Lockout revisited, 10 years later
An NBA city (Seattle) currently has no team and an NBA team (Oklahoma City) currently has no name. Restricted free agency still is a better oxymoron -- right up there with scheduled flights, Las Vegas traditions and affordable health care -- than it is a viable, desirable negotiating status. And next week, disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, the weasel in zebra's clothing who turned into a canary, is scheduled to appear for sentencing in a U.S. federal courtroom in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Here we are, three weeks removed on the calendar from Celtics-Lakers, ages away in focus and mood. Yet things could be worse for the NBA.
We all could be listening to David Stern's chin whiskers grow.
Remember the NBA commissioner's "lockout beard'' in the summer and fall of 1998? In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that Stern's stubble first appeared in August of that year and felt the razor's wrath sometime in early December, about the time he was grimly announcing the cancellation of that season's All-Star Game. But the way most people remember it, the league's angry and newly vulnerable chief executive let his retro whiskers grow symbolically from bitter start to exhausting finish -- from July 1, 1998, to January 1999, when an overdue, 300-page collective bargaining agreement finally was hammered out -- in a personal grooming statement popular among protesters and disc jockeys. Another urban legend regarding Stern's facial hair had the horrified commish hurrying into a barber's chair the afternoon he was mistaken on a Manhattan street corner for the bass player in ZZ Top.
Given the duration of the whole unseemly chapter -- 191 days to get a deal, 204 days to actually resume the business of basketball and 219 days before the first games were played in a truncated, 50-game schedule -- who's to say that eventually might not have happened?
The NBA lockout -- with a big, round anniversary now to be marked rather than celebrated -- gave the league a black eye that took several seasons to fully heal. It tore a hole more than six months' wide in a relationship with the game and its fans that otherwise had been all but seamless for 52 years. It cost the players tens of millions of dollars, the teams hundreds of millions of dollars and the league a total of 464 games off its regular-season schedule and immeasurable goodwill with the nation's sports fans. As Major League Baseball did with its sacrificed World Series in 1994, as the NFL did by offering up replacement players during 1987, as the NHL would do in wiping out its entire 2004-05 season, the NBA allowed a labor dispute to strip away what little pretense of innocence remained.
Never before had the "I Love This Game'' slogan rung more hollow.
Looking back, Stern and the Board of Governors will tell you that the lockout was a necessary evil, essential to establishing cost controls that remain to this day. The players and their union leaders will say that the episode proved that highly compensated, competitive and headstrong athletes -- mini-corporations, each of them -- could come together, and stick together, through a lengthy financial hardship for the common good.
A lot of fans will say that the whole thing was an embarrassment, a piggish squabble among 400 players and 29 owners over the best way to divvy up nearly $2 billion in annual revenues. Lucky for both sides, they'll say, that they didn't pull that stunt in the post-9/11 world with American troops fighting abroad and gas prices soaring past $4 per gallon. There might have been no coming back.
The lockout and its immediate aftermath did offer some things that remain to this day. It introduced the term "max player'' to the lexicon, shorthand for the maximum-salary values that were introduced into that CBA. The league had hoped for a hard salary cap, while the players' union was quite happy with a status quo that already had made possible contracts north of $100 million to players such as Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard and Kevin Garnett. "Max'' salaries -- tying a star player's top compensation to a percentage of team payroll -- lassoed those deals down to approximately $86 million for that 1999 season.
That kept players such as Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker from hitting the nosebleed heights of nine-figure megadeals. It ignited Stephon Marbury's envy of his pal Garnett, driving the point guard out of Minnesota in a trade-me-or-else deal just 18 games into the season.
Because of the "steps'' in the maximum scale based on years of service, the CBA that came out of the lockout -- and was freshened up in far more amicable bargaining in 2005 -- led to the recent trend among young superstars such as Cleveland's LeBron James, Miami's Dwyane Wade and New Orleans' Chris Paul to sign for fewer seasons as a way to optimize both finances and freedom.
The concept, alas, also stuck the NBA with a lingering Lake Wobegon problem, where everyone allegedly is above average and half the guys on each roster saw themselves as "max players.'' Some teams have needed most of these 10 years to sort out the true franchise talents from the pretenders (Marbury, Zach Randolph, Steve Francis, Jermaine O'Neal, Pau Gasol among them) who flipped the cause-and-effect of the dynamic, as if paying them the money might turn them into cornerstones.
The great lockout gave us a new ladder of NBA minimum salaries tied to seniority, a boon to the league's veterans. Now instead of having to take the crumbs left over on a capped-out payroll -- often the one-size-fits-all minimum that youngsters and second-round picks were paid -- players with at least 10 years' experience were guaranteed $1 million. That helped the vast, er, middle class of NBA millionaires.
And thanks to the lockout, terms such as "mid-level exception'' and "biannual exception'' get bandied about by pro hoops' fans as casually as the baseball crowd talks nowadays about OPS and ballpark-adjusted ERAs. The mid-level has been a godsend to fan interest, giving every capped-out team at least the potential to feign interest in free agency each summer. In rising rapidly from $1.75 million in its first season to $5.36 million for the 2007-08 season, with 8 percent raises and deals stretching five years now, it also has been a godsend to role players, especially of the 7-foot variety such as soon-to-be Maverick DeSagana Diop.
There were casualties of the lockout, to be sure. Veteran players near the end of their careers never did reclaim jobs -- for example, Buck Williams didn't play again and Dennis Rodman played only 35 more games. Charles Oakley had been counting on a $10 million balloon payment from New York that vanished in the new deal. Others such as Glenn Robinson and Bryant Reeves lost 32 games' worth of the best and last multiyear contracts of their lives. The Timberwolves lost Tom Gugliotta in the whirlwind signing period, then panicked in signing Joe Smith as a replacement; their illegal deals, on the heels of the bloody lockout, infuriated Stern and cost them a large chunk of their competitive future in draft picks forfeited and fines levied.
Then there were sad individual cases like Shawn Kemp, who gained so much weight during the layoff that his coaches in Cleveland worried about him just running up and down the court after play resumed. Seattle's Vin Baker fell out of shape, played poorly and turned to alcohol in an attempt to cope, contributing to his NBA flameout.