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Contraction talk adds to NBA lockout rhetoric

NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks prior to the

NBA Commissioner David Stern speaks prior to the start of Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks in Miami. (May 31, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

 David Stern thought he'd grab your attention by admitting something that few league commissioners would ever do, at least publicly: the NBA would consider contracting a team or two as a means to improve revenue.

In a  Bill Simmons podcast, which ultimately was Stern again using the ESPN platform (the NBA's most important corporate partner also recently had The Commish on SportsCenter) as a means to get his message out to the people, Stern acknowledged contraction as "not a subject that we're against."

He then added:

"In fact, when you talk about revenue sharing, a number of teams have said that if you have a team that is perpetually going to be a recipient, aren't you better off with the ability to buy them in? Because between the revenue sharing and the split of international and the TV money, we could almost buy them in with their own money."

It sounds sincere, until the most obvious candidate for contraction, the struggling New Orleans Hornets franchise, is mentioned. Stern quickly dismisses the notion by saying the Hornets are "going to be an interesting team that I'm not sure is a candidate for contraction."

Interesting because the NBA currently "owns" the franchise and is running it while a search continues for a new buyer. To say the Hornets had the potential for contraction would be the worst sales pitch since the attempts to sell tickets for the second Hindenburg.

But wait, there's actually a veiled threat here: contraction, of course, means the loss of jobs. It's like a major corporation responding to a strike by saying they can meet demands, but would have to shut down a few factories. So the union may get what it wants, but at the expense of its members.

And you thought he was serious. 

As Stern noted, owners aren't exactly requesting contraction, but we all know the obvious candidates exist in the smaller markets with owners that aren't willing to yield multi-millions in losses to finance a mere playoff contender. Thus the push for "cost certainty," which is the pseudonym Gary Bettman used during the NHL's suidical shutdown in 2004-05 to mean hard cap. (Note to NBPA: Bettman did eventually get his "cost certainty," while NHL players lost an entire year's salary, plus another 24 percent in rollbacks).

Relocation is a more likely scenario and it's possible we could see those avenues explored once the lockout ends. Kansas City and the glistening Sprint Center are awaiting a second shot at owning an NBA franchise and the Hornets are in its sights. The Kings' future in Sacramento, even after the failed flirtation with Anaheim, remains tenuous. San Jose, with the HP Pavilion ready to make major renovations, could welcome the Kings as a second tenant with the NHL's Sharks.

And how long does Michael Jordan keep the Bobcats in Charlotte, especially with Seattle lingering as a city the NBA wants to return to once a new arena is in place?

The league will have a lot of internal issues to address once a deal is finally reached with the players and those issues will likely be a residual of the deal. Stern has insisted that there has been solidarity among the owners in the lockout, but how long will that last? When do the big market teams, such as the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, Heat, Bulls and Mavericks begin to grumble about losing games early in the season? This, of course, is what the union is waiting on, too.

The union believes most of the financial issues the league has documented could be solved with a significant revenue-sharing system, such as the one Major League Baseball has in place. Their system allows rich teams like the Yankees and Red Sox to build superteams without the restraints of a real salary cap, but it also assists the small market teams by forcing these rich teams to pay significant money toward revenue sharing. The biggest problem with the MLB's program is it doesn't force the teams that draw from revenue sharing to re-invest that money into the team payroll to create a more competitive landscape.

But think about the alternative: let's say the Knicks lose a free agent to a small market team, who used the revenue sharing money from the Knicks to sign said free agent to a value greater than the rich team believed he was worth. (We're obviously employing the post-Isiah mindset).

Now do you see why most owners prefer a hard cap system over increased revenue sharing? It doesn't solve the real problem: bad management.

Now that is something Stern seriously should admit. 

 * * *

* - As we told you in the previous Fix, NBPA vice president Roger Mason Jr. is in negotiations with a team from Israel. It's certainly an ominous sign when a union executive board member is making preparations to play overseas. Is it evidence of "bad faith negotiating"? Not quite. Mason Jr. will have an out clause in whatever deal he signs. As an unrestricted free agent, he is smart to at least secure something now, just as a precaution, especially because, as one prominent NBA agent told me recently, "the marketplace in Europe is saturated."

Sure, the megastars like Kobe Bryant (reportedly seeking $1.5M a month, which sounds like a lot, until you consider he makes $23M in a six-month NBA season) will get major overtures, but -- especially if the Chinese Basketball Association, as expected, implements a rule that does not allow players to sign there with NBA out clauses -- most of the union's 400-plus members won't have jobs this fall if the lockout does lead to lost games. Anyone with a long-term contract would be foolish to head overseas because of the insurance issue and the risk that an injury could lead to the NBA contract being voided.

What you'll find come November and December are a majority of players getting antsy when checks aren't coming on the 1st and the 15th. What follows are agents, especially the powerful ones, will start getting involved. There has been talk that superagent Arn Tellem was looking to organize some agents and discuss how they can help find a solution.

Agent involvement is what started the groundswell among a splintered union that shook the dormant NHL talks and pushed the sides toward an agreement. But it came too late, as the 04-05 season was already lost. 

The issue with basketball is the ruthless environment that exists among agents, who are notorious for stealing clients. How can they sit together in a board room, working as a team, when they know they are each bankrolling "runners" to bird dog the other's player?

* - Stern pointed to Labor Day weekend -- how fitting -- as a key period in the collective bargaining process. The sides haven't met since Aug. 2 in New York and Stern accused the union of cancelling a meeting last week. The union responded that executive director Billy Hunter was told Stern would not be available for the next two weeks. A union official told me the word was that Stern was taking vacation, but an NBA spokesman said Stern was in his office on Monday and even if he did have a vacation scheduled, he could easily return for a collective bargaining session.

At this point, the union will host an executive meeting in New York at the end of August. The anticipation is the union and league will sit down again in early September, perhaps before the Labor Day timeline that Stern set.

 

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