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New NBA deal doesn't solve old problem

11/30/2011 - NBA

The NBA owners got what they wanted.

They cornered the players into agreeing to less than half of the league's basketball-related income, even if the amount may periodically be slightly more than half. They got the players to cave just when it appeared that an entity bigger than themselves -- the federal courts -- was about to step in and get involved in the owners' closed little business. They got basketball to return on Christmas, and they got their money from the players.

Even inside their private clique, the faction of owners of small-market teams who had shut the game down got provisions that at the very least might make the big guys in Los Angeles and Dallas and Chicago think twice before spending them out of relevance.

But they also got the burden of a false narrative -- the false narrative that the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Bobcats are any more competitive today than they were last week.

They aren't, and they won't be.

Here's how to determine whether the owners' narrative can be trusted:

• Follow the NBA over the coming years and count the number of A-list free agents who spurn the Lakers and Knicks and Heat to join the Timberwolves or Hornets or Kings because of the changes made in the new collective bargaining agreement.

• Count the number of times a low-market team begins to have success and rewards its fans by spending over the cap to give its public a championship.

• Count the number of times the big-market clubs complain that small-market clubs are using the new revenue-sharing rules (which ostensibly will triple the amount of money distributed to poorer clubs) to buy private planes instead of bidding for the LeBron James of the NBA world.

You won't need to know how to count very high to keep track of those first two.

Parity isn't going to happen under this new CBA. Here's what will: The owners will keep money for themselves instead of funneling it to the players, who are the actual reasons people watch. And that's what all the fuss was about. Owners will still receive their huge tax breaks and continue to demand that the public -- your money -- pay for arenas while they hide money from the basketball-related income pool so less goes to the players.

The 2011 NBA lockout so resembled the baseball strike of 1994 that it is laughable -- depressing, really -- that Billy Hunter and the union did not go to the courts for relief sooner. The NBA deprived the fans of a product based on a public stance that the league needs to be more competitive. Now, we get to see just what parity in the NBA -- a league in which one star makes all the difference -- will actually look like over the coming years.

The small-market faction did make things tougher for the rich teams during these negotiations. Revenue sharing is supposed to increase dramatically, but it has not yet been made clear what percentage of the revenue-sharing splits will be earmarked for payroll, leaving the likelihood that poorer clubs will be able to pocket that money, just as the rich clubs in baseball accuse their cash-strapped brethren of doing.

And luxury tax rules are more prohibitive today as a result of the agreement, especially if teams choose to habitually scofflaw the system. Teams that pay into the luxury tax will have less to spend on mid-level free agents than the teams that do not.

But these structural changes overlook a basic factor: the human element.

The human element is a player vetoing a trade to hold out for free agency and join the team of his choice. It is the player who chooses to spurn the Bobcats' $5 million mid-level exception to play for the Celtics, who can offer $4 million. It will be the low-market teams that are forced to spend 85-to-90 percent of their salary cap space on players who aren't superstars
(as Joe Johnson is receiving superstar money now when he is not a champion-level difference-maker) because the real superstars don't and won't play for them, creating the same inflated salary system that was in place under the old agreement.

The human element is players engineering where they want to play -- as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did last year -- and smart managements around the league keeping just enough money free to allow such positioning of the compass to happen.

And these machinations are not taking place in Memphis. Or Cleveland.

The structural issues that created heavy losses for small-market teams over the course of the last CBA might be concealed under the terms of the new deal, but they were not addressed. The zeal for the entire sports world to resemble the NFL -- that great bastion of parity and concussions -- is based on a fraud. Owners want the NFL model not because it gives every team a chance to win but because it resembles the best way to control costs and not pay players what they are worth. The NFL has been operating under a salary cap for 20 years, and during that time, the formulas for success have remained the same. Marquee and legendary franchises still exist in Dallas and Green Bay and Pittsburgh, and once-dowdy franchises in New England, New Orleans and Indianapolis found quarterbacks and changed their fortunes -- fortunes easily reversed when the star player (see: Peyton Manning) is suddenly unavailable.

The NFL prospered to the point of embarrassment and became the undisputed popularity and financial leader of American sports by containing costs to the point at which even guaranteed contracts aren't ironclad and player movement is so limited (through franchise tags and other restrictions) that no superstar ever gets to be a completely unrestricted free agent on his own terms.

The NFL owners enjoy such advantages, the envy of all, and still shut their game down this past spring and summer, still claiming to be losing money.

The false narrative that NBA players were making too much money succeeded because the players mismanaged the lockout and the media wanted basketball instead of labor detail. The owners got what they wanted. But the NBA's problems -- and the problem franchises -- remain very much the same.

Both sides can opt out of this new deal after six years, and if the owners feel they can beat down the players again by then, they'll try, with the claim that teams are losing even more money.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

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