A year later, NBA lockout looks even more like a charade

Patrick McDermott

The 2011 NBA lockout ended after a marathon negotiating session that began on Black Friday. A year later, one thing that's different is that teams aren't complaining about losing money any more. But that's not because of the deal between the league and the players.

It's been so quiet on the business of the NBA front it almost makes you long for the days of basketball-related income debates and graduating luxury tax penalties. Okay, not really. Most of us were more than happy to leave all of that behind with the 2011 NBA lockout, which ended in the days after Thanksgiving a year ago. I, for one, am glad to be more concerned with the trappings of Small Sample Size Theater than with escrow percentages. But it's eerie all the same.

In the run-up to the lockout -- we're talking two years here -- we heard claim after claim from NBA channels official and not that half the league was losing money, that the NBA's path was unsustainable due to player salaries, that we were looking at teams potentially unable to function. Contraction was actually used as a threat. (As a Sacramento Kings fan, I really don't miss that part.)

We heard about the haves and the have-nots and the have-less-than-not-thanks-to-crushing-debt-caused-by-highly-financed-team-purchases. (Word up to Robert Sarver.) Commissioner David Stern was cautious in not making the situation sound apocalyptic. After all, he had a league to run. But his bosses, the team owners, were not so careful. Trading in anonymous quotes in the media, the owners made it sound as if the Mayans were talking about pro basketball. This was long billed as a nightmare scenario: a situation in which players refused to give any more, a situation in which teams faced doom without concessions, a situation in which the NBA lost an entire season ... or more.

It's still quite possible that it was all 100 percent bull pucky. But the difference is that we don't hear about it any more. During the lockout, the league pressed the narrative that without huge player concessions, the NBA couldn't function. Teams couldn't survive. But by all accounts, the NBA got a fraction of what it initially asked for ... yet is thriving in 2012. Here's a quick reminder of the most widely cited concessions the NBA wanted but didn't get:

* Salary rollbacks on already signed contracts. (This still amuses me.)

* A hard salary cap.

* A 45 percent cap of league revenue dedicated to player salary.

* A higher age minimum.

* The elimination of the mid-level exception.

At various times in the months of negotiation, owners and official league bullhorns made these requests sound like birthright, like obvious things that overpaid players needed to do. The league got none of them. There were no rollbacks; in fact, there was an amnesty clause that allowed teams to waive a single player they would then pay in full, but take off of their salary cap books so that they could pay a new player, in some cases a player who had been waived under amnesty from another team! (The Mavericks, for example, basically waived Brendan Haywood so that they could claim Elton Brand, who had been waived by Philadelphia. Phoenix waived Josh Childress to pick up waived Luis Scola.)

The league didn't get anything like a hard salary cap, only a more punitive luxury tax system that has very obviously not discouraged high-spenders like the Lakers, Heat and Nets, plus some restrictions on transactions for tax teams that haven't yet gone into effect and as such haven't yet had an impact on teams' bottom lines. (I would hesitate to claim the mere specter of these new rules have dampened salaries, based on the level of salaries doled out last summer. Good morning to you, Jeff Green's $40 million deal. Hello, Brook Lopez's max.)

The players didn't end up with 45 percent of revenue -- they are guaranteed 51 percent so long as the NBA is growing, and no less than 49 percent under the eventual deal. The age minimum got shoved to the side and is still unresolved. The mid-level exception survives at a price not all that different from years past: a starting salary of $5 million, a max term of four years. (Luxury tax teams have a smaller mid-level at their disposal.)

The NBA got concessions -- a couple hundred million per year over the life of the deal. As in years past, smart teams will thrive, dumb ones will struggle. There will be good player deals, primarily for star players. There will be bad player deals, primarily for non-star, above-average players. But there was no grand shift that the NBA was looking for. In terms of player compensation, this is not a wholly different NBA. It's actual remarkably similar.

Yet you don't hear a peep about teams going broke.

In fact, you're seeing new commitments to lower-end markets. Memphis has struggled as an NBA market over the past decade despite a core set of passionate fans and largely good teams (save a nasty spell there). But a new owner, Robert Pera, has recommitted to Memphis, and life is good there. Herb Kohl retired from the U.S. Senate and, surprising at least a few, committed to finding a solution to keep his Bucks in Milwaukee instead of cashing out and peddling the team to the Seattle group for a huge profit. The Sacramento situation is its own canon of misery, but it should be noted that the Maloofs, in tearing up a deal with the league, city and AEG to get new digs downtown, cited improved revenue sharing as a path to remain in Sleep Train Arena for the next few years while options are sorted out.

Ah, revenue sharing, the elephant that was always in the room. You see, the NBA told us all about the haves and the have-nots, and then told us players needed to take serious haircuts so the have-nots could compete with the haves. But all along, the solution that would allow the have-nots to compete financially was to take some money from the haves and redistribute it back to the have-nots. That's what keeps the Kings afloat post-lockout: not a lower salary cap or a smaller mid-level exception. Those beautiful revenue-sharing checks signed by Jerry Buss and Jimmy Dolan. The solution was always to fix the relationship between teams. To make that palatable for the owners who stand to lose, player salaries needed to be reined in. The Maloofs and Jordans of the league had their hands out to the Busses and Dolans. The Busses and Dolans had their hands out to the Kobes and Carmelos. And that's how we got a deal: everyone gave in enough that the charade could end. The haves got enough from the players to agree to fork over enough money to the have-nots to end the doomsday entreaties. And 12 months later, we're talking about potential expansion back into Seattle because too many very rich men want to join the NBA owners' club.

A year later, and the resolution is all the same: the NBA lockout was such total bulls--t.

***

The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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