What's at Stake If NBA Players Back Out of Orlando Return?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 13, 2020

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 10: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on from the bench during the second half of the game against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center on January 10, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets was out with an injury. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
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Is the NBA's Orlando return in jeopardy?

Per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, "Kyrie Irving has been a driving force in organizing [calls] and in raising concerns over NBA’s bubble plan. … One agent estimates that two-thirds of the top 40 [players] would refuse to play under the proposed restrictions."

The fight for racial justice in America is a must. So too is the health and safety of the players and NBA support staff. Irving's reported reservations are understandable and crucial.

On Friday night, per The Athletic's Shams Charania, Irving told a group "consisting of 80-plus players—including ... NBPA president Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Donovan Mitchell and Avery Bradley" that he does not support finishing the season in Orlando. That "something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up."

LeBron James was not a part of the call, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic: "For James' part, his stance is clear. He is ready to play ball and keep pushing for social change."

The "right" point of view is in the eye of the beholder. The NBA (players and teams) can represent a significant voice through this time. Should they use it on the court in front of an audience of millions? Or by boycotting a return all together?

The answer for each player will be a subjective, personal decision—one they should not be shamed or bullied for making.

It is also imperative the players fully understand the stakes if they choose not to return to play this season. Losing the rest of the season will inevitably result in a lockout.

Irving, who is out for the year with a shoulder injury, is an easy target given he won't be one of the players returning to the court in Orlando, but if he is standing up for his principles, don't ignore the $6-7 million he'd be forfeiting.

What’s really on the line is his $33.3 million salary for next season, which would be at risk if the NBA decides to rip up the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 31:  Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets in action against the Chicago Bulls at Barclays Center on January 31, 2020 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using thi
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The CBA is the league’s backbone, stipulating everything from the split of basketball-related income (BRI) to player minimum and maximum salaries. Within the document, the NBA has "the right to terminate this Agreement" upon "the occurrence of a Force Majeure Event."

One of the included triggers is "epidemics," and the CBA breaks down exactly how much it will dock each player in salary (1/92.6th per game canceled). Thus far, the league and the union have been able to negotiate a solution without the NBA invoking force majeure, even with games officially lost from the original schedule (only 22 of the 30 franchises will resume, with the eight eliminated teams losing 16.6 each on average and the remaining 22 dropping nine apiece).

Should Irving and the players gain enough support for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to back out of their agreement to return, the NBA would undoubtedly respond with force majeure.

Under present circumstances, the league is already going to deduct a certain amount from players' checks this season. Implicit in the CBA is a 10 percent escrow to make sure the players don't receive more than their share of BRI (roughly a 50/50 split with the league). With NBA income far below projections, the players are not going to get any of that 10 percent returned.

Furthermore, the NBPA agreed to an additional 25 percent deduction even beyond the current season (through their first check of 2021 on January 1, for players with the standard pay schedule). With the NBA expected to resume, that may be suspended (to an extent), but even if Irving’s sacrifice isn’t as extreme, it would still amount to millions.

If the more significant concern wasn’t already evident, a report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in May that the NBA and NBPA agreed "to extend until September the 60-day window that preserves the league's right to terminate the collective bargaining agreement in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic" should open many eyes.

Last month, per Wojnarowski, Commissioner Adam Silver told the NBPA, "The CBA was not built for an extended pandemic. ... There's not a mechanism in it that works to properly set the cap when you've got so much uncertainty; when our revenue could be $10 billion or it could be $6 billion. Or less."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

In other words, Silver and the NBA are ready to force a lockout if that's what it takes to rebuild a CBA that can accommodate today's circumstances. Without force majeure, the league or union have until December 15, 2022 to opt out of the current deal following the 2022-23 season.

By then, the world will hopefully have a widely distributed vaccine. In the meantime, there's no guarantee the NBA will be able to have fans in attendance next season, which Silver reportedly estimated would result in a 40 percent loss of revenue. If the league is an $8 billion industry, next season's BRI could be $4.8 billion.

Instead of a $115 million cap for 2021-22, which the NBA projected earlier this season, the figure could drop well below $100 million. This is the reality the NBA and NBPA have to navigate together, even without force majeure.

Take away the structure of the CBA in a lockout, and the players have no guarantee they'll receive any of next season's salary. That’s where Irving is at risk; $33.3 million is a lot, even for an All-Star with a healthy shoe deal with Nike and other endorsements.

Once the league and union are forced to negotiate a new CBA, there's no guarantee it results in an improved deal for the players. Team owners have a deeper well of financial resources to outlast a lockout siege compared to the 450 to 500 players. For every LeBron James or Irving, there are dozens of minimum players who may be lucky to get more than four or five years in the league.

The last negotiation that resulted in the 2017 CBA was done cooperatively without a lockout. It has proved to be a successful agreement to this point, with the pandemic offering a wrinkle of unprecedented magnitude. The 2011 CBA was more complicated, with the lockout costing the league 16 games. The players agreed to reduce their share of BRI from roughly 57 percent to the current 50 percent range.

From an economic point of view, the players should endeavor to return, both to protect their income for not only this season but for future years. Preventing a lockout should be paramount.

Players may be able to use their financial resources to help fight racial injustice. An on-court/camera platform may be the perfect means to lead the way.

That Irving and others are willing to discuss other options, even if that means self-sacrifice, should be acknowledged and admired. 

The NBA and its players have a lot at stake. Decisions made in June 2020 will have repercussions that will be felt for many, many years to come.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

Chris Haynes from Yahoo! Sports joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck" to discuss the resumption of the NBA season, the plans to play in a quarantined bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the players, including Kyrie Irving’s, various concerns about the league’s plan, and the impact that both the pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are having on players’ individual decisions.


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