If NBA players opt out of the league's labor agreement in 2017, they might find themselves staring at some familiar and unsettling proposals: a hard salary cap, shorter contracts, smaller raises and perhaps an end to guaranteed contracts.
No one is making that threat directly, at least not yet, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fired a modest warning shot on Sunday, saying that if the players want to reopen the labor deal, "There will be things that we're going to bring back to the table, too."
Silver made the remark in an interview on Bleacher Report Radio.
While Silver offered no specifics, he was clearly alluding to the 2011 lockout, when NBA owners pushed for a hard cap, salary rollbacks and other new restrictions on player earnings. The most drastic measures were dropped when owners and players at last reached agreement on a new 10-year labor deal in November of that year after a 149-day standoff.
That labor deal allows either side to opt out after the 2016-17 season, and new National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts has strongly implied, more than once, that the players intend to do so.
"And if they do, we'll deal with that," Silver said on NBA Sunday Tip. "As you guys know...there were a lot of things we left on the table, as well [in 2011]. We went into collective bargaining seeking—I don't want to get into it now—but a number of things that we didn't accomplish. And we compromised. And they compromised as well.
"If there’s a feeling that we should reopen the collective bargaining agreement, there will be things that we’re going to bring back to the table, too. And hopefully, just as we have in the past, we'll work through all those issues and there won't be any disruptions in the season."
If either side wants to opt out of the labor deal, notice must be given by Dec. 15, 2016, about 19 months from now. That means there is plenty of time yet to avoid another labor battle, but there's also plenty of time to posture. If neither side opts out, the labor deal will run through 2020-21.
There's a strong case to be made for simply staying the course, with the league enjoying record revenues and popularity. The NBA last fall signed a nine-year, $24 billion television deal, ensuring a massive windfall for owners and players alike. Under terms of the current labor deal, players are entitled to 51 percent of the new revenue.
The salary cap, projected at $67 million for next season, is set to leap by 32.6 percent in 2016 (to $89 million) and by another 21.3 percent in 2017 (to $108 million). The average annual player salary, currently about $5.5 million, will surge past $7 million in 2016 and approach $9 million in 2017. Superstar veterans like LeBron James will soon cross the $30 million barrier.
With so much guaranteed revenue coming, would the players' union risk opting out of the collective bargaining agreement? Would the owners? Would anyone risk another protracted labor battle during a time of record profits? Or will all the new revenue give each side incentive to revisit the CBA in hopes of winning more favorable terms?
The players gave up approximately $300 million a year to end the 2011 lockout, agreeing to lower their percentage of income from 57 percent to a range between 49 and 51 percent. At the time, the NBA was claiming hundreds of millions in annual losses—a claim union officials rejected at the time.
In an interview with Bleacher Report last fall, Roberts said "it's a pretty good bet" the union would opt out of the CBA, presumably to recoup some of the concessions made in 2011. Of course, once the deal is reopened, the owners are free to revive their old proposals as well. And with $30 million player salaries on the horizon, owners might be eager to seek new restrictions—including a hard cap, a measure they have been seeking for decades.
Silver and Roberts are both new to their jobs—Silver ascended to his position just 15 months ago, and Roberts joined the union last September—and their working relationship is still in its early stages, with little to evaluate.
Roberts and the union rejected an NBA proposal to "smooth" the coming salary-cap increases, a move widely interpreted as an omen for another labor war in 2017. More recently, Silver and Roberts quietly negotiated a first-ever testing program for human growth hormone, to be implemented next season.
Silver said the HGH deal is "a very positive sign, in terms of our working with the union and in terms of going forward." But the CBA is another matter.
"Certainly, from the league's standpoint, things are going, I think, extraordinarily well with this league, in terms of the popularity of the game. Our players are obviously making all-time record salaries. Benefits are terrific," Silver said Sunday. "No doubt, there will be things that they'll want to talk about when we return to the table for collective bargaining."
