Christmas Day is perfect NBA start
To many, that's when the season really begins, anyway. It's especially fitting this year.
The funniest thing about these five months of melodrama is that the NBA will begin the season precisely when and how it should anyway. Play should never for any reason commence before Thanksgiving and probably not until the first week of December, at the earliest. Truth is, a tripleheader on Christmas Day with Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade, Dirk and D-Rose, plus the Knicks in the Garden hosting the Celtics, is probably better than these two quarrelsome parties deserve. It's as though they stumbled into beginning the NASCAR season with Daytona.
Please, don't tell me the Christmas Day games need a makeover for scheduling reasons. How do you get better than the Mavericks receiving their 2011 NBA championship rings in front of the Miami players? The Lakers are must-see holiday TV, so if LeBron and D-Wade aren't available, who better to share the stage with Kobe than reigning MVP Derrick Rose and a conference finalist team? The last time we saw the allegedly revamped Knicks, they were going out like dogs to the Celtics; what better place to start anew with the most overrated franchise in American sports?
So please, don't let the NBA screw up its first call of the new season. These matchups are irresistible. Purposefully or not, the league couldn't stage a more satisfying comeback. Even if those games are all moved to TNT, I'll feel the same way about the Christmas Day return.
In the coming days, we'll hear the reasons as to how and why the two sides finally reached a settlement when they did, in time not just to save a relatively full season but also to start it on Christmas Day. You cannot convince me that the players' disbanding the NBPA and suing the league didn't jump-start the whole thing, and not because the NBA freaked out or the players employed some brilliant strategy. What very likely happened is that in their talks in recent days, the lawyers representing the players had to tell their clients that winning a victory through the courts was not a viable alternative if they seriously wanted to play this season.
The legal process doesn't care that a sports league would like to move it along because Christmas Day and the All-Star Game are in jeopardy. You file a lawsuit, then the case has to be scheduled. Each side has to present briefs. The judge files a date for a hearing. Arguments are heard. The judge needs to rule. When he/she rules, an appeal is almost automatic. Then there are more arguments. There's hearing after hearing, and every judgment is appealed. Cases go on not for weeks but for months and even years.
Remember the NFL players and owners and their legal twists and turns that took up the entire spring? The NFL players filed their lawsuit about as early as they could. And still, the whole thing played out for months. What had to become apparent to the NBA players was that if the legal process were to take its course, there would be no season. Their lawyers had to tell them, "We might not know until mid-January whether we'll get injunctive relief and if the owners appeal, which they will, that might not be addressed until February "
Season over. Salaries flushed.
So they did what they should have been doing months earlier, which is to say, hammer out a deal. The courts are loath to get involved anyway; they strongly prefer not to get into labor negotiations, which is why a federally appointed mediator was inserted into the NFL's negotiations and none of the various NFL-related lawsuits reached closure.
So, finally, somebody felt the urgency of possibly losing all that money. Seriously, guys can wax boldly about how strong they'll stand together until they have to wave bye-bye to $4 million, $5 million in salary they're NEVER GOING TO GET BACK.
And somebody in the room surely must have pointed out to them that the moment this deal is signed, the owners are going to hire the smartest people they can find to try to circumvent the details of an agreement they designed themselves in part to protect them from themselves. Yes, they're going to get the best and the brightest to try to find whatever loopholes they can to spend more than the other guy, to find that competitive edge that the least creative owners don't want found. Remember, it's a cap that discourages but doesn't prevent big spending.
It'll be interesting to hear if the owners announce the results of a vote, considering that as many as 10 or so want a much more favorable deal than this proposed one. The owners are trying to keep the Lakers and Celtics and Mavericks and Knicks from being able to spend as much as they could, all in the name of small-market teams being more competitive as if that's ever worked for the NBA. Somebody needs to point out (OK, I will) that the NBA ain't the NFL. Parity was nirvana for Pete Rozelle, not necessarily for David Stern. The NBA has never known parity and likely wouldn't know what to do with it.
The NBA's fans don't even want parity; they want the big stars in the game at that moment (mostly in big markets) dominating the sport. That's always been what's worked for the NBA, with an interruption every now and then by Portland (Bill Walton) or Milwaukee (Kareem) or Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant). (Let's leave San Antonio, with David Robinson and Tim Duncan and all manner of international stars like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, out of this discussion.)
Of course, if the players are as disappointed with this deal as we're hearing they are, and the owners are as disappointed with the deal as we're hearing they are, then it's probably a good deal, maybe even the right deal.
But let's at least give them this: They got out of the business of petty bickering before they reached that nuclear winter Stern talked about. It's killing ushers and vendors and parking garage attendants and all the people about whom owners and players never give a damn, but the delay in the start of the season shouldn't really harm the owners or players all that much. A 66-game slate is 80 percent of the season. And the truth is that casual fans are too wrapped up in football, college and pro, to miss the NBA yet; they think the season begins on Christmas Day anyway. And the basketball junkies, the ones who are truly angry with one side or another or both, might grumble, but they're going to come back; addicts never stay away.
This is a helluva lot better than the 1999 work stoppage, when the season began in February. People who need a fix will start to get it by Dec. 9, when a free-agent frenzy like no other begins. Heck, most basketball fans spend more time talking about what could happen than what actually happens, so next month's signing period ought to be exactly what the junkies need. It might even catch the attention of the football fans whose teams are falling out of contention. But this notion that people have checked out forever because they resent the lockout is nonsense. The NBA isn't that high on the national sporting agenda, not when the NFL is in full effect.
As annoying as the lockout was -- and that's what it was, a nuisance -- it wasn't causing a panic, which is why fans will come back in their usual numbers despite some whining. What we'll want to pay special attention to is whether a shorter training camp/preseason will lead to a higher number of injuries once play actually begins.
But what the owners and players did, by settling now and for whatever reasons, is get themselves back and functioning on the sports landscape at pretty much the perfect time. They all look like divas, which they are, but not complete clowns. We're a forgiving people, particularly on Christmas Day, especially if, like the Mavericks and Heat, we can pick up where we left off.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.