Will there be a lockout that disrupts next season? Will NBA commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter move toward an agreement when they meet before the All-Star Game this weekend in Los Angeles? Here is a brief look at five questions that threaten the NBA's prosperity.
"The players are going to require it," said a team executive with knowledge of the owners' agenda. "The players aren't going to accept a rollback of 35 percent, and then allow some team to pay Phil Jackson $15 million."
Two team executives predict that each team will be given a standardized budget (not yet determined, but let's say it's $4 million per team) from which to pay the entire coaching staff, and another budget to cover the salaries of the entire front office. Because there is no collective bargaining agreement between owners and coaches or front-office employees, the owners won't be able to cap their salaries. However, the league could attempt to punish teams that "overpay" coaches by refusing to share certain revenues with them, in much the same way that high spenders are prohibited from receiving their share of revenues from the luxury-tax pool.
One head coach told me that he believes the league will indeed attempt to limit the total amount to be paid to a coaching staff. "The other thing they'll do is to change our pension," the coach predicted. "They're going to go into our pension and cut back on the money we get, or maybe do away with it entirely.''
How would the coaches react?
"I think then you'll see a walkout by the coaches," the coach said.
NBA Coaches Association executive director Michael Goldberg, who also heads the NHL coaches association, downplayed fears of an overhaul of the salary structure.
"These are individually negotiated contracts," he said. "From the legal standpoint, I don't believe that teams can combine to have a situation that would uniformly have a scale. That would not be permitted by antitrust laws.
"The short answer is I have not been informed of any effort [by the league to cut back coaches' income]. I don't think it's legal for a combined effort to dictate salaries. We don't have a salary cap with respect to coaches, and no one has discussed it with me.''
Goldberg suggested that some NBA coaches can expect to be paid less in the future, but not as part of an across-the-board mandate.
"I think it's a nonissue," he said. "The league has made it clear there have to be changes. This is a beautiful enterprise -- the NBA employs tens of thousands of people, and if it turns out that they're asking for help and an overall effort to preserve what is a wonderful thing that is growing globally, then everybody has to pull the belt in. The NFL, which is making money, is taking similar steps."
But one team executive said the league office in New York has recently shown more interest in coaching salaries.
"Within the last two to three years, the NBA has wanted to have all of the coaches' contracts sent to them, and that wasn't the case before," the executive said. "They always had access to that information, but now I think the owners want all of that information at their fingertips."
Here are three more considerations:
• Will experienced coaches such as Jackson, Larry Brown, Mike D'Antoni, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers -- each of whom was paid at least $5.5 million last season, according to a
One way to mitigate the impact of a sudden decline in pay would be to give the coach total control of a franchise, similar to Popovich's role in San Antonio, which would enable him to be compensated as both coach and executive.
• Coaching in the NBA is the most difficult job in American pro sports. The rules of baseball and football define the role of each player: While Albert Pujols is limited to five at-bats per game, the fluidity of basketball provides everyone from LeBron James to Monta Ellis with the freedom to shoot the ball as often as he chooses. Though NBA coaches are expected to define each player's role, most of them fail to maintain control because players know that their guaranteed-contract status, combined with the inherent freedom of basketball, affords them more financial muscle than the coach.
So owners need to consider this: Will a limitation on salaries weaken the power of each head coach and further damage his influence over the team?
• One team executive doubts the owners will succeed in enforcing major limits on coaches' salaries. While GMs typically decide which players to acquire, owners tend to play a larger role in the hiring of a coach.
"I don't see them capping that particular area," the executive said. "If an owner wants to hire somebody to coach the team, he's going to hire him."
There are going to be other issues involving a potential franchise tag for players (to make it harder for the next LeBron James to leave as a free agent) and a new minimum-age rule for rookies, but these are back-burner concerns to be addressed after both sides have reached a big-picture agreement on how to split the money.
Stern needs revenue sharing in order to placate owners of cash-poor franchises. He needs to restore the myth that any team regardless of market size can win the championship. Only three teams have reached the NBA Finals over the last three years -- the Lakers, Celtics and Magic -- and each of their payrolls ranked among the most expensive in the league. If it's a fact that more than half of the NBA's 30 teams are losing money annually -- a claim disputed vehemently by the players -- then Stern must invoke a coherent plan to share revenues in order to prevent the values of small-market franchises from plummeting. Who would want to pay $300 million or more for a team that can't turn a profit and can't contend for the championship?
Owners can talk all they want about breaking the union and forcing the players to surrender, but they would be wise to focus on a solution they can sell to the players in order to minimize the negative impact on league business. Since every player has an equal vote, regardless of salary, then why not come up with a plan that harms the least number of voters with the aim of ending a lockout sooner than later?