It's impossible to complain about the length and speed of NBA lockout talks when we know the alternative. If David Stern, Billy Hunter and family weren't holed up for 12 hours at a time, we'd be grousing over one side's obstinacy, a lack of urgency and the suffering of fans and arena workers. Talks are better than no talks, even when the talks seem to accomplish roughly the same as no talks would.
The thing that really bothers me as a fan is that every session feels final. There's no build-up or order to the season; it's a series of randomly placed screamers that all seem to end in heartbreak. With an NBA season, there's a flow, a structure. You have the regular season, with some games bigger than others. Those increase are the season wears on. Then there is the playoffs, a crescendo of exclamation that ends with the Finals. There's order, and you can always look at the calendar to see where we are.
That's not the case with the lockout, where -- for fear of losing precious leverage -- neither side indicates what is really going on. Our hunch that Wednesday was huge is of course correct; the NBA's ultimatum made sure of that. But while in a basketball game overtime is measured in minutes, in the lockout it's doled out in days. The rollercoaster of emotion that is this lockout season is pitch black, like Space Mountain. No one knows how it ends, or when. It's almost like the torture you feel when your team starts getting old, or has been injury-free for too long. You're hoping for the best, but really just waiting for the inevitable bad news.
It's not fun waiting out this lockout, even if some of the dispatches from the front lines have been worth joke status. That creates a built-in angst among fans, one that the NBA will pay for to some degree. Most fans will only care about the issues that the league and players' union continue to fight over when they actually affect their team; I'm not sure anyone outside the game has a real stake in whether tax teams get the full mid-level. Fans care, in L.A. and Miami and Dallas, because those teams are currently looking like taxpayers. There's "rooting" against those measures only because of direct impact on the ability of those teams to maintain their power. But frankly, this stuff is so fuzzy and abstract compared to even the wonky side of basketball fandom (the Trade Machine, free agency) that it must hard not to get bored.
So despite all the Lenoesque jokes about how boring the NBA regular season is, how little we care about Bobcats vs. Pacers on a Tuesday, Lord knows that game and many others like it -- ones without the star power of LeBron or Kobe, or the implications of Bulls vs. Celtics or Spurs vs. Mavericks -- are 2,000 percent more entertaining than what we're waiting out right now. All we can do is hope that the two sides can make this week's rides on Lockout Mountain are the last ones for a long, long time.
THE UNION'S GREATEST FOE
It's interesting to note that, according to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski and SI.com's Zach Lowe, the mid-level exception for luxury tax teams remains a huge battleground. Consider the other "system issues" at stake: an extra penalty for repeat taxpayers, a ban on sign-and-trades for tax teams, a tax cliff in which teams above a certain payroll line don't receive a share of tax revenue and the mechanics of the escrow system going forward. Of the five total, four deal with spending deterrents, all aimed at tax teams or potential tax teams. But most are simply deterrents, sticks or carrots to convince teams to keep salaries down.
The ban on sign-and-trades for tax teams is an actual transaction restriction, but research has shown that the tool is hardly ever used by tax teams. It's the mid-level exception that is a real transaction restriction, one that could affect a number of players on a regular basis ... especially those well-represented in labor talks. This is a rule aimed at the Derek Fishers in the league, but more than that, it's an actual cap in the system, as opposed to the incentives and penalties that makes up the rest of the "soft salary cap." Mark Cuban can't spend his way through the mid-level rule. That's why it's such a battleground. That's why players fight it so hard. I'm not sure you can say it represents the first domino in the eventual creation of a hard cap in the NBA -- remember that owners will be pushing further in the next collective bargaining talks, in 7-10 years -- but it's a real restriction with real, insurmountable impacts on mid-rung players. It's important to the guys in the room.
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