The NBA lockout now apparently rests on whether the sides can agree on a cap structure. What a stupid way for a season to potentially die.
It is remarkably stupid that the NBA lockout could cut into the season because of a fight over the firmness of the league's salary cap. It looks as though that is where we stand right now, however, as the realization of what the flunk happened in Tuesday's lockout talks sweeps over us. As Ken Berger notes at length, both sides admit that progress was made -- sort of -- on the killer issue at play: the share of revenues that goes to players.
That was supposed to be the big deal, the hurdle that cost NBA fans a season: the league couldn't make ends meet while handing 57 percent of all revenues to players, while players called bullsh-t on that claim and held the line relatively close on financial concessions they were willing to make. The question we all wondered -- in print, aloud, on our knees before our creator -- was whether they'd find a middle ground both sides could live with. The other stuff -- the cap structure, contract length, the age minimum, PED testing -- was all important, but easily solved. The money battle would have everyone digging trenches, preparing for a long, cold winter.
If enough progress has indeed been made on the revenue split to find a deal point and the lockout continues because neither side will budge on the cap structure, what a stupid situation we have on our hands. Both sides have misconstrued the point of a hard cap, misrepresented what it will actually do for the league. Both sides have twisted this "blood issue" to the point where it more resembles DNA than plasma. I can't emphasize enough how ridiculous it is that the NBA could cancel a season to hold out for a hard cap.
Consider what a hard team cap would do. The biggest impact would come not on players, who will be splitting a set chunk of total league revenue either way. The biggest impact would be on low-revenue teams who would have a shiny new payroll bill due. If you decrease the players' split of revenue all the way to 50 percent, next year you'd have a hard cap around $60 million. Yes, that's higher than last season's soft cap. Why? Because to get to last year's aggregate players' take -- $2.1 billion -- the average team payroll was actually more than $70 million. A number of teams were at or below the soft cap of $59 million, and a few teams were grossly over it. When you harden the cap to create payroll parity -- as NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver explicitly stated as an aim on Tuesday -- the salary cap is going to need to resemble the average team payroll. That means that although players' aggregate salary would decrease from $2.1 billion under a 57 percent share to about $1.9 billion under a 50-50 split, the cap would actually go up.
Tell me how that helps the teams that couldn't be profitable at the old cap level, like the Sacramento Kings. The commissioner mentioned the incredible spread between the Kings ($45 million payroll) and L.A. Lakers ($110 million) on Tuesday. He neglected to describe how a $60 million (or higher!) hard cap helps the Kings toward profitability. Copy that for the New Orleans Hornets, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Indiana Pacers, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Memphis Grizzlies.
The NBA's NHL club should know that the hard cap won't save low-revenue teams. Ted Leonsis and Stan Kroenke get the reports on the disaster that is the Phoenix Coyotes. James "J.D." "Jimmy" Dolan voted on the Atlanta Thrashers' move to Winnipeg after another dismal season. The boys and ladies at Maple Leaf Sports up in Toronto know what peril the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils are in. Travis Hughes laid out the peril the hard cap has presented in hockey. The NBA's NHL club has to know this is happening, and that it will happen in the NBA, too. That the Kings will struggle even more to keep up with payroll with a higher cap that's more firm. That the Bobcats and Timberwolves will still struggle to turn a dime, that the Grizzlies and Hornets will be seen as toxic assets despite sweeter-than-tea public leases.
David Stern is fond of saying that you can't revenue-share your way to profitability. Well, you can't expense-share out of it either. That's what the hard cap does better than anything else: it shares expenses more evenly among the teams. Instead of the Lakers spending $110 million and the Kings spending $45 million, let them both spend $60 million! Maybe Sacramento gets the Lakers' leftovers in the transaction -- great young talent like Steve Blake, Luke Walton and Derek Fisher will be the first casualties of the hard cap -- and get a little better on the court. But something tells me that a team unprofitable with $45 million in player expenses will remain unprofitable when forced to pay $10-15 million more in player expenses. (Yes, it's a cap. But because of the firmness of it, the floor has to raise, too, to make sure players get their aggregate take. The NFL's salary floor is set to 90 percent of the cap. In a $60-million hard cap NBA, that'd put the floor at $54 million, or $9 million higher than it was last season.)
