We’re almost at that point now. You know, the one where the die-hard NBA fan’s feelings on the lockout shift from “Why can’t these guys figure it out?” to “This is REALLY pissing me off, don’t you realize that we’re going to miss games here?”. There’s only one more shift to make after that one, and it’s the nuclear option for anyone who loves basketball: “I hate the NBA, why did they have to cancel the season at the height of the league’s post-Jordan popularity?”.
The NBA season is scheduled to start on November 1. But for the league to avoid losing games (which I fear is a foregone conclusion at this point), an agreement needs to come soon. How soon? Consider this piece from the terrific Henry Abbott, who draws up a potential timeline once an agreement is reached. As Abbott points out, in the 1998-99 lockout, it took 30 days for the two sides to go from a “handshake deal” to actually start playing games. So count back 30 days from November 1, and you get: October 2. That’s this Sunday. And, with the news that the start of NBA training camps will be postponed (they were scheduled to open October 3) and the first week of preseason games has been canceled (October 9-15), there’s no reason to think that the sides will be able to scrape together a miracle deal in time.
So instead of the usual Rogue of the Week/Stupid NBA Move (I would probably have to choose the NBA/NBPA again, which can get boring after a while), I’ll just go ahead and call the camp postponement/preseason cancelations the “Shame of the Week.” Let’s just hope that I don’t have to do another “Shame of the Week” in the near future lamenting the loss of the NBA’s opening night and the juicy TNT doubleheader that accompanies it (Bulls at Mavericks on ring night followed by Thunder at Lakers).
I continue to struggle with the big questions of this lockout, but this much has become clear to me: if we lose any/all games, the league and the owners HAVE to take more of the blame than the players. The players simply have more to lose by missing a season. Older guys miss out on a chance to get that elusive championship ring. Younger guys delay their maturation and miss out on a season’s worth of paychecks (which are more important than you’d think early in a career). Established players miss a season of their primes, which is crucial because once that decline starts, there’s not much you can do to stop it. So while financially secure superstars like Dwight Howard and LeBron James might not be the first guys that pop into your mind when you think of lockout victims, there is no doubt that they’re going to be just as upset as everyone else should we lose the season. It takes a special combination of players, coaches and luck to win a championship, and as an NBA player, you only get so many cracks at it before your time is up. Add in the uncertainty of the new salary cap, and the time to win a title is now for a team like the Heat.
Think about the Suns of last decade—they had a championship window from 2005-2010 and didn’t get it done. Now the Suns are a shell of themselves and they’re certainly not on anyone’s shortlist of championship contenders. Just imagine what had happened if the lockout was last year instead of now. The Mavs never get that title, and maybe by the time games resume in 2011-12, Dallas’ aging roster takes a bit longer to get back into game shape than, say, the young Thunder. With his championship window closing, Mark Cuban loses patience with his roster of highly-paid underachievers and decides to enter rebuilding mode.
But look at a lost season from an owner’s point of view, where winning a championship doesn’t mean nearly as much as it would to a player (and to someone like Donald Sterling, is secondary to making money), and there are obvious benefits. First and foremost, they avoid paying out any salary (every NBA team’s biggest cost), making it much more difficult to lose boatloads of money. Second, they don’t have as much to lose as a player because owners stick around a lot longer than the guys they’re paying (unlike players, owners don’t have to worry about their knees giving out or suffering a career-ending injury). Third, the longer the lockout goes, the more likely the owners get a favorable deal out of it. Because of the two benefits I’ve just listed, players are obviously more eager to end the lockout than the owners, meaning when the time comes to get serious, the owners’ demands are more likely to be met.
So, to return to my original point, the owners must necessarily shoulder more of the blame for the lack of progress on the negotiations because they don’t have that same sense of urgency that the players do. They dragged their feet all summer, and when it became apparent that Billy Hunter wasn’t going to aggressively demand face-to-face meetings, the owners seemed quite content to allow weeks to pass without negotiating. I would argue though, that even if the NBA and NBPA were forced to negotiate 12 hours a day (and can anyone give me a good reason why this isn’t happening right now?), the NBA would still be loath to agree to a deal. I think, secretly, some owners want a lost season to reinforce their power over the players and the sport. And unfortunately, it’s looking like they might get their wish.