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Why The NBA Lockout Is Over: We Ran Out Of Bullets And Stubborn

The NBA lockout rumbled in like a cataclysm and ended with the soft purring of a contented cat. We will never ever ever ever miss it, but why did it end when it did?

After all of that -- two years of precursor scares and five months of head-numbing stick-waving -- the NBA lockout ended quietly at 3 a.m. during Thanksgiving weekend with the celebratory press conference held in a law firm's nondescript meeting room. The lockout was like a bad thriller: it built to a crescendo with increasingly wild threats, fevered drama and the promise of more blood. Then, suddenly: roll credits.

No one is complaining. I'm surely not complaining. But the abrupt, sober end of the lockout begs the question: why now? What happened? Here's a reading from someone who has read too much about the labor struggle over the past couple years.

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Do you know when a pheasant-hunting trip is over? It's over when you run out of bullets and, if you're from certain parts of the country, throwable projectiles. The players' union ran out of bullets when it dissolved itself to clear the way for anti-trust litigation against the league.

The players clearly did not have the stomach for a lengthy court battle, no less than the league did. If the players were eager to school the owners in court, they would have disclaimed interest in July and hit the circuits ASAP. Instead, the players waited until November, and nakedly used anti-trust litigation as a point of leverage, not an actual avenue worth exploring.

The union held off on disclaiming interest and taking the battle to court because it needed that bullet in reserve to get past the final hump. It worked.



In the end, owners got most of what they had been pushing for since late September. No, the league didn't get the hard salary cap ... but David Stern had begun abandoning that back in June. He knew it wasn't happening if he wanted any sort of 2011-12 season. The same goes for a revenue split of less than 50 percent for players: Stern found his way there by late September, and knew he couldn't put that snake back in the fake can of peanut butter.

He knew this, which is why he used the threat of a lower split as a constant threat. It would only get worse for players if they stretched it out; Stern threatened to lower the players' split in the owners' proposal no less than three times. (He never went through with it.)

But the threats worked: players eventually signed off on a deal with a 50 percent split and serious limits on top-level payrolls.

The owners couldn't reasonably demand a whole lot more. They gave on some cap issues in the end, particularly the freedom of teams to go $4 million over the luxury tax line without losing access to any transaction types. But the big ticket stuff had been resolved. There was no reason to hold out any longer. The lockout ran out of wick.



Cutting into the season never made sense for either side. The economics have been widely reported: losing two weeks of paychecks would be more painful to players than taking 50 percent for this season, and losing games through mid-December would be as painful as the lower revenue split teased over six or seven seasons. The same applies to owners: it wasn't actually financially worth it to set games -- tickets, concessions, parking, jersey sales, ratings built into future TV deals -- on fire for the concessions they were seeking.

Both sides still held out well beyond the sensible due dates, because that's what people do in negotiations: they entrench, they fight for every scrap, they fall in love with their preferred result and reject any compromised version of that vision. Eventually, reason won over stubbornness. 

We can likely thank new blood for that particular victory; Jim Quinn, a former union lawyer and the dealmaker in 1999, entered the picture before Thanksgiving, and voila! Everyone in the room liked and trusted Quinn, and sometimes you need an outside perspective to cut through the baloney to find common ground and a solution. (This also speaks to how much the two sides trusted federal mediator George Cohen, who twice failed to find a solution. Alas, progress was made on key issues while Cohen was involved. He just couldn't get them over the hump.) 



How can the NBA and players' union apply the lessons of the end of the 2011 lockout to the next stoppage? (Don't be naive. We have 12, 13 years max before the hard cap strikes back.) They can't, really. All told, once you cut through the weirdness and hilarity and wretching pain of the lockout, it went exactly as planned, exactly as all successful negotiations do: two sides who argued with each other, threatened each other, compromised with each other. It's like a prelude to Kobe Bryant vs. Andrew Bynum, only without the visceral joy that comes from the Lakers imploding. The lockout was a success!

A really, really annoying success.