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Thursday, October 13, 2011
Five lockout thoughts

By Henry Abbott

Five thoughts about the lockout:

The mid-level is the bedrock of free agency

The knee-jerk analysis of the mid-level salary cap exception, among fans, has been that teams have used it poorly, so who cares if it goes away or gets severely cut? Meanwhile this part of the soft cap has big implications.

A huge chunk of NBA players have no individual ability to negotiate their salaries. Maximum players, minimum players and the rookie-scale guys have incomes that are predetermined. The other players, though, when they reach free agency, can sign deals to play for any team with cap space, for almost any amount. Right?

Kind of.

In fact, the reality of what happens is that of the NBA's 400-or-so players, every year only a tiny handful, as few as 10, sign deals with teams that have cap space. Cap space, as it happens, is simply not the typical way free agents get to test the market. So how do they get competing offers? Normally from teams offering to spend some or all of their mid-level exceptions. Mid-level money is the vast majority of what makes NBA free agency meaningful, and free agency is players' one real way to test their market value.

A severe reduction to the mid-level, then, is a severe reduction in the value of free agency -- which is why this little "system issue" could be a big deal.

Players can't make a better league, but they can make better TV


NBA owners say they are losing money trying to fill arenas by paying NBA salaries, and they have, what, a $20 billion head start -- in public subsidies for stadium construction? There is simply no way for a player-run league to close that gap. Any league they'd start would be, by comparison, $20 billion or so behind, and therefore incredibly unlikely to ever pay them anything like what they can make in the NBA.

That doesn't mean they can't make real money, though, by playing where there are already leagues in place, like overseas. Or, more importantly, they could stay home and do things differently and better than the NBA.

Here's what I'm thinking: Don't compete with the NBA in terms of the ticket-buying public. Compete with them on TV. Sit down with TV producers and figure out the star-driven made-for-TV basketball competition that would haul in huge ratings. My first thought would be to set it up like "Dancing With the Stars." Performances in a big TV studio interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage that lets a general interest audience emotionally invest with the participants. Chris Paul's team vs. LeBron James' team vs. Kobe Bryant's team etc. on and on week after week. With quality production, that thing could be edited down to an hour a week and draw a huge TV audience, which could mean real revenues for players, and a real threat to owners.

It's no NBA season, but it is a way for NBA players to generate top-shelf entertainment revenue.

A mediator's role

Barely 48 hours after talks fell completely apart, the two sides agreed to meet early next week with a federal mediator.

My best guess is that the key value of a mediator in this case will not be in getting the two sides to see eye to eye -- both sides have dropped hints that they have a pretty good idea what the final deal will look like.

What it could do, though, is help the two sides go back their respective camps and say "the federal mediator said this is fair."

In other words, there's a shot this will help David Stern and Billy Hunter in convincing their hardliners to swallow bitter pills.

Owners need players to connect with fans

An interesting measure of the owners' dilemma is to imagine for next time an arena is filled with NBA fans for a real game -- whenever that may be.

It's not hard to imagine that a smart owner would have the urge to take the microphone and welcome everyone, thank them, and maybe do something that will seem a little bit like apologizing the lockout and its many hassles.

But there's a problem with that, which is owners are not generally seen as cool. Fans don't want to hear all this kind of stuff from owners. They might even boo. Most owners just don't have the credibility or charisma to rally a stadium behind them.

For many owners, that's why they bought a team! It makes them cooler.

It also puts them in a position to have other people do that stuff for them. Who speaks for the team in a way that the fans really like? The players. Specifically, the star players.

And that's where it gets tricky. If the owners really stick it to players, is Amare Stoudemire really going to take that microphone on behalf of the Knicks on opening night at Madison Square Garden? Will Dwyane Wade so Micky Arison a solid in Miami? What about Steve Nash in Phoenix, or Kevin Garnett in Boston?

The players need the league for cash. But the owners need the league for fans. And this little opening night dilemma is metaphorical for how owners relate to the fans. They need the players in the middle, and happy enough. That's one reason it might make sense for owners to seek a fair deal, instead of the best deal possible. They don't want players doing the bare minimum to promote the league.

Damage to the NBA brand

A couple days ago on Twitter, David Thorpe asked: "How's it gonna look when NBA players playing overseas get sent home because they are just not worth what they were being paid?"

Since then, DeJuan Blair -- a starter on one of the league's best teams in San Antonio -- was let go by his Russian team.

It's not that Blair didn't play well. His numbers were solid. It's also not that he has a big attitude -- quite the opposite.

The problem appears to have been simply that they could get similar production for less from any number of other players. He was good, but the amount they paid him, in that league, is reserved for greatness.

Thorpe has long maintained that the very best NBA players are in a class by themselves. No other league in the world has players like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. But after those top stars, whether that's 30 or 40 players, he says it's very hard to tell anyone apart. The non-star NBA players, he says, are interchangeable with professionals all over the globe, which he sees in his own gym every summer, where, for instance, Italian Serie A starters hang comfortably with NBA rotation players.

Meanwhile, consider soccer's English Premiership, which includes some of the most valuable global sports franchises like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Strictly because that league, and those teams, are seen as the best in the world, they are well-positioned to become not just England's favorite teams, but the world's favorite teams. They don't just play London, they play New York and Tokyo, too -- and when they get there they find fans wearing their players' jerseys and chanting their team chants.

Those teams pay like crazy for the most expensive talent in the world, and that talent gives them a shot at developing lucrative global audiences.

The NBA has a similar opportunity. Will sports fans in China, India and Brazil insist on NBA basketball on their televisions? Will they buy expensive official NBA merchandise?

If they are convinced it's far and away the best basketball league in the world they will. But the perception that the NBA is in a class by itself ... it's damaged just a little in Russia today when Blair is sent packing. And it's entirely possible that we'll see more of the same in other countries, which could hurt the NBA's ability to present itself as head-and-shoulders above the rest of the globe.