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With talks stalled, exhibition games canceled and the start of the season in peril, the NBA lockout has the owners and the players facing hard time
by Phil Taylor
Posted: Wed September 30, 1998
The lost exhibition gamesand the likelihood that the rest of the preseason and at least part of the regular season will be canceled as wellsolidified the notion that this labor dispute won't be settled for a long time. The silhouette of a basketball player on the NBA logo should have a question mark in the middle of it. In the spirit of that uncertainty we note the passing of what should have been the start of the preseason with five questions about the league, beginning with the most obvious.
1. When will the lockout end?
It's hard to find anyone on either side of the dispute who believes the season will begin before December. "It would take a minor miracle not to miss some games," deputy commissioner Russ Granik says of the season that was scheduled to start on Nov. 3. "It's hard not to be pessimistic." That's one of the few statements out of the league office that Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, agrees with. "We may end up missing at least two months," he says.
Granik and Hunter are also of the same opinion that whenever terms of a new collective bargaining agreement are finally hammered out, there will probably be a period of three weeks to a month during which teams will be able to sign free agents and conduct an abbreviated training camp. As for the possibility of losing the entire season, neither side's representatives want to speculate publicly, but sources in the owners' and the players' camps indicate that should the lockout extend deep into January, the season will be jeopardized.
Even if games are missed, the owners are guaranteed to receive, on schedule, the first-year paymentabout $23 million per teamfrom their new four-year, $2.6 billion television contracts with NBC and Turner Sports. Sources indicate the players association is amassing a war chest of perhaps as much as $100 million. The two sides are girding for a long battle.
2. Has progress been made in negotiations?
What negotiations? So far it has been difficult for the two sides to agree to meet, much less work out a resolution. Until a one-hour meeting on Sept. 23, there had been only one other session, on Aug. 6, since the lockout was imposed on July 1. Each side has made only one formal proposal since May 27. The players association offer, conveyed at the Aug. 6 session, retained the so-called Larry Bird exception, under which a team can re-sign its own free agent for any amount regardless of the salary cap. It also proposed that teams share the revenue from local TV deals. (Under the current system, which stipulates that teams share equally in all national and international television revenue, there's a considerable disparity in local TV income, with large-market teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, receiving amounts that dwarf those earned by teams in smaller cities, such as the Utah Jazz and the Vancouver Grizzlies.) The proposal was considered so unacceptable by the owners, mainly because they are inflexible about eliminating the Bird exception, that commissioner David Stern walked away from the table.
The owners, whose primary goal in this dispute is obtaining "cost certainty" when it comes to payrolls, made their proposal last Friday. It included a four-year phase-out of the Bird exception and a stipulation that the salary of a team's top-paid player would be no more than 30% of a team's cap figure. In return the salary cap would rise to about $45 million over the next three seasons, roughly $18 million above the 1997-98 cap. This wasn't close to being good enough to satisfy the union, which remained adamantly opposed to losing the Bird exception.
The two sides are closer on the issue of free agency for first-round draft picks. In the players association proposal a player drafted in the first round, who under the current collective bargaining agreement can become an unrestricted free agent after his third season, would become a restricted free agent after four years, with his original team having the right to match any other team's offer. The owners would prefer to have those players bound to the teams that drafted them for their first five seasons. This issue isn't much of an obstacle to a settlement.
Neither side has any incentive to negotiate in earnest until the issue before arbitrator John Feerick regarding guaranteed contracts is resolved. The players association argues that the roughly 200 players with guaranteed deals should be paid during the lockout unless such payment is specifically prohibited in their contracts. The owners contend that the lockout supersedes any contract. Feerick has until Oct. 18 to rule, but even a decision in favor of the players is not likely to trigger a quick resolution of the lockout because the owners are certain to appeal in court.
3. Is Michael Jordan coming back?
He wants to, very much, if only the Chicago Bulls will ask him nicely. David Falk, Jordan's agent, created a stir earlier this month when he said he believed that if Jordan would allow him to get involved, he could work out a deal with Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf that would bring Jordan, free-agent forward Scottie Pippen and former coach Phil Jackson (the latter two are not Falk clients) back for another season.
But Jordan has been noncommittal about playing again, and Pippen continues to tell friends that he doesn't think either he or Jordan will return to Chicago. Jordan has, however, told some fellow players, including Charles Barkley, who have been pronouncing him retired that he doesn't need them as spokesmen.
The prospect of yet another Last Dance seemed more plausible when Jackson met informally with Bulls director of basketball operations and coach-in-waiting Tim Floyd at Jackson's suburban Chicago house. But Jackson, who had packed up his Bulls office even before the Finals ended, is sitting this dance out. "Phil's intentions are well-known and unchanged," says Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger. "He wishes Tim Floyd well, and he had a private chat with him to convey that message and to compare notes. Nothing more should be read into it."
Those are the tea leaves. All anyone can do is read them as he chooses because it appears that not even Jordan knows what he will do. The good newsor is it the bad news?is that it looks like he will have quite a while longer to ponder his future.
4. Who will coach the Los Angeles Clippers?
L.A. owner Donald Sterling has shown interest recently in former Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks coach Chris Ford, but the Clippers' organization is so chaotic that the front-runner for the job changes almost daily. "I don't know what they're doing," says one Eastern Conference coach. "I don't think they even know what they're doing."
One thing Los Angeles is doing is saving money. The Clippers, who have the only coaching vacancy in the league, quickly ended their pursuit of former Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl after they took a look at his price tagKarl then signed a four-year, $20 million deal to replace Ford in Milwaukeeand the prevailing theory is, Sterling doesn't want to put a new coaching staff on the payroll until the end of the lockout is in sight.
Perhaps it doesn't make sense for L.A. to take a seemingly casual approach to hiring the man to whom it will entrust the development of No. 1 draft pick Michael Olowokandi. But if the Clippers did something that made sense, they wouldn't be the Clippers, would they?
5. Who will be Comeback Player of the Year?
No comeback, of course, will draw as much attention as that of Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell, who was suspended last season for assaulting coach P.J. Carlesimo. The Warriors are widely rumored to be ready to trade Sprewell to the Miami Heat for forwards P.J. Brown and Jamal Mashburn when the lockout ends, but that deal isn't a sure thing. Sprewell and Miami point guard Tim Hardaway feuded when they were Golden State teammates, and a source close to Hardaway says that Hardaway isn't nearly as willing to make peace with Sprewell as he has indicated publicly.
The summer's loudest buzz, however, was about Orlando Magic guard Penny Hardaway, who appears to be back in good health after battling knee and calf injuries for most of the past two seasons. Hardaway has been spectacular in informal scrimmages since he began playing at full speed again in August, and he was particularly impressive in a charity game sponsored by Seattle's Gary Payton two weeks ago. "Everything feels good," Penny says. "I feel healthy and strong again. I know a lot of negative things were said about me the last couple of years, but I'm not coming back with the idea that I need to prove anything to anybody. I'm just coming back with the idea of being the old Penny Hardaway again."
The Magic considered trading Hardaway at midseason last year and had been expected to listen to offers for him again when the lockout ended. However, that was before his encouraging summer performance. Moreover, free-agent center Ike Austin, who finished 1997-98 with the Clippers, says the chance to play with Hardaway is one of the reasons he is seriously considering signing with Orlando. Hardaway is now almost certain to be back in a Magic uniform when the season starts. Whenever that is.
Issue date: October 5, 1998
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