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Lockout Roundtable: Discussing NBA's labor feud, near future

The NBA lockout has lasted more than three months, and players and owners remain "very far apart on virtually all issues," according to commissioner David Stern. The league canceled the entire preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season after Monday's fruitless seven-hour meeting in New York, and more cancellations will follow if the sides cannot reach a new collective bargaining agreement within the next couple of weeks.

In another twist, it was announced Wednesday that the owners and players are set to meet with the same federal mediator who attempted to resolve the NFL lockout. With negotiations scheduled to resume next Tuesday, SI.com's NBA experts assess where things stand now:

1. When do you think the season will start? Will we even have a season?

Ian Thomsen: I'm guessing they will figure this out in time to save the season, because losing the season is the one outcome that no one can afford. There is no reason to believe it will be resolved until the final deadline, which in 1999 delivered opening night in the first week of February.

Sam Amick: I say there will be a season in some form, but the chance of the entire campaign being lost still seems wholly possible. If sanity is to be restored here, though, it won't be as simple as one side caving. There is some level of motivation from the owners (how much, only they know) to play now no matter how much they stand to gain by waiting, namely because not every team prepared for the lost revenues like the small-market types. There are plenty of players who would be just fine with some version of a 50-50 split of basketball-related income (down from the previous 57 percent) and significant changes to the system, too, as long as they can get back to work. Make the most of that shared will and hammer out the details, and you'll have the deal. But it will have to happen soon.

Chris Mannix: Despite the seemingly dug-in positions both sides have taken, I have a hard time believing either side is willing to sacrifice the entire season. Federal mediation is a positive step but I think real progress will be made in mid-to-late November, when the paychecks will be missed and the union's rank-and-file -- you know, the ones who aren't getting million-dollar offers from European teams -- start pushing Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, et al., for a deal. I see an agreement coming in late November and a season starting before Christmas.

Zach Lowe: I hate making predictions, but I expect something between an 82-game season and the 50-gamer we got in 1999. Something like a 65-game season would not surprise me at all. A lost season would absolutely blow me away. I can't see it happening, even given how large the gap between the two sides is now.

Lee Jenkins: I still think they'll find a way to salvage a season that starts after the New Year, much like they did in 1999. The BRI split seems to be the most significant issue, and you can look at it two ways: The difference in dollars is massive, but percentage-wise, the gap is too narrow to justify scrapping an entire year.

2. Which issue will be the most difficult to resolve?

Thomsen: The players will hold out to retain guaranteed contracts, and a majority of the owners need some kind of ceiling on payrolls -- neither side is likely to budge off those demands. So the negotiators are going to have to come up with some kind of new, outside-the-box design, similar to their invention of the salary cap in the 1980s.

Amick: The luxury-tax system that players say is a hard cap in disguise. Fisher is the lead spokesman on this front, consistently highlighting how hugely different the opinions are between the sides on this issue. The players simply don't agree that there's a correlation between spending and success, or at least not anywhere close to the degree of the owners. As such, they see no point in limiting the amounts and ways in which teams can spend to such a drastic degree (the owners' proposal would potentially tax teams up to $4 for every dollar spent over a certain threshold, with penalties reportedly rising to even $6 and $8 per dollar spent for repeat offenders).

Mannix: A week ago, I would have said the BRI split. I understand the position some have taken that a per-year gap of $80 million to $120 million isn't much to overcome, but if you are the union, taking 50-50 (or close to it) is not only a huge percentage cut now but also the kind of leverage you are unable to get back when the next CBA negotiations take place. What's to stop the NBA from asking for 47 percent then? Or 45 percent? Or worse?

Still, this super tax is a thorny issue. The union has long said that it is opposed to any kind of hard salary cap, and a tax that could reach as high as $8 for every $1 spent over the line is a hard cap with a different name. The union has called this a blood issue, and I don't see it changing its position anytime soon.

Lowe: It's sort of shocking, but right now, it really is the owners' luxury-tax proposal, which the union views as too punitive and a de facto hard salary cap. There was a sense as recently as a week ago that the two sides had made enough progress on these so-called system issues that they would fall nicely into place when they settled the more contentious issue -- the revenue split. The revenue split remains plenty contentious, but it takes runner-up status, for now, to the gap between the two sides' respective tax proposals.

