The NBA and its players' union are talking regularly, engaging in an unprecedented number of bargaining sessions. The collective bargaining agreement end on June 30; usually, the NBA doesn't sit down with players until the NBA Finals end. The sides have met for lengthy sessions several times during the Finals this year, hoping to actually make headway before June 30. In public statements, league commissioner David Stern and union president Derek Fisher are saying all of the right, sincere things.
But this is posturing. The meetings, the warm fuzzies, the commitment to finding a deal and avoiding the sort of embarrassment the NFL is facing from its own work stoppage -- it's all posturing. It all means little when it comes down to brass tacks.
In the end, of course, this is 100 percent about money. Lots of money. Working out the sort of deal that NBA owners seek requires not compromise but concession.
Owners are, in theory, asking players to give up something like 20 percent of their current salary and maybe up to 30 or 40 percent of future salary with rule changes. Players are, in theory, asking owners to continue to lose money on an annual basis, and pay players an average salary near $6 million. This is the real struggle -- money -- and until that puzzle is solved, these sessions are very nice decoration masking a giant, deep pit of despair.
Both sides confirmed Wednesday that progress on the big issues remains hard to come by. That's sobering, and in my estimation an understatement. Consider this: which side is pushing the narrative that the two sides are working hard to iron out an agreement? It's the NBA. Which side is most publicly pessimistic at this point? The players. Lockout posturing has become part and parcel of the NBA's push for positivity amid the highest-rated NBA Finals since 2004. Stern wants everyone to know that the NBA has learned from the NFL and is doing everything it can to avoid a lockout.
That sentiment could very well be sincere, from both Stern and the players. There's no question the NBA is in greater danger than the NFL of losing the public's attention with a work stoppage. There has to be more desperation for the NBA. There has to be a strategy that calms the public's nerves. But that facade doesn't mean a thing when it actually comes down to working out a new agreement. When you're asking the players to cut $300 million in salary for next season, the public trust is roughly Priority No. 13. When you're asking Mark Cuban to lose another $100 million over the life of this CBA, the public trust is not entering the conversation. P.R. considerations are in the backseat of the car behind the one the NBA is driving.
The structural financial disparities the NBA faces will swallow the league's whole effort to put a smiley face on the negotiations, and as a result may swallow whole the league itself. You might even argue that the fact the sides are meeting but we have no movement on the major issues -- a hard salary cap, contract length and how much of contracts are guaranteed -- makes these meetings look worse. Y'all are really spending a four-hour bargaining session working out the next version of the Michael Finley Rule? This is not what's important right now. This is not what saves the NBA. Come July 1, we'll unfortunately find that out.
You can shine a rotten apple all you want, but he who buys it will see the truth before long. The NBA and union are pitching a version of the negotiations that exudes hope and hard work. And maybe there is some hope. Lord knows there's hard work being done. But in the end, the NBA is still broken financially, and we're not seeing much progress on fixing those structural issues. Don't think the doomsday is canceled just because it's sunny today.