NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 04: NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks at a press conference after NBA labor negotiations at The Westin Times Square on October 4, 2011 in New York City. Stern announced the NBA has canceled the remainder of the preseason and will cancel the first two weeks of the regular season if there is no labor agreement by Monday. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Everyone thought David Stern won the 1999 NBA Lockout, just like everyone will eventually give the owners the 2011 (or 2012 ... or 2013) victory. But Stern never wins a lockout because he doesn't want to.
Someday, we'll forget all about the mysterious 50-50 offer that wasn't, the quibbling over the mid-level exception, Baron Davis dressing like a Southern alt-rocker for an NBA lockout negotiating session. The devil will get lost in the details, and the details will be lost to time. In six years, or seven, or 10, or 13, we'll re-visit the infamous 2011(-12?) lockout to notate it as a real bummer, and a clear victory for the players. And that's all it will be for most fans: players got to keep most of their money.
Why? Because players will still make what 99 percent of the country considers an incomprehensible salary. Even if the average salary for an NBA player holds steady in a deal -- it won't, it'll rise -- $5 million will still look like an impossibly high amount for folks who play basketball for a living.
(A real problem for the NBA's image that goes unmentioned, in addition to the frequently mentioned damage that David Stern's lockout is waging by making the players look greedy and ungrateful, is that average NBA players look much worse than average NFL, MLB and NHL players. We struggled with this with regards to Beno Udrih in Sacramento -- have fun with that, Milwaukee -- as he's not one of the top 15 starting point guards in the NBA, but he makes well above the NBA's average salary. "Overpaid" becomes a synonym for "crummy" ... and consider that Beno is one of the better "overpaid" mid-rung players. As it turns out, Beno wasn't overpaid at all, but that's a discussion for another day.)
Players will still be making lots and lots of money when the next labor struggle comes along, and if we know anything about Stern's NBA, it's that he will push for concessions from players as frequently as possible. After three of the last four collective bargaining agreements -- 1995, 1998, 2011 -- Stern locked out players. In 2005, just six years after settling the most painful labor stoppage in league history, Stern took Billy Hunter to the brink of another lockout before settling on a few concessions from the players. (Those concessions: shorter contracts and the age minimum. The union did wring the Gilbert Arenas provision out of the deal, but that was something the owners wanted anyway.)
The NBA is a lockout league. Players made so much by the late '90s that even sweeping changes like a rookie scale in 1995 and max salary schedules in 1999 end up being incremental. I mean, players like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are still grandfathered into their pre-'99 deals, and can exceed the statutory max salary (30 percent of the cap) because of it. The final seven-year contracts that existed in the NBA just expired this offseason. This is an incremental process, and if it's Stern's final CBA, it's almost assured to look like another loss when we remember the lockout a few years out.
In other words, when this thing gets settled in January or next September or whenever, everyone will write that Stern reigned victorious, that his power knows no bounds, that he put Billy Hunter down on the mat. It might sound a lot like this, from Sports Illustrated's great Phil Taylor:
But even if he doesn't want to publicly admit it, Stern won a landmark victory. He made the NBA the only one of the four major pro leagues to have a maximum salary. He rendered agents, such as his nemesis, David Falk, unable to drive bidding wars for their clients into the stratosphere. He made it possible for teams to hold on to their draft choices for five years-two years longer than under the past collective bargaining agreement-before those players become unrestricted free agents. There's little wonder that one team president said there was "dancing on the tables" when Stern laid out the deal to the owners.
The only way the new agreement won't turn out to be a slam-dunk, hang-from-the-rim, chest-bumping triumph for Stern and his employers will be if the fans don't come back.
That's from January 18, 1999. The fans came back -- check out the ratings last season -- and the NBA claimed to have lost $300 million, with 22 teams in the red. So much for the chest-bumping.
The devil is lost in the details. Stern got killed in 1999 because max salaries and draft rights and all of that is inconsequential compared to the revenue split that the owners approved. The revenue split called for players to receive 55 percent of basketball-related income for a few years, with that going up to 57 percent later. Now owners want that at 50 percent or lower. As we've been over many times now, by capping the salaries of stars and keeping rookies on low-wage (relatively speaking) deals for longer, the NBA essentially created a new middle class of players making around -- you guessed it -- $5 million or so per season. There's no other way. The money must be spent. It's in the rules.
And guess what? In six or seven years, the average salary will rise. Stern noted during the informal Monday doomsday chat that under the NBA's proposal, the league's average salary would have risen to $7 million after seven years. Stern loves to wield that average salary number like a weapon -- just months ago he expressed shock that a union proposal would have the same exact effect, using the same $7 million threshold he uses now to show his generosity to then show the players' greed -- even if it has no practical utility. Of course the average salary will rise, because the league's revenue will grow. Salaries are tied to revenue, ergo salaries will rise (or fall) with revenue.
So in seven years, when owners start complaining about the next Eddy Curry and how the next Beno Udrih makes $7 million, I hope everyone looks back at 2011 and realizes that our expectations are out of whack. We will always have truly average players who look terrible because they are not Kobe. We will always have high-paid players who get injured and fall out of playing shape. We will always think, as part of the 99 percent, that $3 million or $5 million or $7 million is a hell of a lot of money to make to play basketball. And the next Stern, the next set of owners will use that sentiment to draw down payrolls and keep a bigger share of the pie and (hopefully) cover their base expenses and maybe even invest a bit more in the future of the domestic game by, I don't know, building some arenas or youth academies. In another seven years, they'll do it again. This is permanent, this draw-down of salaries, a hopeless fight against the league's growth itself. Stern will never win it, Adam Silver or Dan Reed or whoever takes over the league will never win it, the owners will never win it.
They'll never win because they don't want to win. If the league keeps losing these lockout fights, the league can keep chipping away. If the league keeps losing, incremental progress may never end. If owners keep their dancing on tables behind closed doors, they can come to players with turned-out pockets and have the viewing public eat it up like apple pie. David Stern can never claim victory because victory would mean the fight is over. That's the last thing he and his owners want.
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