Managing Expectations or When Will This @%$^ing Lockout End Already

The President of the NBAPA (Billy Hunter on the left) and the Commissioner of the NBA (David Stern) are locked in a seemingly never ending labor battle, which has now failed to end for going on three months. Photo courtesy of Peachtreehoops.com.

Yesterday, I found myself talking to one of my co-workers who also happens to be a big-time Blazer fan. We were talking about the meeting that was scheduled to take place between the owners and members of the NBPA. From news we’d both gleaned from reputable sources it was beginning to look like progress was being made towards ending the lockout.

My co-Blazer fan and I allowed ourselves a little bit of optimism. For a moment it looked like there was an end in sight, and that the 2011-12 season might actually be saved.

Of course we all know what happened—if you don’t, here’s a brief summation: NOTHING—and here we are. A single day later, and it feels like the possibility of a season has managed to slide further into the distance.

So what are we supposed to do? Since the official announcement of the lockout I’ve kept quiet about the proceedings and negotiations on the pages of the Rip City Project for basically two reasons.

First and foremost, as I’ve said, this blog is about the Blazers, and when things happen that involves Portland, lockout related or otherwise, they get covered. I’m not about to turn RCP into a catchall NBA blog simply because the league has shut down.

The second reason I have chosen to not contribute: I don’t have much to say. I’m not a full-time NBA writer, I don’t have any inside sources, and I don’t know much about the ins and outs of general labor negotiations or the current CBA. There are people that do, and they have covered every element of the lockout brilliantly. I read them, and you should do the same.

Having said that. Now that my optimism has been somewhat shattered, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

First off, I think that from now until the first week of November—which will be the beginning of the Regular Season should it start on time—it will be all about managing expectations.

As Blazer fans we all feel like last season was something of a disappointment, but no doubt went into the offseason with high hopes for the future. Now we have to put those hopes on hold. It may be another full year before we see how Raymond Felton fits in with Gerald Wallace, or if Wesley Matthews can make the next step and become an All-Star.

Luckily for Blazer fans, managing expectations shouldn’t be hard; we’ve been doing it for years. What’s hard for me, and probably is for others as well, is deciding where I fall on all the issues that the lockout has brought up.

At first blush, I side with the players. I probably do this because I’m a working person too, and I know that someone is profiting off my work more than I am. I’ve been around NBA players, and I have watched professional sports most of my life. I know these young men make more money than almost everybody on the planet. But I also understand how hard NBA players work, and more than that how limited their peak earning years are. They need to earn a lifetime’s worth of income in between four and 15 years. That’s plenty of time for some people, but not enough for all of them. The players are holding their ground for one reason, in my opinion; they want to maximize their earning potential. They can’t be faulted for that.

The best thing I’ve read on the lockout was published in The Nation’s sports issue. In an article entitled “Class Struggle on the Court,” (I would link it but it’s for subscribes to The Nation only) Ari Paul talks about how the player’s union is in place to protect the middle class players.

At this point, he says, players that make closer to the league minimum and have careers that are nearer to the average length outnumber the mega stars.  The NBA’s huge stars earn the most money for themselves and the league, but the power will eventually end up in the hands of those players that are in the middle and lower classes; guys that for all intents and purposes are working for their money.

When the regular season actually starts, or doesn’t, and paychecks are actually missed, these are the guys that will feel the pinch first. Because they won’t be able to hold out very long without making money, they will most likely put pressure on the union to take whatever deal is offered. At that point the union’s position is weak and they are all but sunk.

Which brings me to another point of debate that has flitted about, albeit less fervently, during the last few months: the bargaining position of the players. At this point, a lot of highly intelligent individuals have weighed in saying that the players leverage in this dispute falls somewhere between little and none. I lean hard towards none.

Here’s why. The players are the product. They had leverage only when they were playing. Now that they are not playing, they can’t take advantage of their position and threaten to stop playing until the owners come up with a suitable CBA.

A union’s power, any union, lies in the strike or the boycott. NBA insider and avid Twitterer Nate Jones has mentioned recently that the players could have brought about a deal by being proactive and boycotting the All-Star Game. Hindsight is 20-20, but to be honest, that’s about the best possible thing the players could have done.

Think about it like this. If the NBPA calls for a general strike during the season there’s no doubt that the fans, the league, the advertisers, et al. would be pretty pissed. Possibly a deal could get done in a short period of time, but no doubt the negotiations would be hostile. In this scenario, a season that had already begun—and gives almost no time to breath from Day One to the start of the Playoffs—would be in jeopardy almost immediately.

