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United They Stand? We've Heard This Fairytale Before

The NBA Players, led by Derek Fisher, are putting up a tough front in the early stages of the NBA lockout. But, the reality is, once the checks don't come in November, their resolve will likely weaken.

Derek Fisher, president of the NBA Players Association, keeps telling us that the players are united. They sit around campfires singing "kumbaya" and proclaiming "one for all and all for one".  They play in charity basketball events, not simply to stay in shape and polish their games, but because they’re all great buddies who just love being around each other. 

If you believe the rhetoric coming from the Players Association, the NBA could go completely under and it wouldn’t matter because, gosh darn it, they’ve still got each other, and that’s more important than money.

The reality of course is that while this might all be true right now, it’s easy to stand united when checks haven’t been missed, bills aren’t piling up, and ex-wives aren’t howling for alimony and child support.

The Players Association has put up this front before.  During the last labor stoppage in 1998, the players, then headed up by former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, claimed that they were willing to sit out the whole season in order to prevent a rookie salary scale and a maximum salary for players based on tenure.

The battle, as has been the case this year, was fierce and filled with stories of private shouting matches between NBA commissioner David Stern and Union Chief Billy Hunter.  Ultimately, once the training camps were cancelled and games were missed, the players resolve weakened.  Stern set a deadline of January 7th, 1999 as the final deadline for a deal to be done to avoid cancelling the season.  The players, fearful of missing an entire year of game checks, decided that rookie salaries and a ceiling on salaries weren’t such a bad thing anymore.

Following a Players Association meeting in which the players decided that they’d rather go back to work than keep fighting, Union Chief Billy Hunter sat down on January 6th with David Stern and agreed to the NBA Owners’ proposal.  The agreement was quickly ratified by the Union and the shortened season began two weeks later.

The reality is that a similar scenario is going to play out this year.

As with the last round of negotiations, the players are fighting to keep the gravy train rolling despite an economic and league climate that indicates changes need to be made.   The owners are looking to limit player movement and help stabilize small market franchises through a hard salary cap and a more even split of revenues between the two sides.

The players, while conceding that a more equal share of revenues is necessary, want nothing to do with the concept of a hard cap as it would effectively be another salary ceiling (like the one instituted during the ’98-’99 lockout). The hard salary cap would also limit the ability of players like LeBron James and Chris Bosh to leave smaller markets and team up in a bigger market.

Owners in smaller markets claim it’s a necessary measure to ensure the long term stability of a league that lost a lot of money in the past few years thanks to outrageous contracts, rising ticket prices, and increasingly isolated small markets like Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Utah.  They see the advent of a hard salary cap as a way to promote parity within the league the same way it has in the NFL where teams from Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, and Indianapolis have made the Super Bowl in the past decade.

Players  on the other hand, say that nobody is forcing the owners to hand out $120 million contracts to Rashard Lewis and Joe Johnson and that the league has never been more popular thanks to so called "Super Teams" where multiple stars are teaming up in large markets.

The truth, as usual, actually lies somewhere in the middle. 

Nobody is necessarily forcing teams to hand out insane contracts like the one that Joe Johnson received this past off season.  But, the reality is that a team like Atlanta, with poor fan support and no history of winning at a high level must overpay their best players in order to keep them from running off to other franchises.  It’s the only leverage they and teams like the T’Wolves, Bucks, and Jazz have to keep their top guys, and even then, in the case of someone like LeBron James, that’s not even enough.

 As for the revenue problems, it’s an indisputable fact that teams like the Suns, Kings, Hornets, Hawks, and Bobcats all lost substantial amounts of money in the past few years.  Whether that was off-set by the massive profits generated by the Knicks, Heat, Lakers, and Celtics is up for debate.  Regardless if that is the case, the problems of at least five or more franchises can’t be overlooked because of the success of a few.

The players understandably want the good times to keep rolling, but the reality is that changes probably need to be made to keep the NBA as a viable entity beyond its top franchises.

One of the reasons that these types of labor negotiations are so difficult for the Union is that the membership has so many different interests.  The union members have kids to feed, bills to pay, endorsements to worry about, etc. and are generally out for their own well being, regardless of how many times they say that they’re concerned about future generations of players.  There are simply too many players with too many competing interests to truly stay united, especially once training camps go by without paychecks.

The Owners on the other hand, have a single unifying interest: the health and profitability of the business.  With fewer owners than players (obviously) and fewer competing interests, it’s easier for the owners to remain united for longer periods of time and survive a prolonged labor battle.

The likely end result is that once the game checks don’t come (players only get paid during the season), the players who haven’t been saving their money will become a very vocal group and will decide that getting paid $5.84 million per year (the league average) is better than not getting paid at all.  Those players will put pressure on Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher to make a deal.  The deal will be far less than what players are hoping for, but the prospect of a year’s worth of salary lost will outweigh their supposed concern for future generations of players.