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The NHL Lockout Is A 2017 NBA Lockout Preview

Want to see what's coming in 2017, NBA fans? Pay attention to the NHL lockout, (not) coming to a rink near you.

February 25, 2012; Orlando FL, USA; NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media at the Amway Center in Orlando. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
February 25, 2012; Orlando FL, USA; NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media at the Amway Center in Orlando. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The conventional wisdom might be that the NHL lockout we're just days away from enjoying will be a re-run of the 2011 NBA lockout. Certainly, the similarities are striking: the owners are calling for draconian cuts in salary, the players are refusing to even acknowledge the league's offer as legitimate, the sides are rarely meeting and everyone is assuming that this thing will get dragged out unnecessarily until the league's signature regular season event -- in this case the Winter Classic -- is at risk.

But look at the wider picture and this NHL lockout is instead a preview of what NBA fans can look forward to in 2017.

You see, the NHL has already been through this ... recent. In 2004, the NHL had a lockout that wiped out an entire season. The result was a set of draconian cuts, including a hard cap, the Holy Grail of pro sports collective bargaining for management. But that wasn't enough for NHL owners, who now seek further savings. Hockey players have already indicated an interest in playing 2012-13 under existing rules and negotiating throughout the season; owners have declined that offer. The owners have driven the league into a stoppage -- not the other way around. The players are not asking for more, they are refusing to accept the league's demand that they take less. Given how much the players gave up when the last lockout was resolved in 2005, they don't feel it fair to do it again.

There's a high probability that as 2017 approaches, maybe beginning back in early 2016 at All-Star Weekend in Seattle (or wherever), the NBA commissioner -- Adam Silver by that point, surely -- will begin talking about how teams aren't profiting off of the league's growth. How that still-soft cap is still perpetuating an unfair playing field among owners. How a hard cap is needed. How better checks on player salary are needed. How there are specific items, maybe even including the revenue split, that need to be tweaked for the health of the league.

And then in 2017, players -- who gave up a huge chunk of salary in 2011 -- will decide that the league is being unreasonable, and we'll have a stand-off, and in the heat of the moment everyone will forget that the NBA showed it can successfully hold a season that's been cut short by a work stoppage. And we'll gnash -- I'll certainly gnash! -- about greed and inexact characterizations of players. And we'll grade the proposals and make some charts and generally rue it all while secretly being glued to it because of the incredible wonkiness of it all. And it'll eventually end, and we'll immediately forget all about it, because it's time for free agency! And training camp! And real, live games!

But before we escape that beautiful wonky feeling, let's note in what contours the 2017 NBA lockout could resemble the 2012 NHL lockout, which, mind you, hasn't even begun yet. One thing to watch is how strong a stomach for missed games the NHL players will have. These guys lost an entire season. NBA players don't know what's that like: they missed only 16 games in 2011, and no one except perhaps Kobe Bryant will have, in 2017, also survived the 32-game loss in 1998. (Think about that: if Kobe plays another five years, he could be active through three full-blown, missed-game lockouts.) As such, if the NHL players are willing to lose games for the cause knowing full well what a full season's sacrifice feels like, there's no question that NBA players would also be willing to forfeit paychecks to stand strong.

The other side of that coin: how willing to anger its TV partners will the NHL be? The NBA has more latitude on this count because it's in higher demand from its broadcast partners. But the NHL's careful dance with NBC will be something to watch. The hockey league is beginning to enjoy the fruits of growth on the TV side, and a full-season lockout could crush all of that momentum. The NBA will have a new national TV deal before 2017, but the networks (almost assuredly ABC/ESPN and Turner again, though don't rule out CBS, which could take a strangehold on basketball with the NCAA and NBA together) could see 2017 coming and put payback provisions in place. TV considerations will be a much larger role in the 2012 NHL and 2017 NBA lockouts than they did previous iterations.

Finally, it's worth considering how fans will react to a second game-losing lockout in a short time period. It's been seven years since the NHL's last lockout ended. The NBA will have six years in when 2017 arrives. (There was a much longer 13-year period between the 1998 and 2011 lockouts.) For the NBA, fans didn't seem to mind the 13-year break too much, but chances are that a good portion of the fan base had been turned over in the span. Six or seven years is a much smaller timeframe -- much harder to forget -- so there could be lingered disappointment. Once hockey does get on the ice, assuming games are missed, the NBA should keep an eye on fan sentiment and ratings to see whether repeated stoppages do more to push fans away than one-off crises.

While we weep for our sisters and brothers in hockeydom, I think we can all agree that this is the new norm in professional American sports. The least we can do is try to learn from it so we can help the Hockey and Basketball Gods dole out punishment when the time of reckoning comes.


The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.