The Labor Storm Brewing

A number of people have already said this is the best, most competitive first round in league history. That might just be the hyperbole or the 24-hour news cycle talking, but there is no doubt this has been an incredibly competitive and exciting series of Playoff games. Lower seeds lead in two series — including eighth seeded Grizzlies leading the top-seeded Spurs 3-1 — and only nine of the 34 games played through Monday have been decided by 10 or more points.

Pretty exciting right? As Deadspin put it a few weeks ago, it is the perfect time for a lockout.

It is the issue nobody wants to talk about. NFL fans are already rejoicing in the decision from the federal district court that at least temporarily ended the NFL’s lockout. The NBA is preparing for its own labor battles. And the NBA has a long way to go to get where the NFL was … and the NFL was in a pretty dark place before the courts granted them relief (and could be headed back there if the league’s appeal is granted).

The crux of the argument for the NBA is relatively simple: the owners are claiming massive losses caused in part by the economic downturn and in part by increasing player salaries. The owners believe the system the league currently operates under — which consists of a soft-cap and guaranteed contracts — is no longer sustainable. Owners recognize that in order to stay competitive many have to go over the league’s salary cap and give copious amounts to mediocre players on long-term deals.

In other words, the owners want protection from themselves in a lot of ways, as well as the ability to get out of bad contracts — Knicks fans might be saying if only Isaiah Thomas had this to dump Eddy Curry the moment he signed him.

The players union, it seems, recognizes that this problem does exist. They recognize the owners might be struggling in the economic downturn and seem willing to lower the amount of basketball related income they take (basketball related income is how the salary cap is determined). But they are not willing to lower it as significantly as the owners want and are not willing to negotiate on guaranteed contracts. The players union does not believe the owners are losing as much money as they are reporting.

The good news is that both sides recognize this problem, it is just deciding how much of a problem that is.

The owners have opened up their accounting books to the players as much as they ever have, but the two sides cannot agree on what those numbers mean. The players believe it shows losses, but not the substantial losses the owners are reporting. These two sides are a long way away.

Most fans want to know whether the NBA will play out like the NFL as a public drama. The NFL has a whole set of other issues to solve — such as the players wanting better pension benefits and more guaranteed contracts all on the backdrop of the economic downturn. But things are similar in that owners want to secure more profits at the expense of the players and the players want more of the money that is coming in.

The NBA though wants the NFL’s system. LeBron James reportedly joked at a negotiating session last year that the owners wanted to turn the league into the NFL. To which an owner responded: “Yeah we do.” The guaranteed contracts and possibly even the salary cap are going to be issues when the two sides get serious about negotiating.

And that appears to be where David Stern wants to get. Perhaps the urgency is not present because the problems and differences between the owners and the players are not as wide a gulf as with the NFL. Still a lockout is a very real possibility, one that fans should be bracing themselves for.

The NBA Players Association is not likely to employ the same tactics the NFL Players Association has used though. There are some fundamental problems with the NFL’s system that caused the union to choose the decertification strategy. Decertification does not seem likely to occur in the NBA’s case.

Decertification is a strategy the unions may use to sue the league under anti-trust law. All the major sports leagues have received antitrust exemption from the U.S. government so long as the owners do not collude with each other and there is good-faith representation from the union. What decertification says (as I understand it) is that the union no longer represents the player’s interests and is dissolved, thus bringing the antitrust litigation currently in the courts (see Brady v. NFL). For the league to retain its antitrust exemption, they need a certified union to negotiate with and without one they cannot lock out the players because then they would have no one else to negotiate with.

Neither side of the NBA seems to have this type of animus or have a particular issue that would take this drastic of a step. But the specter of a lockout certainly continues to hang over each side in this dispute.

Ken Berger of CBS Sports reports the NBPA has quietly collected enough support to decertify and the Eighth Judicial Circuit’s decision to lift the NFL lockout and allow the union to decertify does have ramifications for the NBA.

Several NBA owners also owned NHL teams during the lockout and they know firsthand that a league can come out of a lockout with the owners holding all the cards. The NHL does not quite have the prestige of the NBA or the amount of good will built up from the last lockout (1999 was not so long ago and the league is as healthy as it has been since then), but if the owners are losing as much money as they seem to suggest, this lesson will not be lost on the other owners.

There is no easy solution to the potential NBA lockout. Not by a long shot. There is likely to be a lockout for a short period of time just so the two sides can force each other to the table. Will the season be threatened though?

It might be too early to tell.

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About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily