TrueHoop: NBA Lockout

Could the lockout cut off migration to NBA?

July, 26, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
The big story of the NBA lockout has been the idea of NBA players taking their talents to signing with European teams as a way of replacing a portion of their incomes as the owners try to renegotiate the CBA pie.

Deron Williams is going to Turkey. Kobe Bryant is being pursued to play in Turkey. Eddy Curry is … never mind, that’s too easy.

Many NBA veterans are looking overseas, perhaps to gain some leverage in negotiations with the owners. Whether it ends up being a serious option or not, it’s all about how the owners ultimately perceive that threat and allow it to influence them at the bargaining table. Some players, like Sonny Weems, are signing overseas with the intention of playing there the full season, regardless of what happens with the new CBA.

We keep hearing about how this lockout impacts NBA players and where they will be playing basketball this winter, but we haven’t heard about the impact this has on European players who might be looking to come over to the U.S. someday. Naturally, we assume that players from all over the world desperately want to come to the NBA because it is the best league in presumably the best country in the world.

For decades, foreign players have been making the trek from all over the world for a chance at playing against the best competition in the world and for the most lucrative contracts available. This migration hasn't produced a lot of stars, but it has led to a large number of foreign players coming over to see what they're made of.

And there are sometimes when they don't bother to come at all. Fran Vasquez was drafted 11th overall by the Orlando Magic in the 2005 NBA draft. He was going to be the other big man next to Dwight Howard in the Magic’s rebuilding process. Unfortunately for Magic fans, he never came over to the NBA. It’s been six years now and it looks as if Vasquez is content with staying in Spain for the entirety of his professional basketball career.

Then you also have someone like Dimitris Diamantidis. Diamantidis is the best point guard Europe has to offer. He went undrafted in the NBA in 2002. Since then, he’s been dominating the Euroleague like few guards have done before him. He’s one of the best defensive players in the world at his position (including NBA players) and a really great overall player that has proven himself in various international settings. He keeps signing contract extensions to stay in Europe, and with him turning 31 a couple months ago, he’s unlikely to ever play in the NBA.

While these two guys are two of the higher profile players in Europe not interested in trying out the NBA game, we could see a big wave of players deciding to stay on their own shores. Jonathan Tjarks over at RealGM explored the idea and offered up examples of why certain international prospects could be hesitant to play for less in the NBA under a new collective bargaining agreement.
Instead of encouraging American players to flock overseas, the lockout is likely to have the opposite effect: increasing the incentives for international players to stay home without ever making the leap to the NBA.

In the name of increasing parity, the owners’ CBA proposal institutes a hard salary cap which would lower player salaries across the board. The removal of the Larry Bird and mid-level exceptions, in particular,would have a devastating effect on the salaries of the “middle-class” of players. Combine that with a reverse-order draft where poorly managed teams in small markets can gain complete control over international players for at least four years, and we’re likely to see more foreign players following the path of Fran Vazquez.

He continues:
If salary cap exceptions are removed in labor negotiations, foreign players would have to take drastic pay reductions to play in the NBA. The Spurs are an incredibly well-run organization with lots of experience dealing with international players; imagine the problems a franchise like Sacramento or Charlotte would encounter in a similar scenario.

This year, Nikola Mirotic,a 20-year old 6’10 sharp-shooter, signed a two-year extension that will keep him under contract with Real Madrid until 2015. His exorbitant¬2.5 million bailout caused his draft stock to plummet, and he slipped from the lottery to the #23 selection.

Currently, the plan is to wait at least two to three years until his buyout becomes less onerous. But at that point, the Bulls, one of the most promising young teams in the NBA, will likely be locked into long-term deals with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. They certainly won’t have the cap room to offer Mirotic a big contract, and if he continues his upward path, he’ll likely be worth more to an European team than the mid-level exception the Spurs used to sign Splitter, if it even exists after the lockout.

And this is where the potential problem lies. Competition aside, there could be very little incentive for foreign players to come over, as the money is most likely to be quite inadequate compared to what they can make in the Euroleague. When you factor in buyouts, smaller yearly salaries for the first four years, taxes gutting out those lower salary figures, and the cost of living in various NBA markets, it makes very little financial sense for these players to leave their homes (that could be taken care of by their respective teams) and lack of taxation just to come be a role player in the NBA.

For years, there were rumors of Rudy Fernandez wanting to ditch Portland for better opportunities in Europe. Part of that was probably just a negotiating tactic to try and force a trade to another team (which finally sort of worked this summer when he was dealt to the NBA champion Mavericks). But another part of it could very well have been following in the footsteps of fellow countryman, Juan Carlos Navarro (who skipped out on the NBA after his rookie season to return to Spain).

Now, there are rumors of Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks signing with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey, where one-time Buck Roko Ukic once left the NBA to join.

The NBA dollar is no longer a promise of the best financial situation available for any player in the world. The new system could be devoid of incentives that would make such a life-altering and challenging move to the NBA a fruitful venture. It will come down to just how much competition the foreign players thirst for.

Maybe on a patriotic level, this is a better situation for Americans wishing to play professional basketball. There will be more “homegrown” jobs in the NBA that aren’t outsourced to foreign temp agencies. It will only bring over the most competitive and bloodthirsty international players, and that could ultimately be a good thing, especially in terms of draft busts.

Regardless of the "bright side" of such a situation, this lockout could very well change the global landscape of basketball far more than we could have ever imagined.

An attack on opulence

July, 15, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
As you’ve probably heard by now, the NBA has laid off 114 employees from the New York, New Jersey and international offices this week.

It’s an effort to help the NBA get rid of $50 million in expenses and the layoffs represent 11 percent of the league’s workforce. Immediately, people are going to blame the lockout for these 114 people losing their jobs. While the league is claiming it’s not directly due to the lockout, they’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody that this is actually true.

One of the people they don’t need to convince is Matt Moore from CBS Sports’ basketball blog Eye On Basketball. He’s not really blaming the actual lockout itself for the loss of these 114 livelihoods. He’s taking a completely different angle.
Unless you started covering it from the beginning, which removes your frame of reference, spend enough time around the NBA and you'll learn the real meaning of "opulence." It's everywhere. From the cars the players drive, to their jewelry, to the locker rooms where they spend a grand total of about four hours every night. It's in the banquet halls and the hotels reserved and the equipment used. It's in the gift bags for friends and media, the free food, the superstar (or Lenny Kravitz) performances, the pyrotechnics, everywhere. It's astounding. Everyone stays at the nicest clubs, eats at the nicest restaurants, travels in the nicest cars and buses.

It's in even the tiniest things. At the NBA Finals, along with All-Star Weekend, the NBA gives away gift bags for the media. A little thank you to say "We appreciate you bringing attention to our business, even though half the time you're jumping on our mistakes like cobras on an injured mouse." This year it was a simple wireless mouse and a mousepad that has the Finals logo on it. A schlocky little thing that was still pretty nice when you think about it being free. I kept it mostly because I wanted to give it to my newborn son when he is older to say "Your father got this at the first Finals he covered."

Tomorrow I'm taking it to the nearest charitable donations joint and dropping it off. Because now it's just a reminder of how opulence wasted has cost 114 people their jobs when it shouldn't have tonight. It's nothing but a guilty reminder of how the mismanagement of resources and revenue can wind up costing real people their jobs, jobs they need.

Professional sports are really all about opulence these days. Have the biggest and best stadium with the biggest and best team in the biggest and best market. Show everybody you’re better than them. Show them that they should want to be you.

There isn’t anything wrong with this in theory. Sports are about competition. Teams are competing to show they’re better than their opponent. Fans adopt that philosophy because you want your team to be better than every other team. Leagues want to show they have the best fans and the best product because they’re always looking to expand markets. Opulence ends up being a means to an end.

The problem with the NBA’s opulence over the last couple years is it may have led to these 114 people losing their jobs and joining the staggering unemployment ranks. Now granted, not all 114 people live in the United States. But the world economy isn’t exactly booming everywhere either.

There is nothing wrong with opulence unless your opulence surpasses your ability to afford it. If the league knew this lockout was coming (and we’ve been talking about it long enough to know they did), then it’s highly disappointing to know they didn’t plan for it better. They threw giant parties during their events and afforded the best accommodations for its employees. It’s an extremely nice gesture and a good business practice until it ends up costing you actual employees.

Moore continues:
The people that were laid off this week by the NBA, the 114? They're out of a job, now. They didn't have to be, but here they are. Maybe they deserved to be. Maybe their positions were utterly useless. If that's the case, why not just reassign them? Have them work on creating efficiency plans or, I don't know, creative ways to end the lockout. Maybe they were just lazy. Maybe 11 percent of the NBA's total workforce really was just lazy and redundant. But doesn't that reflect the people at the top and their organizational structure more than it does the people who were actually affected by this?

The NBA has a right to run its business towards profit and to act in its own self-interest. But to trot out their opulence time and time agian, to splurge on so many little things that when you add them up it looks like one of those trash mountains from "Wall-E," it's not only off-putting, it's downright nauseating.

