Owner faction holds key to ending labor strife, salvaging season
The bet here is that the NBA will have a season -- though it might be a shorter one
David Stern is playing to the hard-line owners now, waiting for the union to crack
Eventually, a more flexible group of owners will pressure the league into a deal
It seems hopeless. It's not. I absolutely believe there will be an NBA season. Not a whole season. Maybe not even two-thirds of a season. But there will be games leading to the playoffs, culminating in a championship for somebody, because one man needs that to happen. His name is David Stern.
How will we get there? Let's start with where we are now.
Stern said after Wednesday's bargaining session that "the calendar is not our friend" and implied regular-season games will be canceled if a deal is not struck soon. Of course a deal won't be struck soon. Of course games will be canceled. And the calendar actually is his friend.
Stern could never say this, of course, but what he really wants is for the players to fold. And that can only happen if they start missing paychecks. For Stern, the ideal scenario is this: Players panic, they (naturally) complain to their agents, the agents go after union chief Billy Hunter, Hunter fights back, everybody splits into factions, nobody knows who is in charge, players fold and the owners get the deal of their dreams.
Stern wants the players to believe there are two groups involved in the negotiations: owners and players: One being the players, who need paychecks and want to play. They would have gladly renewed the last labor agreement for another five or 10 years. It worked for them. The other group would be the owners, who are represented by the commissioner. They're not happy, they say they're losing money and they have sent smoke signals that they will cancel the 2011-12 season if it means getting a labor deal they like.
Seems simple. But it's not quite accurate. There are actually two groups of owners, with very different views of this lockout.
We'll call the first group the Sarver Group, after Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. He has mismanaged the Suns and is now considered one of the most prominent hard-line owners who are prepared to cancel the season. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has been portrayed as another hard-liner. (He seemed to deny that in a recent vague tweet, but I'm not buying it.) Gilbert may be losing money, but he also has a very personal reason to favor a long lockout: If there is no season, LeBron James can't win a championship.
I am absolutely not pinning the whole lockout on these two owners. There are certainly others, mostly in small markets like Sacramento, who are taking a hard line. I'm just using Sarver and Gilbert as examples.
But there is also another group that may ultimately hold the key to ending the lockout. We will call it the Cuban Group, after Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, because he is the most high-profile owner in the group (and because, on some level, naming anything after Mark Cuban probably annoys Stern).
Cuban owns his team for the right reason: because owning a pro sports team is awesome. He cares much more about winning than about maximizing his profit. Now that he finally has his championship, don't you think he wants a chance to defend it? His star, Dirk Nowitzki, will turn 34 next June. Of course Cuban wants some kind of season.
He is not alone. The Lakers are profitable, and since Kobe Bryant just turned 33, their championship window is closing. They want to play. The aging Boston Celtics want one more chance. They want to play. The Miami Heat did not sign LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh so they could play games streamed live on SI.com, as cool as that may be for us. They want to play. The Chicago Bulls are a big-market team in title contention. They want to play. Even the small-market San Antonio Spurs would like one more shot with Tim Duncan.
There are more. When Tom Gores bought the Pistons after last season, he probably figured they would, you know, play games. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is worth well north of $10 billion. A few million bucks in revenues won't mean anything to him. But this does: The Nets have one year to persuade star Deron Williams to re-sign with them. Do you think they want him to spend it in Turkey?
Stern knows all this, but he needs to satisfy the Sarver group first. That's the key difference between this lockout and previous labor situations. Back in 1998-99, when the NBA lost two months' worth of games, there were a lot of old-school owners. Stern had made them all millions of dollars. They deferred to him. Now Stern has Sarver and Gilbert and others who bought in at a high price, and he has to prove his value to them.
That's where the hard line comes from. Stern needs those guys to know he is serious. That's why Stern has set this up as a choice between an untenable system and canceling games -- it is a strategy designed to scare the union.
Meanwhile, the Cuban Group is stuck. There is no deal on the table at the moment, and nobody can pressure Stern into accepting a deal that does not presently exist. Besides, while the owners in the Cuban Group all want to play a season, they aren't desperate to play the whole season. This isn't the NFL, which would have lost tens of millions of dollars simply by canceling one regular-season game per team. NBA fans, especially casual fans, care mostly about the playoffs. They will get over a two-month lockout very quickly. Stern can get away with losing 30 games. He did it once before.
Right now, the Sarver Group has a voice: Stern. The Cuban Group has no voice, because owners are forbidden from speaking about the lockout. So it seems like the owners are all hard-liners, which is precisely how Stern wants it to seem.
The players will feel a sense of urgency before the owners do, and that's the challenge for Hunter. If he gives an inch, a yard or 10 miles, the owners are unlikely to budge. The Sarver Group will smell blood and lick its lips. It's talking about a hard salary cap, or something close to it, which doesn't make much sense for the NBA, but that group doesn't care. It wants guaranteed profits for every team.
To get anything close to a fair deal, Hunter needs the Cuban Group to come to his side. And that may not happen now, because the Cuban Group doesn't need a whole season, just a season. It might not happen until December, when the tick-tick-tick of the clock gets louder and the Cuban Group steps in to save the playoffs.
But at some point, there will be a reasonable deal available to the owners. It won't be perfect. It might not be close to perfect. But it will be good enough, and the owners who really want a season will turn to the Sarver Group and say: We're taking it. You guys bought into our league. Let's play.
And what will Stern do then?
Does he really want to be known as a guy who ticked off many of his best owners when they're pushing for a deal? After years of fawning media coverage, much of which he deserved, does he want the backlash of wiping out an entire season? And after building a league by promoting his superstars, does the 69-year-old Stern really want to alienate the last (and maybe best) group of stars he'll ever have?
The NBA economic system is not broken. Well-managed small-market teams can win -- the Spurs have proved that, and Oklahoma City is about to prove it again. With smaller rosters than other sports, maximum salaries for superstars and free-agency rules that encourage players to stay with their current franchises, the NBA system is actually quite friendly to small-market teams -- as long as they are smart. If Sarver had run his team better, or if Gilbert had found more help for LeBron, they would both be dying to play this season.
Instead, they are threatening -- at least implicitly -- to kill the season. Thankfully, there is another group of owners that don't want that to happen. This lockout may be long, and it is already getting ugly. But I do believe it will end in time to stage a season.