When “The Decision” happened, we said it would change the course of NBA history. We didn’t exactly see this coming.
Since the lockout began, there have been several storylines beneath the primary conflict. The racial component, the in-fighting between agents and union officials, the superstars’ interjecting themselves, it’s been a party of subplots. But this one has been just as talked about, even if it’s not written about as much. Dan LeBatard took it on full force Sunday.
If you think the hawkish Gilbert wouldn’t try to throw away an entire season out of pure spite for James, you didn’t read his crazy-crayon letter in a rare moment of raw, rabid public honesty from an owner — a temper tantrum unlike any in the history of an American sports ownership that includes George Steinbrenner. And you didn’t notice how small he could behave by having his Fathead company price the James poster at $17.41 — the year of Benedict Arnold’s birth. And you don’t know how petty rich people can be when playing this kind of negotiating game of ego and power, emotion trampling logic just like when a divorcing wealthy couple spends $100,000 in attorney fees arguing over a thousand dollars in china.
Think about all the ego and money in the room when those owners meet. Think about how accustomed these men with yachts are to getting their way in every walk of life. That kind of wealth isn’t usually accrued by sharing and compromise; these men tend to be rich because cutthroat is what wins in business. Given that there are so many different interests in that room, and given that these owners aren’t really in it for the money, why would Gilbert want to help Arison with urgency, exactly? Even if he is not motivated by spite, what exactly is Gilbert’s impetus to settle quickly? You think he’s in a big hurry to go 19-63 again? Better for him to lose the season, break the union, fix the system and win that way than to fight the Timberwolves for worst record again. Trying to beat the players in a negotiation is more fun than that. Letting Dwyane Wade age another year next to James without playing would be a happy bonus for Gilbert, even if it isn’t his outright goal.
You may be the sort to think that Gilbert is a businessman, concerned with his business, the one of making money. That he wouldn’t allow personal feelings to drive a decision-making process of this magnitude. To that I would offer you to revisit Gilbert’s personal and public jabs at James. All Gilbert had to do was release a statement about his disappointment with James and then move on, and not keep needling, and he would be considered a victim. As it stands, Gilbert has come off as someone playing a personal vendetta out, and it appears to have taken to the lockout as well.
In the bigger, non-Comic-Sans sense, though, this lockout really is about the summer of 2010. You had teams from Dan Gilbert and Robert Sarver’s teams head to East Coast teams with huge payrolls. The Heat aren’t a huge market. But Arison, as LeBatard notes, is obscenely rich, as opposed to Gilbert, who’s just ridiculously rich. Then a year and a half later, we’re in danger of losing a season because those same owners are diametrically opposed to anything short of a system that puts them into a closer bracket financially with those teams, and, oh, yeah, would cost Arison a year of his super-team.
A nasty consequence of this comes with the implication that the owners are revolting against player power. That’s what the past year has been about. James, Bosh, and Wade forming their own future. Carmelo Anthony forcing a trade, but not just anywhere, to the exact team he wanted. The hints that Chris Paul would be joining Melo and Amar’e. It all points to a redesign of the power structure in the NBA, which has always been star-lead but team-controlled, to a system where manifest destiny is the norm. The lockout seeks to end all that.
To be sure, the players will get benefits from staying put. But the lowered cap, be it through a hard cap or advanced luxury tax structures, seeks to hinder the ability of a player’s suitors from nabbing him in free agency. The elimination or redefinition of the mid-level exception is geared to keep supporting players’ salaries low and from being an albatross. In short, the team regains control of the players. That’s part of the objective. It’s not the biggest objective, that’s simply to take back lots and lots of money to stop the bleeding of losses in one move. That’s reasonable.
But the moderates and extremists among the owners are made up of owners who can afford to spend to win, who treat the team as an expensive toy, and owners who have lost their stars and are vindictive about it, or in the case of Peter Holt, know that next time they may not be so lucky as to have a reasonable, loyal superstar to re-sign.
Players play on contracts. They’re supposed to be movable commodities. But in the owners’ mind, those commodities are to be moved by the owners, not by the whims and desires of the product. At least not to the level the power play over the past year and a half has shown. Certain owners are committed to disallowing the players from determining their future. And some, it certainly seems, are committed to punishing those players who turned their backs on the teams that drafted them.