Monday, November 21, 2011

Missing the NBA

In desperate need of some Derrick Rose
Bill Simmons, our resident NBA expert, has written his latest on the NBA Lockout, which is now destined to force the cancellation of the entire season after the players rejected the latest owner offer and moved to decertify the player's union as the precursor to an antitrust lawsuit:

Bill Simmons Perfectly Sums up NBA Lockout

I think that Simmons nails everything on point and does a great job of pointing out that both sides are the idiots at play here. I don't want to fringe on his territory too much here, but I do want to make some of my own thoughts.

On an initial note, I've never seen more blatant bad faith negotiation tactics used by an ownership group. I don't know where to assign blame on this one - whether it's the owners for doing it in the first place, or Billy Hunter, who either didn't recognize it because he was too stupid to see it coming, did recognize it but was too scared of the owners to do anything, or did recognize it but didn't know what to do about it. He should have tried to either call out the owners on it and try to enlist the aid of a neutral mediator much earlier, used it in counter-negotiations, or began the union decertification process over the summer to attempt to file an antitrust lawsuit then, citing the owner's bad faith to the prospective court in hopes of a favorable early ruling (perhaps with an injunction, much like the temporary one granted the NFL players during their lockout).

Think Paul Allen cares about paying his players?
This point ties in directly with the next one I wanted to make - the owners have all of the leverage of these negotiations. Either Billy Hunter knows this and the latest move to decertify is their last stand to force the hand of the owners, or he is blind to it, meaning the season is doomed anyways. Think about this. All of the NBA owners are rich white men (well, besides MJ). These guys are wealthy beyond imagination and are in that position because they know how to negotiate deals in their favor. They are pillars of a capitalistic system that plays to their advantage. Take Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, for example. He's worth $13.2 billion. How does he, and the rest of the NBA ownership, not have all the leverage!? This guy could sustain the entire league's financial losses like a drop in the bucket (read this article, and you'll see what i mean). So how do you think Billy Hunter fares in negotiating with them? Don't you think that the NBA owners are sitting back, perfectly content with not having to pay their players for the time being, and most likely the whole season? They can afford not to make any extra revenue from the teams they own (even if most don't make much at all). But for the vast majority of the NBA players, missing paychecks will hurt them more than they think. For the elite NBA superstars, say 10% of the league, missing even a whole year's worth of paychecks won't hurt much (well, Kobe missing out on $25 million has to hurt. Right?). But for 90% of the league, the players live paycheck to paycheck. They think they signed a $10 million a year deal, only they fail to realize that after taxes, agent dues, union dues, child support payments (seriously), supporting their entourage, paying their mortgages, paying for all their expensive cars and most importantly, supporting their lifestyle, that these players could be broke in a couple of months. I think you'll remember some players, like Patrick Ewing, echoing these statements in the 1999 lockout.

The elite NBA players are actually underpaid
That also leads me to one of the more underrated dynamics of this entire process, and that's the veteran/superstar players versus the rest of the league's players. There are so many issues at play here, but for me, it's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the 90% of the league that lives paycheck to paycheck was pretty much duped into refusing a deal that really was their only choice of economic stability. How did this happen? I think Simmons says it correctly that the players really hit a breaking point in being pushed around by Stern and the NBA owners. Once that happens, all logic and reason goes out the window and it becomes a pissing contest, unifying the players against the owners. Moreover, the superstars of the league, as the leaders of the player movement, have pretty much convinced the rest of the average NBA players that the obnoxiously large contracts they received (look at what the Nets gave Travis Outlaw in return for a bad season) were the owners' fault, and their lazy efforts after getting such a huge deal have nothing to do with the lockout. Had the NBA players had better overall leadership with better communication that reached to all the players, the players could have presented a unified front. The average players might have realized they're overpaid, but even reducing their salaries somewhat guarantees that they will be multimillionaires and at the very least be able to play this season. And the elite players could bargain for bigger deals, because they arguably deserve more money than they earn in the first place (Kobe Bryant, earning $25 million a year, brings vastly more than that back to the Lakers in revenue). The middling players, like Travis Outlaw, do not deserve $7 million a year. Who goes to a game or puts it on TV to watch a player like Outlaw? No one.

Kessler is just one of the greedy parties to the Lockout
That's part of the problem. The owners deserve much of the blame for shooting themselves in the foot by handing out some of these horrible, stupid deals. What's ironic is that the NBA ownership group, which has shown themselves to be the ruthless rich negotiators they are in the NBA Lockout process, actually get horribly destroyed in routine player contract negotiations because they entrust that entire process to General Managers that are mostly former players. Any savvy player's agent who was half-asleep throughout law school can out-negotiate those guys. But what about those average players, too? Don't they deserve a huge amount of blame for receiving those hugely overpaid contracts and then proceeding to take a giant dump all over the court the next year or five? And speaking of lawyers, what about the blame that should be assigned to Jeffrey Kessler, the lead attorney for the player's union? He's a leading expert on antitrust law but continuously undermined the negotiations. As an attorney, he has the duty to zealously advocate his client's interests. For 90% of his client base, that would mean getting the players back to the court as soon as possible so they can actually make some money. But Kessler's actions suggest that he is actually dooming the negotiations in order to litigate the player's antitrust suit, which would bring his firm millions of dollars. He's a prime example of the bad lawyer stereotype. And yet he makes up the other end of player leadership beyond Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher.

Most importantly, however, all of this greed, childish squabbling, miscommunication, and lack of leadership (on both sides) will really affect the NBA fan the most. To be sure, the NBA doesn't have the diehard following that the NFL or even MLB does. Barely anyone cares about it - football's on! But for those of us that do, and even for the casual fans that caught the greatest season since MJ retired last year, we're pissed. We're tired of seeing billionaires and millionaires whine and complain about sharing all the money that WE SPEND ON THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE. And we have zero say in the matter. And what about the NBA fans who work for the teams, or bars near the arenas, or in stores selling their merchandise, etc.? They could lose their jobs.

Just one of the storylines we're missing
I was at a Hawks game this year and stopped at the merchandise store on the corner of Madison and Damen to look at some stuff. I asked the guy running the store how business was going, and he said that they're struggling bad, with half their business gone. And this is for a store that is lucky enough to have two teams from two sports sharing the same arena. But this is more than just economics - what about the product?? We're going to miss out on so many compelling storylines. Could this have been Kobe's last elite year? How many years do the Celtics Senior Home Team have left together? Can Dallas repeat? Will LeBron disappear again in the clutch (but of course)? Can Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook become the new dominant force in the Western Conference? Most importantly, can the Bulls add someone to help D Rose take this team to the championship level, even improving on their amazing run last season? Who knows when we'll get answers; antitrust litigation can potentially take years. For those of us who love the NBA, at the end of the day its simply depressing to see all of this prevent us from watching and enjoying world class basketball. Until all the parties come to their senses, I guess we have to sit back and try to remember just exactly what we're missing.