NBA

Dark cloud looming over NBA season

Special to FOX Sports Mitch Lawrence
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Check out all the previews for the upcoming NBA season and everybody is talking about the big showdown being between the Heat and Lakers in June.

They’re all wrong.

The biggest showdown is going to come after the Finals, starting on July 1, 2011, when it’s going to be the owners versus the players.

Entering a season when Miami, of all places, has become the center of the NBA universe, and the Los Angeles Lakers will be playing under the radar as they try for a three-peat in Phil Jackson’s swan song, the potential shutdown of the NBA casts a big, black cloud over everything.

After several negotiating sessions, owners and players remain far apart on one basic issue: whether the current salary structure needs to be junked, as owners contend, or just merely tweaked, as the players insist.

NBA commissioner David Stern came out Thursday after the owners' Board of Governors meetings and said that the players need to have their annual salary/benefits package reduced by about $800 million, to $1.3 billion from their current $2.1 billion.

“We would like to get profitable, have a return on investment,” Stern said. “There’s a swing of somewhere in the neighborhood of $750 to $800 million that we would like to change.’’

Stern reiterated that owners want a new system, claiming that the league expects to lose around $350 million this season, after losing close to $400 million last year. And even with the prospect of more ticket sales, Stern said the system still needs to be changed to ensure that teams start getting profitable.

As things look right now, Kobe vs. LeBron in prime time in June would be merely the appetizer to the showdown between Stern and Billy Hunter, the Players Association executive director.

Yes, unfortunately, it looks like we’re heading toward a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining agreement expires on the last day of June.

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“Hopefully, there won’t be a lockout, because the last time we had one, I remember that it was very tough for all of us to recover from,” said Joe Smith, the New Jersey Nets’ veteran forward who was around in 1998-99, the first time pro basketball owners padlocked the arena doors, resulting in a truncated 50-game regular season.

Smith remembers the negative backlash against the players. He also recalls that the league suffered in the war between billionaires and millionaires.

“We didn’t go on strike, but some of our fans thought we did,” Smith said. “I don’t think that either side wants to go through that again. It was a bad time for all of us. As players, we’re all waiting to see what will happen.”

There are two prevailing theories on what will happen.

The lockout (with a lowercase l) Theory: Both sides will come to their senses relatively quickly and the work stoppage will be limited to several months in the offseason. The only casualties would be meaningless summer-league games and pushing free agency back.

The Doomsday Theory: See 1998-99. During the last lockout, the league suffered losses in attendance, TV ratings and gross retail sales of licensed NBA products. While some of that coincided with Michael Jordan's retirement after the 1997-98 season, there was an obvious adverse reaction from consumers after the labor unrest. Attendance slipped 2.2 percent the season after the lockout and another two percent the following season. TV ratings dropped for three consecutive seasons overall and four consecutive seasons for the Finals after the lockout. And gross retail sales in 1999 were down more than 50 percent from just four years earlier. Besides the steep monetary losses, the league also suffered an enormous public relations hit. As Stern famously said after the lockout, "We have some winning back of the fans to do.”

“That’s not a situation we want to be in,” the Nets’ Devin Harris said of the Doomsday Theory. “Nobody wants a work stoppage because we all saw what happened last time there was a lockout. But this is a big business, so there are negotiations involved. Everybody wants something. Something has to give.”

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Owners have softened their tone in recent sessions. At first, they demanded that players accept reduced salaries and lengths of contracts, across the board, based on their claim that they had lost close to $400 million last season – more than double in any of the previous five seasons. Their attitude expressed at the bargaining table was, “You better accept a new system or else we are prepared to take drastic action.” Meaning, of course, a lockout.

But now with a projected box-office bonanza – reportedly, the NBA has a record 50,000 new season-ticket holders for this season – there was a less threatening tone at the last negotiating session.

Yet, while the tone has changed for the better, it still hasn’t changed the owners’ view that players, who received at least 57 percent of basketball-related income for the past five seasons, are going to have to accept lower salaries.

The players, of course, contend that the system has been working and they’ve actually had to endure a reduction in salaries over the past three seasons. If anything, the players argue, they shouldn’t have to pay for the bad decisions made by more than a few owners and team executives when it has come to signing players.

“That’s still the big elephant in the room,” said one member of the Players Association executive team.

If you listen to Stern, however, there’s no such animal. He’s already gone on record as saying this is going to be the finest season in league history. Interest-wise, he might be right. While LeBron James’ controversial move to the Heat dominated the offseason buzz, there is no shortage of storylines, including the Los Angeles Lakers with Jackson’s quest for a fourth three-peat and Kobe Bryant’s attempt to tie Jordan with his sixth ring.

Then there’s the specter of the Celtics, with Shaquille O’Neal joining their own Big Three, spoiling the Heat’s run to a Finals berth. The great gold rush of the summer of 2010 also saw other big names on the move, like Amar’e Stoudemire to New York, Chris Bosh landing in Miami and Carlos Boozer going to Chicago. Plus, there’s the potential of Carmelo Anthony winding up in New York or New Jersey before the season begins.

When it comes to talking up his product, Stern is the ultimate salesman. Just last season, as he reported record losses, he also said that that the league was continuing in its golden era. Asked to explain the obvious discrepancy, one member of Stern’s inner circle said, “He never said that our teams are printing money.’’

If that’s what Stern and his owners end up demanding, then you can expect the big showdown with players starting July 1 and another damaging lockout.

By comparison, Kobe vs. LeBron will seem like small potatoes.

Tagged: Lakers, Heat, Nets, Joe Smith, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James

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