The end is near: NBA owners, players spiral toward lockout
NBA commissioner David Stern sees a deep, dark abyss. An unfathomable gulf that will erase every gain the league has made as it has approached heights not reached since Michael Jordan left the game for good.
Billy Hunter, NBA Players Association (NBPA) executive director, envisions total destruction and loss. Lost money, power, presence and prestige.
The sharply divided duo are united by more than their Armageddon-like visions. Each understands that an NBA lockout is just hours away from becoming a reality. And both believe that their firmly entrenched side is not going to give until the other relents first.
Owners and players are scheduled to meet Thursday in New York for what could be their final conference before the league enters its first work stoppage since the 1998-99 season.
An extension in negotiations is possible. But few believe that one more week of talks will make much difference, since the warring sides have spent nearly two years disagreeing about a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and the current one expires at 10:01 Mountain Time on Thursday night.
The end is near.
The 2011 NBA lockout is about to begin.
"Best case is they try to extend [talks], but I don't think that's likely," said Gabe Feldman, Tulane law professor and director of the school's sports law program. "I think we're headed probably to a similar path that we saw with the NFL, in terms of a lockout and potential litigation."
Whether either side follows the judicial path of the NFL lockout highlighted by the NFL Players Association's (NFLPA) decertification and antitrust lawsuit remains to be determined. The NFL's labor battle has been muddied and slowed down by the courts, and talks gained momentum only when commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith recently agreed to meet in informal settings.
"NBA players have been quiet in terms of decertification as a potential weapon," Feldman said. "And that's probably a wise move. There's no need to publicize it and telegraph their move."
Much clearer are the miles-wide divide that separates NBA owners and players, and the shrinking hours that remain before the CBA expires.
Owners are pushing for a radically restructured 10-year deal that will harden the salary cap, even the split of basketball-related income (BRI), shorten guaranteed contracts and increase revenue sharing. Players have offered to give back $500 million in income during the next five seasons. But the parties are in many ways no closer to an agreement than they were when talks first gained traction during the 2011 All-Star break. As a result, Thursday's meeting has already been decried by some as little more than a public relations exercise.
Asked about the likelihood of a lockout, Roger Abrams cut through the rhetoric and immediately put a padlock on professional basketball.
"The folks of lovely Salt Lake ought to think about doing something else next season," said Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University and a sports law expert.
He added, "If someone would take my bet, I would put money on the fact that there's going to be a lockout and I'm not a betting man."
The Jazz are already dealing with the expected shutdown. For months, Utah has directed all lockout-related questions to the NBA front office, while coaches and management have gone silent when the "L" word is mentioned.
Some Utah personnel were expected to be briefed this week on how they should answer queries if a work stoppage occurs, while others declined to speak on the record due to a fear of reprisal by the league.
A Jazz spokesman said Wednesday that the franchise had to decline interview requests by The Salt Lake Tribune for questions about ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandising and human resources issues.
"We cannot make anyone available â¦ to discuss anything related to the labor situation or any preparations for, expected changes as a result of, or anything at all on that end of things. â¦ All of those type questions have to be referred to the league," the spokesman said.
The league is barely talking.
Owners met twice last week with the NBPA in New York during eight hours of discussions that surrounded the 2011 draft. Stern and Hunter were almost silent after the last round, though, as the league and its players closed ranks in preparation for a final gathering.
The league's Board of Governors then authorized the NBA on Tuesday to act in whatever way it deems appropriate during Thursday's meeting.
That showdown is expected to be attended only by Stern, Hunter and a few representatives. Owners are strongly committed to fixing a broken system. Players have pledged to stand united, reinforcing the brotherhood that is at the heart of the league.
Barring an extension and a last-minute miracle, a lockout some believe could wipe out the entire 2011-12 season awaits.
"It is a done deal," Abrams said. "And, quite frankly, I think it was a done deal from the beginning."
Check The Tribune's Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for exclusive news, interviews, video and analysis. A closer look
What • 2011 NBA lockout
When • As soon as 10:01 p.m. MDTThursday
Where • NBA owners and players will meet Thursday in New York for a possible final conference before a work stoppage.
Why • Owners are expected to lock out players if the sides cannot agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. An extension is possible, but unlikely to ultimately prevent a lockout.
The NBA's last work stoppage occurred in the 1998-99 season. The league played a shortened 50-game season. The Jazz finished 37-13, but the San Antonio Spurs won the championship. The NBA has had only one other lockout, a brief break in action in 1995, which did not result in a loss of games. Some have predicted that a new lockout could wipe out the entire 2011-12 season.
The Jazz need to sign a few free agents, add a couple assistant coaches and figure out if Andrei Kirilenko will ever put on a Utah uniform again. But everything is off the table as soon as a lockout begins. Contracts will still be valid, but paychecks will dry up while the length of each deal will dwindle. Players will not be allowed to participate in team-organized activities or use team facilities. Summer League has already been erased from the schedule; training camp could soon follow.