I am pessimistic about a 2011-12 season. And let me be clear about what I’m trying to say. It’s not that I’m pessimistic about the Blazers’ prospects for the 2011-12 season, I’m pessimistic that there will be a 2011-12 NBA season at all.
Most NBA fans are aware that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA owners and the NBA Player’s Union expires at midnight on June 30th. Without a CBA in place, the owners will lockout the players starting on July 1st. That means no free agent signings until a new CBA is agreed upon. It also means that there will be no contracts for players drafted in June and probably no Summer League games. And, as we saw in 1999, if a new CBA is not agreed upon by the time fall rolls around, we might see games lost. In that case, a shortened season was able to be salvaged – this time, we might not be so lucky.
In order to understand my pessimism, it’s important to understand what’s happened over the last 14 months. Both the owners and the player’s union have known for some time that the current CBA would not be in place beyond the end of June. As such, negotiations for a new CBA have been going on for well over a year. Where have those negotiations brought us? Let’s take a look at the timeline:
In Feb. of 2010, the owners made a proposal to the player’s union outlining basic tenets that they would like to see in a new CBA. They proposed drastic changes to the financial landscape of the NBA, including the implementation of a hard cap, a significant reduction in the amount all player salaries (including existing contracts) and the elimination of fully guaranteed contracts. This proposal was promptly rejected by the player’s union, who made a counter-proposal several months later that instead proposed that the players would agree to a reduction in the guaranteed percentage of league revenues from 57% to 50%, in exchange for replacing the BAE with a second MLE and loosening restrictions on trades and restricted free agency. This proposal by the players was not accepted by the owners, which has led to sporadic negotiations since then.
So, here we are, less than 3 months away from the end of the current CBA, and it appears that the two sides are no closer to an agreement than they were 3, 6 or even 12 months ago. That leads me to believe that the question is not “Will there be a lockout?”, but rather “How long will the lockout last?” And almost everything I’ve read over the last year leads me to believe that both sides are ready to dig their heels in and fight for a long time – which would threaten the very existence of a 2011-12 season. Here’s why I believe that:
1) The owners seem to be using the NHL lockout of 2004-05 as a blueprint of what can happen if the league is willing to give up short term losses to gain long term concessions from a player’s union. The lockout resulted in a number of major financial changes, including the implementation of a hard cap, a 24% reduction in existing player contracts (except minimum salary contracts), a one-time ability of teams to buyout undesirable contracts at a reduced rate (2/3 of remaining value after the 24% reduction) and restrictions on maximum contract amounts. Do those sound familiar? They should – they are very similar to what the NBA owners want in the new CBA. In fact, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis compared the upcoming NBA landscape to that of the current NHL last fall. Coincidence? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the NBA owners are willing to lose the 2011-12 season if it gets them what the NHL owners got out of their lockout. Oh, and by the way, what was the former job of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman? That’s right, he was senior vice president of the NBA. That wouldn’t link him to David Stern, would it?
2) On the other side, the NBPA (the player’s union) seems intent on holding firm against the owner’s proposals. Specifically, the union has said that two central tenants of that proposal – a hard cap and reduction of existing contracts – are deal breakers and will not be agreed to. Now, there have been some rumblings that the owners might be willing to make a concession about the implementation of a hard cap, however there seems to be no budging by the owners about significant reductions in all player salaries – including existing contracts. This leaves us with two sides that are each apparently quite adamant that they will not give in. That does not give me much hope about a quick resolution.
3) There is also indication that the owners’ 2010 proposal came with this additional communication, as reported by Ken Berger of CBSsports: “If the players agreed to the rollbacks and ratified a new CBA in time for this season, the owners would have agreed to soften the blow. In other words, if the new economic model sought by owners had been put in place a full year in advance, the pay cuts would've been less severe, and would have included the possibility of some grandfathering of existing deals, two people familiar with the owners' proposal told CBSSports.com. The key condition was that the proposal needed to be adopted before the start of the monumental free-agent class that began on July 1, 2010. One of those people said it was presented to the players as "a carrot" to induce them to negate the possibility of a lockout.”
4) Several quotes over the last few months from those who are involved in the negotiation process do not support an optimistic perspective. These include
Billy Hunter, NBPA Executive Director said in November: “I’d be 99 percent sure as of today that there will be a lockout…I’ve said, ‘Save your money because in all probability there’s going to be a lockout.’ ”
Adam Silver, NBA Deputy Commissioner said in February: “I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish, though. There is an enormous gulf – not even a gap – that separates the players and owners right now.”
George Postolos, former CEO of the Houston Rockets said in March: “The league has become less profitable over the past decade as the players’ take of the revenues has increased. It is not teneble (sic) not to make major changes.”
5) Some analysts are suggesting that the players could avoid a lockout by de-certifying their union, as the NFL players recently did. In fact, there was some indication in December of 2010 that several groups of players were in favor of this tactic. Personally, I am not convinced that a majority of NBA players will be willing to give up all of the facets of the current CBA that would be given up in such a move – guaranteed contracts, minimum contracts, player benefits and pensions. I can see why the NFL players would de-certify, but they are not risking guaranteed contracts like the NBA players would. And once guaranteed contracts were given up by the players, does anyone believe that the owners would be willing to give them back in a new CBA? Yes, the NBA will be watching closely what is going on with the NFL players’ union being de-certified, but at this point, I am unconvinced that NBA players are willing to go that route.
In short, I see this as a situation in which, on one hand, you have the owners who, in the words of Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, “have delivered commissioner David Stern an unmistakable mandate: Get our money back and get us profitable. The tone is downright nasty on the owners’ side. There exists an undercurrent of desperation within much of ownership, a sense they’re hell-bent on bringing the players to their knees.” On the other hand, you have Billy Hunter, representing the player’s union when he reportedly told Commissioner Stern that “I don’t know where you were raised, but I lived with rats. I used to kill rats. We had a .22 rifle and we would lay in the kitchen and shoot them on the floor. One thing my grandmother taught me was that if you got a rat trapped, you’ve got to give his ass a way out, because he will fight you if he has to. If you don’t give us a way out, a chance for a compromise, you’re going to get a fight.”
And that is why I am pessimistic. Both sides seem intent on holding onto their current perspective. Neither side wants to lose, and I think they each view compromise as ‘losing’. That, to me, given the distance between the two sides currently, gives me little hope that the 2011-12 season can be salvaged. I desperately hope I am wrong, but I think that it will be well into 2012 before a compromise between the sides can be reached – too late for the season to be saved. Ultimately, I believe that we will see similar concessions by the NBPA made as were made by the NHL player’s union, but I don’t think they will be willing to make those concessions until it is too late to play a 2011-12 season.