It’s over, and now we have to look back and survey the wreckage. 480 games lost. Millions of dollars in league revenue, local economy revenue, player salaries. Fans hurt by the way the league and players left them behind in pursuit of more money. Momentum lost after the most exciting season in over a decade. And for what?
Was any of this worth the effort? Was any of this worth the price?
For the owners, it better be.
The owners started this lockout, ending the structure of the league 149 days ago. They stood in pursuit of a total victory, wanting to crush the union, to instill measures to send the players’ economic influence in this league back to the stone ages, while removing the kind of power they had shown over the past 18 months in things like “The Decision” and Carmelo Anthony’s move to New York. They used draconian tactics, forcing their way past precedents set by the last deal and flying in the face of well-reasoned arguments that competitive balance cannot exist in the NBA. They decided to show it was their league and they’d run it how they saw fit.
They’ve gotten their chance, now we’ll have to see whether the fragile peace can hold, and if any of what the owners believed was true turns out to be grounded in reality.
Over the course of the next six years (the players will undoubtedly opt-out before the ten-year agreement is up), the owners have a lot to prove. They have to prove they can profit under the new system, that their biggest enemy is not themselves and their own inabilities to control spending and make wise decisions. They have to prove that competitive balance can be achieved and that small markets can now compete with larger ones for free agents and on the floor. Failure to do so will render their philosophy in this debacle a falsehood and pave the way for a further, potentially longer lockout six years down the road.
The split of BRI should help, but there’s still the capacity for teams to fail. And that’s not because of the drain from the players or wasteful positions the league mostly eliminated with layoffs. It’s because if you run your team badly, no one wants to watch them. It’s because you can’t profit if you don’t run your business well, and in the NBA, running your business well is winning games. So the league needs to prove all this talk about competitive balance will result in small market teams competing for championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder may wind up proving that the same way the Spurs did in the last agreement, by simply running their team well. But given that New York, Chicago, LA, and Boston are set to compete for at least two more years of this agreement (and most people consider Miami a large market even if it does not qualify as one under metrics), it’ll be a steep climb. Are we going to see conference champions in Indiana, Milwaukee, Memphis, Portland? Because if not, if things remain the same, the owners will have some explaining to do.
Games didn’t need to be lost. The season didn’t need to be shortened. A deal could have been struck months ago. The owners already won this battle in September, but they kept pushing until they had nearly no option left. They got what they wanted, a system more under their control and a bigger cut of the pie. The players got what they wanted, the opportunity to earn their money. The fans got what they wanted, a season, even if it is shortened. Now it’s time to see whether everything the owners went to war over was worth it at all.