The specter of a new NBA labor deal brings more questions than answers. To be sure, this mystery is a good problem to have.
The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Thursday that both the league and the players’ union are optimistic a new deal will be signed within weeks. What a coup that’d be for both commissioner Adam Silver and union boss Michele Roberts. Every negotiation since 1995 has ended with either a last-minute deal or a lockout.
If a deal isn’t reached by Dec. 15, either side could elect to opt out of the current agreement effective on July 1, 2017. Without a labor deal, free agency can’t happen and a basketball season can’t happen. With the NBA now seeing $6 billion in annual revenue, this is a high-stakes battle, with every percentage point meaning millions of dollars for franchises and players.
Woj reports that “many of the significant collective bargaining issues” have been settled, and the two sides are cleaning up the minor issues. We can only guess how the significant issues have been settled -- there aren’t details yet beyond Woj’s report that the rookie scale will be beefed up and there’s a system for two-way D-League/NBA contracts.
The most significant issue in any collective bargaining agreement is money and who gets it. Based on what we know, the money question seems to have been resolved. Based on the fact that it’s only October and it’s already been resolved without a peep of consternation from either side, a smart guess is that the status quo will reign.
That means that the revenue split is probably the same or close (roughly 50 percent of league-wide revenue goes to players), that max individual contracts are probably still in place, that the team salary cap is no harder, that the progressive luxury tax will remain. If there were major changes to these items proposed by the league, one presumes the players’ union would have dug in their heels. If the players proposed major changes on these pieces, one presumes the owners would have fought back.
If the status quo on the big issues reigns, and both sides are comfortable with that, the stakes of these negotiations lessen dramatically. That makes for an incredible opportunity for innovation. This is something Bill Simmons bemoaned back in 2011 while the last lockout raged: there seemed to be little room for forward-thinking creative solutions because everything was bogged down with the money question.
Let’s be clear: many of Simmons’ ideas were bad, especially contraction. But the general sentiment — that high-stakes negotiation kills the opportunity for real innovation, that the stress over the central issue blacks out the wider issue — is legitimate.
With the stakes lower this time around thanks to an influx of money and mutual cooperation, there’s a real opportunity to launch the NBA into its next incarnation. This could mean turning players into real partners in the league, and not just employees. This could mean solving the arena financing problem. This could mean transforming the D-League into a real farm system at last. This could mean finding ways to give every franchise a chance to compete every season. This could mean anything. There are so many smart people on both sides — the sky really is the limit here.
We don’t know if that’s in the cards in 2016. But simply having the opportunity for innovation in the absence of panic is a blessing. As any NBA fan knows all too well, things could be much, much worse.