Cap Size or Capsize? Perfect Storm Awaits NBA Players

Circumstances are such that, in my opinion, the NBA players are about to encounter a “perfect storm”.  And the only way to avoid it is to do something their leadership said on Saturday night that they wouldn’t do.

According to Wiktionary, a “perfect storm” is “(a) situation where a calamity is caused by the convergence and amplifying interaction of a number of factors”.  We’ll look at some of those factors and the calamity they’re about to cause.

There’s talk about decertifying the NBPA and sitting out the season while the situation plays out in court.  But the time for that to work in the best interest of the players was last summer.  There’s up to a 45-day wait between the time that 130 players vote to request decertification and the time that the actual vote for decertification can take place.  That means missing all of December on top of missing all of November before even finding out if the votes are there to decertify.  If they are, unless the courts rule in favor of the players, any deal made after Wednesday will be much worse than what was offered by the owners this past weekend.

Ultimately, in a business “war” between billionaires (the owners) and millionaires (the players), the billionaires are going to come out on top.  Not only are they supported by their significantly greater resources, the owners, unlike the players, don’t have an expiration date on how long they can fight the war and still remain owners.  The players, on the other hand, lose valuable, and limited, earning potential as they grow older with every month that passes.  Players who planned to retire after this season might never play NBA basketball again.

The factors that are “converging and amplifying” and creating the perfect storm are financial.  The first one is that the players received an extra check during the summer because, for the first time in years, the owners didn’t spend 57% of the BRI on salaries during the prior season.  Although it looks like that check was a good thing, it takes the sting out of the players losing pay checks in November.  Combine the “bounty” of the extra check with the second factor – the “ultimatum” and its “drop dead” date coming before the players have actually lost that first paycheck – and it looks and feels to many players like they’re in a better position than they are.  As San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt famously said, the players “haven’t felt enough pain yet”.  While he’s been criticized for what he said, the statement was incredibly accurate.

There have been some moves that I have considered mistakes during the negotiations and some of those can be attributed to negotiating for the first time in the age of Twitter.  But what if what has looked like a major error wasn’t an error but an attempt to gauge the NBPA’s reaction?  When you remember that David Stern is a very experienced negotiator, this becomes more of a likelihood than a possibility.  The “major error”?  Making demands of the Players’ Association.

The owners demanded that the NBPA accept a 50-50 split of the BRI as a precondition to scheduling the next meeting and the players walk away.  The owners made another demand at the end of the meeting that Stern missed due to illness and the players walked away.  If the owners made demands twice and the players walked away twice, doesn’t it stand to reason that the next time the owners made demands that the players would walk away then, too?  And wouldn’t the owners know this?  Yet they still issued their last offer as a demand. 

The players, true to form, said “We’ve been given an ultimatum and our answer is that’s not acceptable to us” (Derek Fisher, according to Marc Berman of the NY Post).  And, “These are professional basketball players…How do you think they feel about threats?” (Jeffrey Kessler, according to Chris Sheridan at SheridanHoops.com.)

Why would the hard line faction among the owners want the players to walk away when there’s a take it or leave it offer on the table?  Because, as Stern warned the players, the next offer would give the players just 47% of the BRI.

Think about it for a second: it’s December or January and the players, having lost a month’s worth of pay or more, come back to the table and are no longer trying to keep what they had previously agreed to (51%).  Instead, they’re trying to recover some of what they lost.  In a weakened financial state, they push to get the owners to sweeten the deal from 47% of BRI up to 48%.  Eventually, they might even get it.  But that 1% would require them to make concessions and cost them a lot in lost game checks.

That scenario is the calamity that I referred to at the beginning of the article.

A better scenario is this: first, the players must put away the automatic reaction of walking away when demands are made.  It was fine the first time because it showed that they’d stand up for themselves, a message that was worth sending.  But now it has become a means for the owners to control the players and that control is something the players need to take back.  If the owners make demands or do something that makes it look like they’re putting the players down, the players need to respond, not react, and put themselves on the higher ground.  This article by CBS Sports’ Ken Berger gives a great example of this.

Second, the NBPA negotiating committee and representatives need to use the time between now and the Wednesday afternoon deadline that Stern imposed to find out how the players feel about the current deal; to see if Stern and the owners will compromise some on the remaining system issues if the players agree to the BRI split; and to see how much better they can do in this deal.  They can spend time on Thursday taking a decertification vote but they can’t spend time on Thursday sweetening the deal that expired on Wednesday.

Third, David Stern needs to find a way to make this latest, best deal more palatable to the players.  To do that, he has to give something that impacts the majority of the players (re: voters).  That seems to be tied to any salary cap but may be tied to some other system issue, or combination of system issues, as well. 

Some of these negotiations have seemed like a profile from Criminal Minds (“the Unsub can only be satisfied by inflicting humiliation and massive pain on his victim”).  However, at the end of the day both sides need to be able to declare a victory.  As I said in “Are the NBA and NBPA Negotiating Different Agreements?”, neither side can afford to come out of this looking like Randy Couture has mopped the floor with them (“Sign the deal, Princess.”)

The players are going to have to take some medicine.  Stern needs to do a Mary Poppins impersonation and find a way to give that medicine with “a spoonful of sugar”, despite some of the owners’ desire to have that medicine delivered in suppository form.

The players can choose to focus the next couple of days sailing into a storm that will likely capsize them or they can choose to focus on navigating around the storm and having a pleasurable cruise.  As the Grail Knight suggested in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, they need to “choose wisely”.

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One Response

  1. It’s sad when we all know that both sides need to make concessions for a deal to get done, yet both sides want a blowout victory in the negotiations. I think the players most recent offer to reduce the amount of BRI they receive should have been accepted with a few concessions from the owners on system issues.

    This is a very well written article and I agree that if a deal isn’t made now, it’s all down hill from here.

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