There’s still hope in NBA talks, but it comes down to money

4 Comments

Tuesday was not a good day for NBA fans.

If you were hoping for an NBA season that will start on time and have 82 games, Tuesday sucked. What is clear right now is that the two sides are far apart, and that while there is time to get a deal so training camps could start on time the first few days of October, that seems a lot less likely.

That said, there is still time. Almost every negotiation gets solved at the last minute when the pressure is on one or both sides to really reach a deal (like the NFL) and the NBA is not there yet. It will be a few more weeks.

There is still hope — if you believe that the cooler heads among the owners will start to make a push to get a deal done. You’ve seen the breakdown, there are plenty of doves among the owners who don’t want to punish the union and don’t want to lose the season. Right now they are not driving the bus, but that could start to change come Thursday’s Board of Governor’s meeting.

The theme out of Tuesday’s meeting was that this is about the salary cap, not about money (meaning the split of Basketball Related Income). Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver tried to seem confounded that the players considered a hard salary cap a deal breaker and what was tearing these talks apart.

Let’s be honest here — this is about the money. Always, on both sides. Anytime you are told it’s not about the money, that person is lying.

What the owners want is a larger slice of the overall pie — the BRI — and a hard cap that some in that group seem to think will lead to more competitive balance. The easy example is the NFL, with hard caps and a real parity where teams can go from last to first in a year or two with some shrewd moves.

With larger television deals to come and the belief that (like the NFL) parity and close games mean higher ratings, some are pushing competitive balance as an answer.

It’s not. Competitive balance in the NBA is never really going to happen. Because one superstar player can dominate a game and turn any team into a contender. If you have LeBron James you can surround him with pretty blah talent and still reach the NBA finals and have the best record in the league (see Cavaliers, Cleveland). Even if you flatten out the other talent in the league, if you have LeBron/Kobe/Wade/Durant you are going to win a lot of games.

Besides, when was the NBA the most popular and got the highest ratings? During the Michael Jordan era. When the Bulls dominated and the league had the least competitive balance.

What a salary cap does do is push the league toward a more NFL-style, non-guaranteed contract system. A lot of owners like this because it lets them undo their mistakes more quickly. The superstars like the guys mentioned above will still get guaranteed deals, but the guys on the middle and bottom will become much more disposable (as happens in the NFL, when good players get cut for cap and other reasons). A lot of owners want the ability to get out of their mistakes — a get out of jail free card for bad management decisions — and this looks like the fastest path there.

The cap is about money and the redistribution of it to the owners liking.

The players do not want to take a smaller percentage of the overall cut and take on a system where that cut is now not guaranteed. As Henry Abbott noted at TrueHoop, they don’t want to happen to them what is happening to much of the American workforce (where contract work is more and more replacing full time staffs).

The owners themselves are a divided group (even David Stern admitted that to a degree Tuesday) but right now they seem to be committed to the hard cap.

Bottom line — this is about the money. It’s about the cut of money and how much of it is guaranteed.

It’s just that the sums of money we’re talking about are astronomical (more than $4 billion in revenue and $2 billion in salary) to the average fan. And those casual fans are going to be hard to win back if the league actually strikes and misses games in the middle of a recession because they can’t divide that money up. Both the owners and players get that, or at least give lip service to it. So you can hold that out as hope if you want. But I’m losing what little hope I had pretty fast.