Unfortunately, it really isn't "simple"

I’m as bummed as anyone that it now appears that we won’t be having any basketball before January 2012 (and that’s the best case scenario – my prediction is that we won’t see basketball before the fall of 2012, for reasons I outline below). 

I’m writing this long rant because I’ve become a bit frustrated with the popular argument propagated by Bill Simmons and others.  It goes something like this: “The owners are greedy idiots!  Stern is a stubborn idiot!  They players are just idiots!  The agents are conniving idiots!  If only everyone moved to the middle ground we’d have this resolved by now and everyone would be happy!”  On this, I call BS.  


In fact, if you read or listen to Simmons, you can actually pick out the cognitive dissonance in his argument.  But the nature of a union (by definition) and the global nature of basketball (second only to non-US Football in global popularity, and the only one of the four major sports in the U.S. that has global demand for talent, with the exception of Hockey – remember their last lockout?) makes this a very difficult problem to solve.

Most of this relates to the Union as a “Union,” and what kind of deals a majority of its members will accept.  Basketball is a superstar game.  People like LBJ and Wade and Kobe and (yes) KG are generally underpaid relative to their contribution, whether it is on the court or putting arses in the seats.  Quality players on their rookie scale, like D. Rose and K. Love are WAY underpaid.  Conversely, many of the players getting the mid-level exception are overpaid.  You know those names.  And don’t even think about E. Curry or some of the centers Dallas has signed over the years. 

I would go so far to argue that limiting the amount one player can make (restrictions that were put in place after KG singed his first monster deal, and a big part of the 1999 lockout) actually hurts small market teams in undesirable places (know any of those)?  If your earnings are capped, other factors, such as living in South Beach in a state with no state income tax and playing with your buddies is going to become more valuable to you (relatively) than just dollars.  If you don’t think that under the current system, when K. Love can get close to the same money from another team, that he isn’t going to strongly consider the West Coast or Pacific Northwest as attractive destinations when he becomes a free agent, I think you are a bit naïve. 

So the solution is simple, right?  Pay the best players more (even more if they stay with their team) and pay the mediocre players less!  Done! Everyone is being greedy / stubborn / stupid!  I am the lone voice crying in the wilderness, slaying strawmen with my internet connection!

That ignores the reality of the self-interest of the members of the union (and the owners, by the way).  If the union was made up of just superstars, this might get done easily.  But any new contract has to be ratified by at least 50% of the members, and the non-superstars make up 90 – 95% of the union and the overpaid (relative to contribution) probably make up 66% - 75% of the total.  Figuring out how to put together a deal that makes sense for both the few and the many AND somehow reduces costs for the owners, is very difficult. 

Also, fact that a number of players are playing overseas and making decent money doing it complicates things.  So far it has been a number of the middle-tier guys, and there have been some bad stories, but majority seem to have gone overseas without incident .  I have no idea if they are still part of the union once they play in another league (a question I would like to know the answer to), but this is a radically different feature when compared to the NFL lockout (where players really had nowhere else to go).  Assuming these players are still voting members of the union (and I would guess they are, at least the ones under contract), they could be hard to win over to vote for a deal that negatively impacts their earning potential in the NBA.  If they are saying to themselves (or their agent is saying to them): “Look, under the new MLE rules you can only make $2.5 million a year, and you are making $1 million tax-free in Greece, you have NO incentive to vote for that deal.  Keep playing over there and wait for a better deal.  Either way you won’t be much worse off.”

So if there are 10 – 15% of the union members overseas today who don’t see a need to vote yes (yet) unless they know they can earn the same or more under the system here, and 10 – 15% of the union that is as militant as (supposedly) KG, that is a quarter of the union today who is likely to vote “no” to any deal that radically changes the system today.  Assuming that leaves 75% of the union as possible “yes” votes, meaning you have to find a deal that appeals to at least 2/3 of those people, who are a mixture of the top 5% of players who should be earning more, the middle 70% who should be earning less but don’t want to, and the 20% of people like KLove and DRose who are on their rookie contracts and want to make sure their future earning power is preserved.  It is most definitely NOT simple.

I haven’t even discussed the owners, who seem to be just as divided (if you believe the leaks from the union side).  Big market / small market, owners running their team to maximize profit versus those who view it as a hobby / toy, etc.  Although I think the owners would accept lower costs under a similar system as today, I also think there are a significant minority (like our owner) who want lower costs and a way to keep their best talent, which complicates things for their side (in terms of how they get agreement on things like revenue sharing) and the players’ side (as discussed above).

Then you have the agents and the league office, who have their own set of interests / hang-ups.  



In summary: everyone knows the model isn’t working.  But as soon as you ask some group to go against their self-interest to help the betterment of the whole, you get silence / excuses / lies (feel free to make your own connection to politics).  Not only that, but the global demand for basketball talent and the fact that the players appear to be much smarter this time about saving money in anticipation of the lockout and for doing things like barnstorming tours make this more than just a simple “everyone compromises and everyone wins, especially the fans!” scenario.

If there is a way to pay the best players close to what they are worth while convincing the rest of the players that they are going to have to take a pay cut to restore fiscal sanity to the league, then I would like to hear it.  If there is a way to to get the owners to agree to to significant revenue sharing while limiting the ability of the largest markets to go over the salary cap and make small market teams not operate on the cheap, then I'd like to hear that too.  But until that happens (or more likely the players cave), I think we can expect more unproductive meetings and more cancelled games.  And it's not (just) because all sides are greedy and stupid. 

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