    Please forgive the ensuing outburst. A two-year impasse with no basketball? Oh my God! Why, again, would anyone champion this?

    If the loudest agents orchestrate a coup and invoke decertification, do not expect any expeditious aftershocks. Instead, fans would seem to get more heaping helpings of painstaking court battles than anyone should have to stomach. 

    If you haven’t noticed, the government has a few other things on its plate, like, you know, a record debt and a flailing economy. The courts have other priorities, like, you know, cases that deal with life and death and us common folk.

How Much Do Stern, Owners Want Parity?

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    Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver has not backed off his contention that the owners want a hard cap that allows all 30 teams to compete for a championship.

    This may overlap with the first question, but its importance merits a separate mention. Just how much does Jerry Buss want to help the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves hang with his Lakers?

    Is Stern confident that a league with more parity would survive in the ratings race if the Lakers suffered a string of early postseason exits? Just how much parity would he tolerate?

    Does Timberwolves boss Glen Taylor really covet a system more conducive to his franchise winning titles, or does he want to pocket more cash and look less garish while running his laughingstock operation the same way?

    When the Lakers spend $112 million and a small-market team owns a payroll almost half that size, it makes the little guy look cheap.

    This is a fair gripe for some hamstrung owners and one a restructured cap should address. That the labor parties’ positions have not budged—one side wants a retool, the other an overhaul—presages a shortened season, if not a cancelled one.

    As the date to start slashing training camps and games draws closer, the parity inquest matters. Its answer could fortify the players and splinter the owners’ resolve or vice versa.

Did Record Sale Prices Doom Potential for Compromise?

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    Remember when Joseph Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Golden State Warriors for an unprecedented $450 million last summer?

    A series of high-priced purchases followed, and many wondered how the league could claim financial hardship when even one franchise went for that much money.

    Wojnarowski wrote in this August column that Stern promised these new owners “the most lopsided deal ever.” How can he renege on that commitment when those proprietors pay his healthy salary?

    In selling his soul to attract buyers, the commish may have destroyed any chance at a season. The hard-line owners believe they will get everything they want without making concessions.

    They plan to smash the NBAPA’s unification by virtue of boasting larger bank accounts and little to no remorse for missed games.

    Stern’s alleged pitch to those tycoons may force all parties involved, including loyal spectators, to pay a steep price.

Does Either Side Understand the Consequences?

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    The NBA is not the NHL. Yet, owners who manage franchises in both sports salivate at the prospect of identical salary systems. They contend hockey survived its lockout and lost season and is now better because of its hard cap.

    I need to repeat that first sentence. The NBA is not the NHL. The average American—meaning a person picked at random on any street in this country—could probably name 5 to 10 current professional basketball players without much effort.

    How many of them could name one professional hockey player? Wayne Gretzky does not count as an acceptable response.

    I rest my case.

    This work stoppage needs some heroes to protect the sport from a cataclysmic event. Even a few more level heads would do. Keep waiting.

    Fisher, Silver, Hunter and Stern say they learned the lesson of the 1999 lockout that almost exterminated that season. The latest negotiation breakdown suggests they learned nothing.

    The message the two sides, the owners in particular, should embrace: no ideal—no matter how poetic or justified—is worth risking 82 games. The probable impact of the coming carnage is clear.

    Get a deal done, or prepare to participate in a gruesome movie that will put all of its horror predecessors to shame.