Jenkins: The hard cap -- no matter what the owners label it -- is again a sticking point. The owners, who appeared to concede the hard cap, are now saying teams will not be able to exceed the luxury tax more than twice in five years. Essentially, they have put the hard cap back on the table, only under a different name.

3. Who looks the best and worst in this bitter labor fight?

Thomsen: No one looks good. To say that one side benefits at the expense of the other is to ignore the bigger picture, which is that both sides are damaging the game they claim to love.

Amick: There's egg on everybody's face, but the owners wind up looking the worst. Any NBA fan who is paying attention knows that the owners have pushed for extreme changes. And while it's fair to argue that the players are better off just cutting a deal now, it should surprise no one that they are resisting as they have.

Specifically, David Stern takes the hit. After decades spent growing the game and making it so relevant on the global level, his inability to help get this deal done will be an unwanted addition to his overall positive legacy.

Mannix: The NBA has done a fantastic job of spinning its message. So many of Stern and Co.'s statements -- statements the union has taken issue with -- are being written and spoken as verifiable facts. Twenty-two out of 30 teams are losing money? The union contests that, but not many others do. The NBA owners have made significant concessions during these negotiations? Only if concessions are considered things like coming up from a 38-percent split of BRI for players and agreeing not to eliminate guaranteed contracts or roll back current salaries. The NBA is like the guy who goes into a BMW dealership and offers $5,000 for a 2012 convertible, then claims he has moved a lot when he comes up to $20,000. But the public buys it because the league is so good at spinning it.

At the union, meanwhile, it's amateur hour. T-shirts, hashtags, catch phrases? Free Dwight Howard? Come on. The union has been completely overmatched and the public opinion of this mess reflects that.

Lowe: To be honest, I don't know. My gut, my e-mail in-box and my Twitter account tell me a slight majority of diehard fans probably blame the owners a bit more. The perception among those folks is that the owners started off with a ridiculous proposal, negotiated down from there and thus created the false impression that they were making "concessions" when, really, they were just negotiating their way from an unreasonable position to a reasonable one. The players, in this view, have made real concessions, at least when you consider what they got under the last collective bargaining deal.

But again, this is a slight majority of diehard fans who understand BRI and tax structures and the mid-level exception. The majority just hate both sides right now, and that probably leads to a bit more of the blame from that crowd being placed upon the players, simply because the fans know who the players are but don't know much about who the owners are. Nobody ever looks good in these things.

Jenkins: Players always look worse than owners in labor disputes and I never know why that is. Maybe it's because player salaries are so public. Maybe people just resent 20-year-olds making millions for being good at a game. Players will take the biggest p.r. hit, but owners are the ones who deserve it.

4. How will this end?

Thomsen: They'll figure it out when they realize they have no other choice, in late December or early January.

Amick: Hopefully with George Cohen paving the way to a season with 70 or so games. The recent decision by both sides to use the federal mediator was a wise one, and folks who know his work well tell me he's more than capable of helping get a deal done with the NBA like he couldn't with the NFL. It's a far better alternative than taking it to the courts by way of decertification of the union and with the players filing antitrust lawsuits. That route, which we could still see if things go even further south, would likely wipe out the entire season.

Mannix: The NBA will bend a little, the union will bend more. The league is simply better equipped for a long lockout and eventually that will work to its advantage.

Lowe: With a slightly reduced season and a new CBA that is much worse for players than the old one. The middle ground in terms of revenue is where it has always been: somewhere between 50 percent and 53 percent to the players. Both sides can sell that to their respective memberships, provided each is happy enough with where the system issues end up. On that, I'd bet good money the players concede on contract lengths and the mid-level exception in exchange for a luxury-tax system that isn't quite as restrictive as the one the owners have proposed -- a system that allows big-money teams to spend a lot, even if they don't quite spend as much, in relative terms, as they did under the old deal.

Jenkins: Everyone is going to lose. The NBA will lose any momentum it built last season. Players will lose paychecks. Owners will lose gate receipts. Worse, arena workers will lose jobs. I still expect some of the big-market owners, like the Lakers' Jerry Buss and the Knicks' Jim Dolan, to grow weary of a fight that really doesn't benefit them or their clubs. The players could fracture, but so could the owners, paving the way for a compromise that should have been reached months ago.

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