October 6, the day that NBA training camps were scheduled to open, will come and go without so much as a wind sprint. Knowing that Greg Ostertag isn't wheezing through an intrasquad scrimmage won't leave a void in anyone's life, but last week's cancellation of preseason games through Oct. 16 was significant because the owners' lockout became tangible after months of being nothing but an off-season abstraction.
The lost exhibition games—and the likelihood that the rest of the preseason and at least part of the regular season will be canceled as well—solidified 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 payment—about $23 million per team—from 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.