Time is on the owners’ side. They know it. The players know it. The fans know it.
In this battle of millionaires vs. billionaires, the billionaires are the owners. And if their claims of losing money are true then the owners would be happy to cut their losses for a good deal for them.
The players recognize this to some degree. They are the employees, and, on November 15 when the first paycheck was supposed to show up and it does not, they will be the ones really losing the money.
The NBPA and the player agents have been preparing for this possibility and eventuality for a few years now. But preparation does little to prepare for actuality. And with David Stern all but saying regular season games will be canceled without a deal Monday, the actuality of losing that first paycheck is quickly becoming a reality.
The point every NBA fan has feared is coming. This is the time when we discover just how much the players stand together. No more time for rhetoric and no more time for gestures. The players will learn just how long they can survive without paychecks and how much they have prepared.
This is the owner’s greatest weapon. Time. They can wait. While the players don’t get paid.
Now the players must wait, stay motivated and stay united.
The longer the lockout lasts, the more the players will crack. The question is how long can the players last while they wait for their union and the owners to come to some sort of an agreement. Will the players as a group be able to survive this prolonged absence from the game?
That was the question in 1998. And the players roundly answered that with a no.
When the season began in January, players arrived to camp out of shape and hungry for a paycheck. The burgeoning careers of all stars like Shawn Kemp and Vin Baker (yes, they were all stars) were over as the free time gave them the time to gain weight and pick up bad habits. They, among several other stars and near stars, were the two who highlighted the many whose careers were never the same after that year.
The basketball during that 50-game season was abysmal. The eighth-seeded Knicks went to the finals by averaging 86.4 points per game and posting a 98.6 offensive rating, both well into the bottom third in the league. Points were at a premium that year and the rushed schedule took a toll on the player’s as injuries — remember Patrick Ewing missed the entire postseason run — and exhaustion took over.
The Spurs won the title, but many people still put an asterisk by it.
The 2011 lockout is a much different story.
It seems like many players are taking this lockout much more seriously. They are better prepared and learned some lessons from the 1998 lockout. The veterans told the young players to stick to the gym and be ready whenever the lockout ends. And when it ends, it will end quickly and everyone will get back to work.
When that time comes, the players need to be ready.
But that end is not in sight quite yet. It is a long time from now by all accounts. How long will the motivation to work out for a season that may not exist last? Will the players be ready? What if the owners use the nuclear option and scrap the whole season? Will the same passion for the game burn past the mundanity of training?
The summer and offseason can be long. The offseason with a lockout could be longer. By all accounts, David Stern seems unwilling to play the kind of shortened season we received in 1999. Nobody wants to repeat that largely negative experience.
It is some form of 82 games, or bust. Even if the season’s start is delayed. But it cannot be delayed too long. And the longer the delay, the more the players will likely give in.
This has been the endgame for the owners. Yes, the two sides are closer to a deal than they were before Tuesday. But with still a ways to go, the league looked to force the players into a panicked deal. This is really what the agents warned. They do not want their clients signing on to something that will eventually hurt them.
But with the lockout already lasting this long and games fading quickly, the players will eventually lose. We have seen them give up a lot already. The players — all of them, not just the negotiating committee — must ask themselves how long they can really last united. And they have to be ready for that moment and understand what they would give up to save the 2011-12 season.
Maybe the players are united enough to sit out the entire season. Maybe they are not.
The waiting game has begun. And now the owners are waiting out the players to test their mettle as a bargaining unit.
Photos via DayLife.com.