On Monday evening, while most of Chicago was watching the rebirth of the Detroit Lions, the NBA cancelled the first two weeks of the 2011-12 season.
What does this mean to Bulls fans? The NBA has already removed the first two weeks from team calendars online. If the NBA doesn't cancel any other games, the Bulls season would now begin with the Circus Trip; Chicago wouldn't have a home opener until November 30, and would only play seven home games before Christmas.
But there's a bigger issue that nobody wants to deal with. Whether or not the Bulls play any home games this year doesn't matter long-term; the health of the NBA is at risk, and this lockout is when the two sides need to sit down and fix it.
When the NFL was locked out, there were players involved with the negotiations and lawsuits that were taking place. The name that was mentioned most as being intimately involved with the proceedings was Jeff Saturday, the center for the Colts. He's a respected leader in the game, but isn't a household name. Similarly, Lakers guard Derek Fisher has taken the lead on behalf of the NBA's players because he is one of the most respected players in the game.
However, when you look back at the NFL lockout, superstars were involved with every aspect of the lockout. The major lawsuit between the players and owners had three names attached to it: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. That's the equivilent of Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant suing the NBA's owners. But right now Durant and Bryant are getting ready to play in Europe, and Howard is tweeting for dollars.
The superstars haven't bought in for the NBA because they're selfish, and, more importantly, have options. Nobody in the NFL was going to jump ship and sign a deal with in Canada if the NFL season didn't start on time; frankly, the CFL can't pay what the NFL does. There are a number of superstars, including Deron Williams, that have already signed to play overseas for ridiculous amounts of money. A million dollars a month? Why would a superstar care about a lockout if he's getting paid to get treated like royalty and play against inferior competition?
It's pretty clear that there's a systemic selfishness in the NBA that's killing the leverage of the Players' Association.
There's another issue that is killing the NBA: stupidity.
According to ESPN's moles, the deal-breaker has been a luxury-tax system presented by the owners that the union views as the same idea as a hard salary cap. The Players Association wants nothing to do with a hard cap, because that way teams like Miami can spend all day and build a hated dynasty. The problem with the current system is that more than two-thirds of the league is losing money, and the ability for every team to compete does not exist.
The owners appear ready to make some serious concessions to allow players to continue getting paid; indeed, players might get paid more if some of the owners' proposals are made reality. ESPN reports that owners want contract limits of four years for players staying with an organization and three years for a player switching teams. The players want limits of five and four years, respectively.
I'll address each of these points individually, but until players care about the history, and future, of their game there won't be responsible resolution to this conflict.
The NHL lost the entire 2004-05 season because of a work stoppage, but what came from that unfortunate breakdown has been great for the game of hockey. Certainly there are still issues in hockey, but consider where the game is today: 28 of 30 teams have made the postseason since the lockout, and league-wide revenues are at an all-time high. Television viewing numbers are peaking on what feels like a weekly basis, and teams all over the league feel they have a chance to do something special.
In my opinion, the biggest change made to the NHL was how the salary cap impacts teams. There is a hard cap and a floor in the NHL; this year, every team in the NHL has to spend between $48.3M and $64.3M. In baseball, when a team stinks they either burn it down and start over or just continue to be mediocre for a decade. The same can be seen in the NBA, and was true in the NHL as well. But now that there's a salary floor, teams are forced to spend money. The Florida Panthers have been pretty bad for a number of years, but because of the floor were forced to spend a big amount of money this summer. Now, they're considered a fringe playoff team just one year after being a laughing stock.
Numbers don't lie, and the NHL is proving that a hard cap and floor is a system that works in professional sports. It presses organizations to spend, which could/should make them competitive. You can't force an organization to spend their money wisely, but not allowing teams to spend nothing like the Florida Marlins either allows teams to overpay and keep their young players or forces them to bring in veterans. Either way, players are getting paid and teams are making the postseason more regularly in hockey than anywhere else.
Perhaps Fisher should call Brendan Shanahan to get a sense for how a limited salary cap window can improve the game before the Players Association balks at the idea on face value.
The second issue that the owners and players are differing on, contract lengths, seems to be a ridiculous idea no matter how long you limit contracts. If so many people perceive last summer's free agent binge as one of the great marketing opportunities in the history of the game (a concept that makes me sick), then why not repeat it as often as possible? Do you think the Heat wouldn't be thrilled to get a do-over on Chris Bosh after three years? Or even four?
But limiting contract lengths is going to simply magnify the selfishness that is corrupting the NBA. Whether it's three or four or five years, there will no longer be any need for loyalty between either side of the line, and player movement will become even more detrimental to the game. Teams in "bad" markets, like Cleveland and Toronto, will be forced into a future of repeating three-year windows of "hope," with little/no ability to keep a superstar player long enough to develop a team around him.
Limiting contract lengths, especially without a firm salary cap structure in place, would only make the inequality between the NBA's "Have's" and "Have-Not's" more obvious. It would be great for major markets like New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, but what's going to make a player go to Denver or Portland or Memphis? The weather?
The cliche has been abused, but it's true: nobody cares about the NBA until the NFL season ends. Because players are able to get paid overseas, it's clear that there is no sense of urgency to get a deal down. So while season ticketholders are collecting their refunds and the NBA continues cancelling games, the dialogue will continue to be smoke and mirrors until someone feels like there's a legitimate loss. The problem is that none of the key figures in the game will feel much/any loss during the lockout, so it's impossible to see light at the end of the tunnel.