By Mark Heisler
After a one-month stalemate, a year of posturing, hints of contraction, et al., NBA owners and players began to engage last week….
The owners reportedly bumped their offer up… by like 1 percent.
Hey, these things proceed at their own excruciating pace, and it was still early to expect anyone’s best offer.
There was David Stern’s usual foreshadowing (“The calendar is not our friend”) and his usual light moment, even as darkness gathered (“We told them we wouldn’t say anything, I’ve told you I wouldn’t say anything. And so I don’t want to say anything. If you’d like me to smile, I’m happy to smile.”).
Happily, I live on the other side of the country and don’t have to waste the day waiting for owners and players to show they still can’t agree on anything, other than their high-minded resolve not to talk to us.
The “you” was the press, which then announced this, that and the other thing were likely to be cancelled.
Actually, all they have lost is exhibition games. But if they don’t get anywhere in 10 days, the tab will go up to $167 million a week.
To paraphrase the late, great Sen. Everett Dirksen, $167 million here, $167 million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
Of course, the real deal remains what the real deal always was:
Despite this carefully maintained gloom, there’s a deal just sitting there, waiting to be made.
If you haven’t noticed, we’re your feel-good professional basketball site, or your we’re-not-falling-for-that-BS-again site, or, possibly, we’re setting ourselves up to be waaaay-wrong-on-this-one site.
Chris Sheridan and I have agreed all along that this wouldn’t be the disaster forecast everywhere else, with the sides within striking distance of a deal… if they would ever start dealing with each other.
Insiders have long said Stern really wants a 50-50 split, up from his owners’ 43 percent in the last deal.
The union is down from it’s current 57 percent share into the 54s — seeming to signal it would drop into the 52 range.
You’re telling me grown men are going to war if they can’t figure out how to close a four-point gap?
Of course, there’s the dreaded “Hard Cap the Owners Have to Have.”
That’s a deal-breaker. Right or wrong, the players will resist that to their last breath, whether they exhale for the last time in October or January.
Talk about your irreconcilable difference….
As bleeping if.
The owners have sought a hard cap in every round of negotiations since setting up a soft one — then abandoned it when they got the dollars they wanted.
If the owners are united as never before (as they say), and if they are due some relief on this issue, fixing it is no biggie.
Here is a key component to remember:
The Mid-Level Exception.
Put in the 1999 agreement as a trade-off for the players accepting a limit on maximum individual salaries, it started at $1.75 million. Since then, it has grown into a monster.
Last season the Mid-Level started at $5.8 million. With 8.5 percent annual raises, the role players it was designed for were getting five years and $37 million.
That’s an average of $7.4 million annually.
Remember when the Lakers were trying to get rid of Luke Walton, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic?
All were Mid-Levels, who’d have been overpriced, even if any of them could have hit the ocean from a boat.
I just counted 24 full Mid-Level contracts ongoing, averaging about $5.5 million per season.
Cutting the Mid-Level to a flat $2 million-per-year would save $3.5 million per year per player, or $84 million.
Eliminating the Mid-Level entirely would save $132 million.
Before negotiations began, it was assumed the Mid-Level was a goner, or would be slashed.
Since negotiations began, we haven’t heard a word about the Mid-Level, and very little else on what side issues are being discussed.
The owners would love paring down the Mid-Level, or dropping it… and I don’t think the players would be that unhappy to weaken it.
They could even ease the impact on the owners, giving them “amnesty” to drop one of their bad contracts … like the Lakers’ last full Mid-Level guy, Metta World Peace!
If the owners bump up their minimums, never hard to do, the players would have 24 fewer journeymen at $7.4 million, but more bottom-rung players at, say, $750,000, compared to last season’s $473,604.
Let’s say the players take 52% of Basketball Related Income. Based on the upcoming season’s projected $4.36 billion in gross revenues (different from BRI), that’s more than a $200 million giveback in the first season alone.
Let’s say the owners quadruple their token revenue sharing, with Stern having already promised they will “at least triple” it.
That’s another $150 million, going from rich teams to poor ones.
(NBA officials insist revenue sharing is the owners’ business and shouldn’t be a part of the collective bargaining agreement.
(Of course it’s bad that so many teams lose money, but with the players being asked to make up the rest of the shortfall, this isn’t their business?
(Hey, if you can get Billy Hunter to accept that, play ball!)
It’s true, there’s a real threat to peace and, unless they really start rocking and rolling, a possibility of missing games.
However, it’s not because “the economic model is broken,” after setting back-to-back revenue records with player costs in line, the long-bedraggled 76ers franchise selling for $315 million and the have-not Timberwolves giving Rick Adelman a five-year, $25 million deal.
The threat comes from the owners, who promised themselves a new system in 2008, when the financial system crashed with the rest of the economy poised to follow.
In fact, the NBA had one down season, when the salary cap dropped 1%, before springing back in the next two.
Stern, who always dominated his owners, now is literally serving at their pleasure.
If he plays Attila the Commissioner, he’s not some endangered banker who downsized his NBA team, too, like Bob Sarver, or someone with an NHL team who wants to take a year off in this league, too, like Ted Leonsis.
Forget good guys and bad guys. All there are in “sports labor” are rich guys.
This time it’s the owners. In 1998, it was the union, controlled by the super-agent David Falk, ready to crash the whole thing to keep his clients from having their eight-figure salaries capped.
As for the rest of you, they don’t pay us enough to put us through this BS every five years.
Personally, I look at it as my way of giving back to the game.
Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops. His columns will appear each Monday.