A boycott on the other hand wouldn’t have that affect. Especially if the union were to announce its intention to boycott at the beginning of the season, preparing the league to bring their best offer to the table when negotiations started. If a boycott goes down, it’s only the All-Star Game that would be lost, the only game during the season that can be actually called meaningless. If a boycott is avoided, both the league and the players come out looking like the heroes.

Alas, the time has passed for the player’s association to exercise its power to strike or boycott, and now they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place without an ounce of leverage. Because of that, I can allow myself to side with management. They hold the keys to the season; they players will eventually lose, the question is will they give up with enough time left to save 2011-12.

Maybe the owners would be wise to put some heat on the players. Say, for instance, that either a deal will be reached by the date that training camp is supposed to start or the plug gets pulled on the whole season.

It seems a lot like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, a 50-game season is certainly preferable to a Zero-game season, but it could be the kind of ultimatum the union needs to come around to the state of their bargaining position. The truth is that the owners don’t need the NBA to make money. These dudes are super duper rich with many revenue streams. Even empty stadiums can be rented out should an owner’s newest yacht need an emergency re-upholstering. Sure Vulcan wants its marquee product filling the Rose Garden seats, but a Katy Perry Concert or a live taping of RAW can accomplish the same feat as the Blazers, and without a pesky collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing half of the door to the talent.

It’s unlikely that the owners will try to directly strong-arm the players into making a deal, though. The owners know the score. It serves their ends much better to just let the season start in a lockout and wait for the players to come begging to be let back on the court.

One final thing I’d like to address about the lockout, and probably the thing that up until yesterday’s failed deal presentation has taken up the most Internet-space, is the whole “players going overseas thing.”

Everyday it seems like a new name guy is courting a contract in Europe or China. So far it seems like Wilson Chandler and JR Smith are the two biggest names that have committed to China without the possibility of coming back should the lockout end soon enough to salvage the season. Rudy Fernandez too has committed to Barcelona without an NBA opt-out clause—that comes courtesy of the intrepid Wendell Maxey who is burning it down on the other side of the Atlantic, check out NBA.com for all his awesome coverage of EuroBasket 2011.

So how do I feel about all this overseas traveling? To be honest I’m indifferent for the most part. There’s no reason NBA players shouldn’t be allowed to make a living. If JR Smith is fully aware of the contract he’s signing, and not being drugged by a member of his entourage that is owed back pay, then he should be allowed to go to China. He’ll regret it should the NBA start without him, but eventually he’ll make his way back to the league. Or maybe he won’t. In the grand scheme of things losing guys like JR Smith won’t be the end of the NBA.

Should guys like Kobe or LeBron actually go overseas, on the other hand, I could see that as being a more serious blow. But the same thing that is true for JR Smith is true for Kobe or Bron; they have the right to make a living.

I do think that flocking overseas both weakens the player’s position in negotiations and is somewhat akin to burying your head in the sand. I feel like it weakens the player’s position because it allows the owners to say there are other options than the NBA available to pro basketball players, and if guys want the privilege of suiting up in the best league in the world they will do so according to the rules established by those that sign the paychecks.

Players going overseas doesn’t destroy the power of the union, though, but with so little brought to the table, I feel like a unified front—solidarity in so far as if one player doesn’t get paid no players are going to get paid—might bolster its position.

But in the end, mid-level guys signing with Chinese and European pro teams will likely have very little overall influence on the lockout. And because really all I care about is seeing the NBA come back, I don’t really care all that much about who is signing where and for how much and how long.

Ok. So there you go. I’m not an expert on any of this, and every fan has his or her own opinion just like I do. That’s good, because there is going to be a lot of pressure on NBA fans when this is all said and done.

We can’t really influence the outcome of this lockout, but if NBA fans—and now I mean die-hard read-four-different-NBA-blogs-a-day type fans not casual fans—stay away when the league returns, both the players and the owners may think twice before the next lockout.

I know it’s a tall order to ask die-hards to not come back. I’m not asking for that, hell I’ll be the first one in line when the league starts up again, but another labor dispute will come up sooner or later, and if a lockout knocks out half the fan base and ends up hurting the NBA’s bottom-line, major changes will be made. Don’t forget, no matter what side you take, this ongoing situation has always been about one thing and on thing only: money.

Now go watch Nicolas Batum tear it up in EuroBasket. At least that’s basketball.

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

Topics: Blazers, EuroBasket, JR Smith, Lockout, Nicolas Batum, Wilson Chandler

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