In Sunday's interview, Silver also indicated a reluctance to change the NBA's playoff format or its rules on intentional fouling, also known as the "Hack-a-Shaq" tactic. But both matters will continue to be studied and discussed by the league's board of governors and its competition committee.
As for proposals to eliminate Hack-a-Shaq, Silver said, "This is one where I really am torn. I don't like it. Aesthetically, it's not good, I think, for a fan to watch it, even though I find the strategy fascinating."
Silver recalled an owners meeting in which Hall of Famers Michael Jordan (who owns the Charlotte Hornets) and Larry Bird (the team president of the Indiana Pacers) spoke against any rules change, saying, essentially, "Guys gotta make their free throws."
Silver also worried that banning Hack-a-Shaq—which targets poor foul shooters—might send "the wrong message to youth basketball" about the game's fundamentals.
"I get a ton of emails from people involved in youth basketball saying, 'Please, don't make the change,'" Silver said.
Although intentional fouling can muddy up the game and slow it down, Silver said that minute-by-minute ratings data show no decline in viewership when teams resort to the measure. Still, it's expected that league officials will again consider proposals to rein it in before next season.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't make the change," Silver said, "but I think we've got to be really careful in how we go about doing it."
The commissioner also addressed the idea of eliminating divisions, and/or conferences, and seeding teams Nos. 1 to 16 for the playoffs.
"I think there was a certain sentiment [among owners] that you have to be very cautious about these kinds of changes," Silver said.
The notion of seeding the best 16 teams, without respect to conference, stems from a longstanding disparity between the stronger Western Conference and the weaker Eastern Conference, which routinely sends losing teams to the playoffs. But removing conferences from the seeding structure would require a change to the league's unbalanced schedule, and it would introduce all sorts of concerns about travel and the need to play back-to-backs.
Another concern is gaining traction: the automatic awarding of a top-four seed to division winners—and whether divisions should exist at all.
The Portland Trail Blazers had the sixth-best record in the West this season, at 51-31, but were seeded fourth by virtue of winning the Northwest Division. As a result, the San Antonio Spurs (55-27) fell to sixth and into an unenviable first-round matchup with the 56-win Los Angeles Clippers.
After falling to the Clippers in Game 7 on Saturday night, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich took aim at the division rules, saying, "That should be changed immediately" and "That doesn't make any sense."
"It seems odd that a team that won 55 games and a team that won 56 games end up playing in the first round," he said.
Silver generally defended the traditional division alignment and the perks that go with it.
"My view is if we're going to have divisions, we should be rewarding the division winner," Silver said. "There's very little you can win in this league, as opposed to, for example, European soccer leagues, where there are multiple cups throughout the season. There's very little you can win here. You can win your division, you can win your conference, you can win the championship. But if ultimately, people's view is, 'Who cares who wins the division?' we should take a fresh look at it."
The matter was discussed at the board of governors meeting in April, but no action was taken.
"I was a little surprised at our owners meeting," Silver said. "There were more, I would say, traditionalists in the room than I thought."
Silver attributed Popovich's remarks to the "heat of the moment" after a tough playoff defeat, saying, "I wouldn't read too much into it." Spurs general manager R.C. Buford is on the league's competition committee, which is expected to discuss the topic in June.
Any move to change the playoff format, seed teams Nos. 1 to 16 or eliminate divisions would likely require a balanced schedule, which presents all new concerns, such as requiring more travel and more sets of back-to-back games, which Silver is trying to curtail.
"And presumably, if we did away with divisions and went right to it, and when it came to the playoffs, we ranked the teams Nos. 1 to 16, it wouldn't be fair to play an unbalanced schedule," he said. "It wouldn't be fair to teams, for example, in the West to have them play each other more than they do teams in the East (when the West is tougher).
"So the implication is if we're going to change the division and conference system, we have to change the way we do the schedule. If we change the way we do the schedule, it will lead to more travel, not less, and presumably will lead to more back-to-backs, because we'll have even less flexibility in dealing with the schedule. So we have these competing interests."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.