Ultimately, the league can do whatever they want because it’s their business, not ours. We’re the consumers and we choose to enjoy it to our fullest capabilities by choosing which teams to root for and how personally we take the product they put out there. The NBA isn’t really about catering to everybody in the world. It’s about running a business the best way they see fit for their own gain (which isn't a bad thing, just a reality). If everybody ends up enjoying it like people have over the past couple years, then that’s probably the best-case scenario for the NBA. Enjoyment leads to consumption and consumption leads to making money.

However, when they’ve been warning people about the impending (and now current) lockout and then the story of layoffs comes out, it’s hard to believe they did everything in their power to prevent affecting their employees' lives like this.

Looking across the aisle

July, 14, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
When the lockout happened in 1998, it made a lot of sense for the league. While it sucks that we lost three months and 32 games of regular season basketball, it was a necessary evil for the league to give themselves a timeout and figure out the lay of the land.

Kevin Garnett had just signed one of the biggest contracts in sports history and he was only 21 years old. The NBA was losing its dynasty and greatest player with the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls and the retirement (one of them) of Michael Jordan. The league had to figure out where it was going and how to get there in the most stable and lucrative financial situation possible. There was no guarantee of a transcendent star carrying a league on off nights and through national broadcasts throughout the week.

Heading into this lockout, the league is in a similar situation. It’s not the same in terms of losing a transcendent star (Shaq lost his luster years ago and Yao Ming has been sadly absent for far too long because of injuries), but it’s similar in that the league needs to get a hold of the financial parameters of its business. It needs to try to ensure that no matter what the accounting books tell you or what the owners tell you the books tell you, the NBA is ready to recover from the recent economic spiral and set itself up to be as profitable as possible in the coming future.

With so many hundreds of millions of dollars at stake now, and even billions of dollars at stake over the course of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it makes sense in theory for David Stern to have a strict policy of teams and players not interacting during this “negotiating period.” (Although, it would be nice if they were actually, you know, negotiating). The owners and the players union both need to show solidarity and unity in their actions during the lockout, so they can appear to be as strong as ever when they do actually sit down and try to hammer out a deal again.

So when Seth Meyers at the ESPYs was making jokes about the Mavericks being glad they aren’t allowed to talk to Mark Cuban during the lockout and we see the camera cut to Cuban and Jason Kidd sitting across the aisle from each other, laughing at the joke, and then sharing a moment of eye contact in recognition of the joke and the meaning behind it, I wondered just where the line in the sand actually was drawn.

It seemed like the seating chart and the longing looks across the aisle were set up to cost Cuban $1 million for interacting with players. I figured I was just reading into it too much and hoping for some kind of controversy during this NBA lockout. A short time later, Dirk Nowitzki won the ESPY for best NBA player and said, "I also want to thank Mark Cuban, but since I can't talk to him you've got to say hello to him."

However, there really wasn’t any “harm” done and the entire scene seemed to be bordering on a broken up couple that was trying to figure out how to greet each one another after crossing paths at the grocery store (if that grocery store was full of professional athletes and giving out awards).

Then the Mavericks won the ESPY for the best team of the year and all relative hell broke loose. Mark Cuban and the players got up, crossed the aisle (literally), and began hugging and congratulating each other. There was no getting around this contact between an owner and its players. Cuban was talking to his guys and Jason Kidd joked that since Cuban wrote the checks, he could pay the fine.

This is where we have some confusion and weakness within the guidelines of the lockout gag order. If the NBA gave Mark Cuban a reprieve of sorts for the night’s festivities, it shows weakness. It shows that award shows and moments of charity could be a loophole of sorts for owners and players to find a way to interact. It lessens the threat of Stern’s iron fist.

But if the league didn’t give Mark Cuban a reprieve for the evening and the NBA’s most maverick owner of sorts (see what I did there?) is willing to pay a heavy fine and break the links of the ownership chain for an evening, just to accept another shiny trophy, then the players union looks stronger than the owner’s stance, even if for a night.

Clearly, Cuban can afford a million dollar fine. And even if it’s a million dollar per player he interacted with last night, he can afford a $7 million fine as well. However, the money isn’t the issue here.

Stern and Cuban have had their issues in the past. Cuban has been looked at as a threat to Stern and the way he runs the league and oversees the officiating. He’s been looked at as a troublemaker and someone that doesn’t mind spitting into the wind of the NBA. He’s willing to accept outrageously massive fines in order to make sure his team and players are being taken care of and treated in a fair manner by the league.

However, this act of a brief moratorium on a league-mandated order of silence, whether allowed by the league or not, is a win in every way for the players union.

