All we heard a year ago was how "buddy-buddy" the NBA had become, where rival stars were willing to reach out to each other, join forces and attempt to take the world by storm. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the focus, of course -- two of the top five players in the league coming together, possibly colluding (though nothing has been suggested as evidence in that matter) to shoot for a championship.
It ran deeper, of course, the criticism of the "AAU NBA" -- the apparent laughing on the bench when LeBron returned to Cleveland, the relationships between players you'd think should want to strangle each other. No one in the NBA hates someone in the NBA any more, and to fans choking on macho nostalgia, that's a real drag. Cue up the "Bird would never have called Magic and asked him to sign with the Celtics!" chorus.
But this pending NBA lockout, which could begin Friday, could really test the new camaraderie in the league.
For what it's worth, players have played this thing by the book in terms of refusing to show fissures: the mix of stars and roleplayers who attended last Friday's bargaining session wore matching t-shirts that read "Stand", a fact that was quoted in every live report and, as such, got across the message that this union is united. The question is how long it will last; the 1998 lockout is a cautionary tale of how stubborn very rich men can be, sure, but beyond that a cautionary tale about how self-interest has no barriers.
I'm talking about Patrick Ewing, his agent David Falk and how a sect of superstar players ended up pushing for one thing as the bulk of the union -- the middle class of the NBA, so to speak -- had a very different goal. David Stern and the NBA's negotiators worked the situation expertly, saving those "superstar issues" to be the final hurdles to overcome. Falk's crew remained adamant about their positions as the lockout crept to January 1999 and threatened to cancel the season; the bulk of the union was ready to get back to work, armed with a new mid-level exception and sustained Bird rights, which together have become the modern lifeblood of the NBA middle class.
The tables are turned now: Stern and the NBA want to put the squeeze on the middle class, and they want the superstars' help in doing so.
The blueprint has been clear as the sea: the owners seek an overall hard on team salary, and, to get there, are willing to uncap individual players' salaries. How convenient! In a hard cap system, every dollar that goes to one player can't go to the next. Right now, there's no overriding reason for roleplayers to worry about Joe Johnson signing a $120 million contract. Sure, the Hawks are now stretched to the max, but it's not a zero-sum game, and in fact, a higher salary for Johnson helps rise the tide of salaries across the board.
In a hard cap system, it's all zero-sum, and these roleplayers, this middle class of the NBA will be damaged by the uncorking of individual salaries. The league presents this uncapping as a concession, as if the owners are giving the players something they want. Eighty percent of the union doesn't want this, and will find this to be an extra burden on their ability to earn.
The question is: how much do superstars like the idea of the abolition of the max contract threshold, and are they willing to fight their own teammates for it?
That's where the new AAU culture of the NBA -- the buddy system -- makes this lockout different than 1998, and perhaps more terrifying for fans. In 1998, superstars made up union leadership, with Falk as the ol' Wizard of Oz. Now? Billy Hunter seems to have full command of the union, and Derek Fisher is the rare voice that seems both galvanizing and sympathetic. (At least outside of Utah.) The players' union has just one superstar on the executive board, and his name is Chris Paul, and he's about the least divisive personality in the league.
If there's a worry about the union splintering, it comes down to the balance of interests on middle-class issues like capped individual salaries, the future of the mid-level and, of course, the hard cap itself, which serves as an umbrella for all of these specific issues. And if there's a particular personality that observers would expect to loom large, it'd be William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, the kingmaker from CAA, which represents LeBron, Wade, Paul and others.
But this seems different; you don't see LeBron and Wade turning on Udonis Haslem, or Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant quarreling with Jason Terry and Fisher. Stories of Wes' incredible impact last summer, when LeBron chose Miami, now seem overstated. Nostalgiaholics ruing the day LeBron had the gall to be friends with a rival could be surprised at the nice side of being nice, and how it leads to a newly unified union.
Or, as in 1998, self-interest will know no boundaries, and all of the friendship will crumble into the abyss created by a work stoppage. We'll see.