Are the NBA and NBPA Negotiating Different Agreements?

The past few weeks have revealed some interesting information about the NBA-NBPA negotiations.  My hope had been that these were two sides sitting down to play a game by certain rules to reach a common ground.  Perhaps a game of Hearts, with each side winning some hands and losing some hands but eventually winding up with the scores close, signifying an agreement that worked well for everyone going forward.  I even based my proposed lockout solution on that premise.

But while the NBPA may be playing Hearts, the NBA seems to be playing Clubs.  There have been ominous threats of a lost season; calls for a drop in the players’ percentage of basketball-related income (BRI) from its current 57% down into the mid-40s; and questions about what’s even going to be part of BRI going forward. 

The NBA seems determined to make up for the bad deal they were forced into during the lockout that wiped away half of the ’98-’99 season and to get enormous concessions from the NBPA to make up for the union’s gluttony and use of force to get that last deal done.

Sorry, I got confused there for a minute.  Actually, as ESPN’s Ric Bucher detailed on Monday, the “negotiations” way back when were more like an ultimatum from the NBA to the players.  As I read last week (and I apologize for not citing where I read it or who wrote it – I’m drawing a blank right now), the deal that the players signed off on during the ’98-’99 lockout was a worse deal than they had been offered previously.  Ultimately, they were given two choices: take it and play or leave it and lose the season.

That means that the 57% of BRI and the definition of BRI itself were mostly determined by the NBA back then.  So it seems a bit strange to see the current season put in jeopardy because the NBA wants massive cuts from the players to make up for the deal that the NBA forced on them over a decade ago.

As an individual without a lot of insider knowledge about how the 57% came about, it always seemed a bit high to me.  There are a lot of expenses above and beyond player salaries (coaches and luxury travel for 41 games, for instance) and since the 57% could be topped if an owner was willing to pay a luxury tax, it always looked like it might be difficult for a smaller market team to make a profit.  Wanting to make a profit doesn’t make an owner some kind of pirate, as long as they don’t make those profits by compromising the quality of the game.

But instead of finding some mutually-agreeable ground so that a new CBA can be finalized and things can be more equitable going forward, it seems like the idea is to recover all the losses (reported at $300M) right away and then take a whole bunch more as some kind of reverse luxury tax.  The NBA’s stance seems to be “when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”.  And although that’s always been the case, there’s nothing that says that the NBA has to make a show of reaching out with a pair of pliers so they can apply the severest level of pain in the most public and humiliating way possible.

It seems counterproductive to market the players as strong, tough athletes and then see them eviscerated by a bunch of old guys in suits.  This isn’t the UFC and it’s in no one’s best interest to force the players to “tap out”. 

It’s time for this to get settled before anyone looks too much like an ogre (although we may have already passed that point).  What the NBA and NBPA need to remember is that perception is important.  The fans already have trouble identifying with either side in a “billionaires vs. millionaires” cage match.  Neither the NBA nor the NBPA can afford to look too much like the heavy at the end of the day nor can either of them afford to look like Randy Couture has mopped the floor with them (“Sign the deal, Princess”).

Get an equitable deal done and get it done now.  If the players have indicated a willingness to drop from 57% of BRI down to the low 50s if all else stays the same, the NBA should take the deal.  After all, it’s the system they forced on the players last time.  Getting 5% of BRI back and getting the games started roughly on time is a big win for the NBA.  Keeping the existing system in place in exchange for that 5% can be seen as a win for the NBPA.  Let’s get back to playing Hearts, and basketball, and put the Clubs away for another day.

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2 Responses

  1. Stern is playing this like a pro. Never make a concession until you have to. Already, the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA) has moved from 46%-57% of BRI to 46%-54%, with the players signaling they could go down further. So instead of a midpoint of 51.5% of BRI, we are already at one of 50%, and maybe lower. And that’s without the owners doing ANYTHING, except sitting in a room. They won’t make a concession until the last minute, which probably isn’t for another week, maybe more — and that’s only assuming that they don’t want to miss games.

    There are plenty of key owners with aging stars (Lakers, Celtics, Knicks) that will not stand for a missed season. I am sure that Stern has told them that there will be a season, he just isn’t going to make a single concession until he absolutely has to, becaause only he knows when the deadline is, and if it isn’t going to affect the season (no one cares about the pre-season), then it doesn’t matter if this takes a little more time. The players need to hold the line until then, but they are clearly feeling more pressure to get a deal done so no one misses a paycheck, and they don’t know what the real deadline is.

    It will be interesting to see if they can pretend like they do not care. My feeling is that they have ginned up this entire business with the letters from the agents, to make it seem like they have more pressure NOT to make a deal than to actually make a deal. I’m sure that is all pretend nonsense that was worked out between Fisher, Hunter and the agents. It helps to make it seem like there are forces that are pushing them away from the table. That’s also why we are seeing older stars who are already paid (Kobe, Baron, Pierce) at the negotiations than younger ones who have yet to get paid. If they send young guys who need paychecks, the owners can appeal to them and it makes the players seem more desperate. But Dwyane Wade can wait all day long.

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