It doesn’t mean the lockout will end tomorrow and the players will win every issue and compromise on the table. It just means the players have held stronger together than the owners and league have so far during the first two weeks of the lockout. That gratification from an Internet of voters on was briefly more important than negotiating tactics.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Not because I side with the players (I don’t really side with any side in this lockout), but because I think it’s ridiculous that while the two sides are supposed to be working out a business agreement for the next five to ten years, they’re not actually allowed to talk to each other unless there are lawyers present.

I understand the concept of unity when it comes to a labor dispute. My dad was the president of a law enforcement union for a long time, and I watched him deal with relative but similar issues every day for the better part of a decade. However, it makes no sense to me that interaction between an employer and its employees would have to be such a taboo occurrence.

When you tell two teenagers that they’re no longer allowed to see each other because the parents don’t like one another, it doesn’t stop the teenagers from wanting to be together and spend time together. If anything, it intensifies the situation and turns it into a more immature circumstance than previously feared.

At this time, Billy Hunter and Stern need to understand that not letting the owners and players date this summer isn’t going to make them not want to be together. It’s just going to lead to more hopeful looks across the aisle.

Playing overseas is a heavy decision to make

July, 12, 2011
Harper By Zach Harper
When players come back from injuries, the idea of rehabbing and working out all the time not being able to equate to “in-game” shape is always confusing.

It makes sense for the most part. When you’re lifting weights, running on the treadmill, taking a spin class or even fighting for that last piece of bacon, you’re using a lot different muscles and using them in different intervals than when you’re on the basketball court. And being able to do that on back-to-back nights or four games in five nights at the NBA level has to take even longer to retrain your body how to recover.

Still it seems weird that the best athletes in the world would essentially be out of shape despite the copious amounts of training they do to get themselves back to being able to play.

If taking extended time off from playing NBA basketball is such a difficult task, are players like Deron Williams and Joakim Noah priming themselves for a big return if the NBA does indeed have another lockout-shortened regular season?

When the NBA returned from its brief absence in 1998, a lot of the players were, for lack of a better term, hefty. There are rumors that Vin Baker came back roughly 60 pounds heavier than before, and Shawn Kemp had certainly seen slimmer days (even though he actually had a very productive 1999 season compared to the previous year). Sure, there were a lot of players that stayed in shape and got themselves ready to go for the brutal grind of cramming 50 games into three months, but a lot of guys also left themselves susceptible to injury by not returning in top physical form.

But with Williams reportedly heading to Turkey as the heir apparent to Allen Iverson and Noah playing for Team France in the European Championships in Lithuania, should more players be taking their cues from these two players and try to stay active in organized basketball?

As of right now, the NBA is full of bored players who are lying down on the ground, taking pictures of themselves “planking” and then tweeting it out to their followers. Since it’s still just July and they have no promise of playing an NBA season this fall, it’s not really a big deal. Guys right now would usually be checking out the Summer League action in Las Vegas or going for a summer vacation to get away from everything.

But with no end in sight to the lockout and threats of owners sacrificing an entire season just to get their way, you have to wonder at what point these players will become motivated to stay in shape.

For a good chunk of August and September, Noah will be practicing with Team France and trying to help them qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. If the lockout ends in time for training camp in September, he’ll be in better playing shape than most other peers around the NBA.

If the lockout extends beyond September and begins to consume preseason and regular season games, Williams will more than likely head to Turkey and play for Besiktas. Once again, he’ll be practicing with his stepteam and playing in real games. If the lockout ends and brings him back to the NBA for the rest of whatever is left of the 2011-12 season, he’s likely to have the upper hand with conditioning and play at the beginning of the season.

Granted, there are injury risks for going off to play outside of the NBA, just like there are for players coming back to a shortened season while out of shape. Unless you’re Carlos Boozer, it’s pretty hard to get injured just walking around your house, looking for the next hilarious place to plank from. But being rusty in the NBA isn’t just a potential detriment to your team; it’s also a risk to your health with injury.

Williams and Noah aren’t the only guys exploring their options. Andrei Kirilenko is reportedly offering his services to European teams for the low asking price of $5.8 million this winter. A few teams were courting Amar’e Stoudemire before he decided to stay loyal to the Knicks.

It’s one thing to consider going to play organized, professional basketball away from the NBA and another thing to actually commit to it.

Maybe Williams and Noah will get injured during this venture away from the NBA during the lockout. Maybe they are risking all of their guaranteed money waiting for them when the NBA opens its doors back up and invites us all in again.

But it’s a risk that will most likely keep these two ahead of the pack if we end up with another shortened season.