And competitive balance? When the league provides one shred of evidence that a hard salary cap has ever increased parity in any league, it will be the first such proof. Competitive balance is achievable in the NBA when you clone LeBron James and give one to every team. Competitive balance is achievable in the NBA when Stern stops imploring teams to hire David Kahn. Competitive balance is achievable in the NBA when you set the time machine to 1968 and let teams keep their draft picks forever. (Oh wait, one team won almost every championship of the 1960s? You mean the NBA has never had parity, even when payrolls were so small that disparity between them resembled the amount Dwyane Wade tips his doorman around Christmas? That's odd!)
Eddy Curry has become a poster child for what's wrong with the current system. What was wrong with Eddy Curry? James "J.D." "Jimmy" Dolan had to pay the man $10 million to do nothing for a couple years. How did that affect competitive balance? It didn't one bit, considering that the Knicks spent more over the last collective bargaining agreement than every other team in the team, and spent twice as much (including luxury tax) as 13 of the other 29 teams. Again: the Knicks spent more than twice as much in payroll than almost half of the league's teams over the past six season. And being able to drop Eddy Curry was going to fix competitive advantage? No. Cutting Eddy Curry is about saving money, plain and simple.
Let's not let the players off the, uh, hook, either. As Silver made sure to mention Tuesday, it's curious as to why the hard cap is a "blood issue" for players, considering that there is already an aggregate league hard cap (the revenue split), one that players are more than willing to keep. Stern called the players' tight embrace of the soft cap an "emotional attachment," but it's much more than that: it's a lifeline for mid-rung players, a way for the supplemental players to carve out long careers.
The attachment to the soft cap is all about preserving the NBA middle class. By middle class, I mean "everyone but the superstars." (Sound familiar? I'm expecting Matt Bonner's New York Times op-ed titled "Stop Coddling the Roleplayers" any day now.) If you have a soft cap at a 50-50 revenue split, players are getting $1.9 billion. If you have a hard cap at a 50-50 revenue split, players are getting $1.9 billion. But in each scenario, it's getting divvied up differently.
The 1999 collective bargaining agreement served to limit superstar pay and transfer that wealth to the league's middle class. The great fear of the NBA players' union is that instituting a hard cap will reverse that trend. Steve Blake will get $1 million a year instead of $4 million per, because flexibility will be limited even more than it has been, and because teams will have negotiating advantages. Max players will always make the max possible, and worthwhile rookies will get their lettuce, too. Who gets squeezed when the Lakers and Mavericks and Knicks and Blazers aren't allowed to shell out $90 million on payroll? The middle class.
Guess who makes up the National Basketball Players Association executive committee? The middle class.
Chris Paul is one of nine members of that panel, and he's the one superstar involved in talks at any level. So long as the union's side of the conversation is dominated by the players with the most to lose in a hard cap environment, the hard cap will be a "blood issue." Derek Fisher isn't lying when he says the union is united against a hard cap, but there's no question that his peers are a little more united than the All-Stars who stand to lose $10 million or more with a canceled season so that the guys they carry on the floor can preserve their lifestyles.
It also doesn't escape notice that the union's gambit to offer up unstated financial considerations under the sole condition that the hard cap be dropped from discussion is ... well, ham-handed isn't quite strong enough. It's a ridiculous pose. It worked! We all ate up what Billy Hunter spooned us after Tuesday's lockout talks ended. Basketball circles on Twitter were big balls of rage at the league for failing to see reason after allegedly getting what they wanted financially. No one seems to have a clue as to what the union actually proposed in terms of a revenue split, but we're all sure mad at the league for not taking it immediately and canceling the hard cap request. A cynic would call the union's effort on Tuesday a brilliantly executed P.R. plot designed to extract sympathy and make the owners look greedy. I'll just deem it a nice gambit that reeks to holy Hell.
Here's the reality: If the NBA were a totally free market, neither side as constituted would get its way. Owners would outspend each other at every turn to get a competitive advantage. (Witness the last decade.) Superstars would make all of the money, with scant pennies (relatively speaking) left for the Fishers, the Roger Masons. It would be a disaster for David Stern's constituents and Derek Fisher's executive committee.
That's why this hard cap is a "blood issue." Not because it has a lobster's chance in Maine of creating competitive balance, not because it will hurt all players' ability to earn. It's a "blood issue" because owners want to pay less money to supplemental players and because supplemental players want to keep making money. It has nothing to do with the health of the game. It has nothing to do with fans. It has nothing to do with fairness. It's just stupid.
The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.