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Analysis: NBA owners win lockout, nuclear winter about to be averted

Published November 27, 2011 11:35 pm

Analysis • 66-game basketball season would start on Dec. 25.
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NBA Commissioner David Stern's constant, unyielding blend of threats and ultimatums made an impact. The National Basketball Players Association's (NBPA) united stand in the face of public scorn commanded respect. Hardline owners, angered agents, and the potential for lost years in the limbo of the court system and $6 billion in antitrust damages contributed to the potential end of the 150-day NBA lockout.

But what ultimately erased the inflated rhetoric and eased the entrenched stances of sides that spent more than two years fighting over the economic and competitive future of the league?

Sports labor analysts and NBA insiders chalked the sudden achievement up to one thing: the calendar.

Dec. 25, to be exact.

NBA owners and players are expected to soon approve a 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was tentatively reached about 1 a.m. MT Saturday. If the deal is greenlighted, a 66-game season will tip off Christmas with a nationally televised tripleheader, while training camps and free agency for the shortened campaign will begin Dec. 9. Pending lawsuits would in turn be dismissed.

The Jazz's first game of the 2011-12 season remains a work in progress — the league's schedule will be reset, the regular season will end a week later than normal and the Finals will also be pushed back. But the NBA is still expected to play its All-Star Game; LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Al Jefferson should soon receive more press coverage than Billy Hunter and Adam Silver; and a flashy league that collects about $4 billion in annual revenue will again be able to watch a river of money flow unimpeded.

Avoiding failure • With the NBA on the precipice of ending a bitter lockout that started July 1 — just the second work stoppage in the league's 65-year history to result in the cancellation of regular-season games — Gabe Feldman said professional basketball is closer than ever to avoiding a "catastrophic scenario" of erasing an entire year just to prove a point.

"That was on the table. That was not a fantasy," said Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program. "That could have happened if things had broken down or one side or the other wasn't willing to give in a little bit here and there. … The win here was having avoided that; that was the true win. Now we can quibble about who got the best of it, and did the owners get all they wanted?"

On paper, they almost did. Parity should improve thanks to the tightening of system issues, while 23 of 30 teams that lost a combined $450 million during 2010-11 should see their economic woes addressed via a flexible 49-51 percent division that will regulate the split of basketball-related income.

But rather than win a battle only to lose a war — which many believe would have been the case had a majority of owners continued to push for a hard salary cap, among other contentious issues — the billionaires relented just enough at the last minute to allow the millionaires to accept a one-sided deal with their pride and integrity still intact.

Spurred by minor concessions from owners this week during a series of small-group meetings in New York, the NBA's showcase Christmas Day games can now be salvaged. In addition, the league will still be able to play 80 percent of its 2011-12 schedule, doing so with a revised CBA that is expected to aid future financial growth and overall competitiveness.

"All of us are looking like fools if we don't [agree] to this thing," said a high-ranking league source, who was granted anonymity because team officials are not allowed to speak about CBA negotiations.

Disarmed • Stern used almost every trick in the collective bargaining book to simultaneously keep hardline owners at bay and force players to slowly cave. Meanwhile, the NBPA issued a disclaimer of interest Nov. 14, dissolving the union and putting its fate in the hands of attorneys. The back-and-forth chess-like moves were made as games were wiped off the calendar and the league edged ever closer to Jan. 6, which was the drop-dead date for canceling the abbreviated 1998-99 season.

"It's an expensive game of chicken," Feldman said. "It's always been a game of chicken — that's what collective bargaining is in a sense. Both sides have weapons in their arsenal that they try to use to get the other to meet them at the collective bargaining table. And the question is, who moves first? But the interesting thing about this dispute is you had both sides firing weapons."

But a two-sided public assault loaded with harsh words and fiery accusations paled when compared to what lurked on the other side of the fence: a barren wasteland, where games were nonexistent and the NBA had more in common with the NHL than the NFL or MLB.

Compressing the schedule is one thing. Stern displayed his willingness to do just that multiple times as he backed away from tersely worded ultimatums and continued to push for a full 82-game season. But erasing showcase games on Christmas — the true start of the NBA season for average fans — while a drop-dead date loomed and damaging lawsuits hovered? Those were risks neither side was willing to take.

After more than two years' worth of bitter negotiations, owners and players finally did the unthinkable: They let down their guard, disarmed their weapons and compromised.

A nuclear winter is about to be averted.

The NBA is almost back.

"It really came down to just looking into the mirror and deciding do you want to be responsible for losing a season?" said Michael McCann, director of the Vermont Sports Law Institute and legal analyst for NBA TV and SI.com. "The owners and players came to the conclusion that neither are better off if that were to happen. That was the motivating reason."

Twitter: @tribjazz



Check The Tribune's Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis. —

Key dates

Saturday • Representatives for NBA owners and players reach tentative deal for 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that will end 149-day lockout.

This week • Dissolved National Basketball Players Association must re-form; simple majority of both sides must approve new CBA.

Dec. 9 • Free agency and training camps begin.

Mid-December • Jazz are expected to play at least two preseason games.

Dec. 25 • 2011-12 NBA season tips off with nationally televised tripleheader; shortened 66-game campaign starts.

Dec. 26 • Jazz could start season; Utah was originally set to begin play Nov. 1 against Houston.

2012 • NBA will hold annual All-Star Game; start of playoffs and Finals will be pushed back one week. —

Collective bargaining agreement highlights

10-year deal with mutual opt out after sixth year

Flexible 49-51 percent division of basketball-related income

Soft salary cap set at $58 million; luxury tax at $70 million

After 2012-13, luxury tax rate is $1.50 for initial $5 million above tax; penalties steadily increase as tax rate is exceeded

Maximum contract length varies between 4-5 years

After 2012-13, teams cannot acquire free agent via sign-and-trade if they exceed luxury tax by $4 million after trade

Players can be acquired via extend-and-trade, but team can only offer three-year deal plus remaining contract length

Restricted free agent offer-sheet period shortened to three days

Each team allowed to waive one player via amnesty clause and have 100 percent of salary removed from payroll for cap and tax purposes






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