Trust Dan Gilbert’s gut. We’ve come through two years worth of negotiations, 45 meetings between the owners and the players union, $1.1 billion worth of concessions by the players, two weeks of regular season games canceled, who knows how many artificial deadlines, one federal mediator, dozens of Ken Berger lockout columns, and almost four months since the lockout began. Yet yesterday, with the NBA’s future again on the line, David Stern sat at home sick and Dan Gilbert urged Billy Hunter, “Trust my gut.”
The owners have been reduced to this, leaning on the leadership of Paul Allen and Dan Gilbert, two incompetent, bullish owners who can’t run their own franchises right, never mind try to fix the entire league. When the players and owners could not agree on the BRI split, Billy Hunter requested to set aside the BRI issue for the time being and focus on “the system” instead. With Stern vomiting somewhere else, Allen — whose Blazers tenure was once described, “The team may win games. It may even win another playoff series someday. But there is high-level congruency necessary, top down, and Allen’s operation will never have that as long as he is in charge.” — was called as the owners’ leader.
Like a mature man, like a rational man, Allen listened to Hunter’s request and replied with no words whatsoever, just staring at Hunter in silence, unwilling to formulate words even to tell Hunter no, like a teenage bully who refused to even acknowledge a classmate. Did I say mature? Did I call Allen rational? I meant he behaved just as one would expect him to behave, with indecency, like he expects everyone to bow down and kiss his money. He acted like a man who doesn’t seem to get along with anyone he works with, whose dysfunctional Blazers franchise runs through talented GMs like pairs of underwear, using them for a little while and then throwing on another pair, always leaving the old GM dirty and in need of a wash.
The inmates are indeed running the asylum now, and I’m not talking about the players. Considering the damage incurred while Stern rested at home, perhaps Stern wasn’t the fire-breathing, throwing star-chucking bully everyone has portrayed him to be. Perhaps he is actually the most reasonable voice in the owners’ circle, the only person capable of staring 30 mega-millionaires in the eye and telling them it’s not worth it to sit on the players’ backs until they break. With Stern gone, these owners didn’t want to negotiate. They drew a 50-50 line in the sand and would not cross it. They would not even discuss system issues unless the players association submitted to the owners every monetary demand. They acted like 30 spoiled, condescending brats who are used to getting everything they want.
Trust my gut, Gilbert told Hunter. The players had offered a perfectly reasonable 50-53 band to split BRI, but the owners were not willing to move, not even a little. Later, the owners acted like they were the ones making concessions. “We made clear we were willing to go to 50 percent in an effort to compromise,” said Adam Silver, acting commissioner for the day while Stern nursed his illness. But settling on 50% is not an effort to compromise by the owners. It’s a damn scheme they keep trying to sell everyone on, a big, round number that seems fair in theory but really would amount to the players conceding 12% salary cutbacks, no small concession.
The players have already offered to take 7% salary cutbacks, perhaps even more with the band they proposed, perhaps even more if the system issues could be ironed out in the players’ favor. But the owners aren’t here simply to give the players a black eye and take the spoils. They are here to break the players’ arms, take out the players’ legs, and leave the players to spend the next CBA in a wheelchair while the owners celebrate with their winnings. NBA players are the most highly-paid athletes in the United States, and nobody will cry for them if they have to give back 12% of their salaries. But don’t let owners tell you they want a compromise. They are here to win this fight, and they are here to win it by a KO so vicious people will YouTube it for years to come.
The owners want an NHL-like system, with a hard salary cap whereby each team can only spend X amount of dollars. The hard cap would level the playing field, the owners say, giving small-market teams like Sacramento the opportunity to compete with the limitless pockets of the Lakers. But the owners decline to mention that in the NBA, where having a super-duperstar or three is absolutely essential in a championship quest, competitive parity is almost impossible to achieve. Go ahead, NBA, change the system as much as you want. You still won’t find this myth you call “competitive balance.”
Why not? Because it’s impossible. Let’s just pretend, for argument’s sake, the NBA redesigned its entire system tomorrow. Instead of using the current rosters, every player is placed in a draft pool and the rosters are reconfigured in a league-wide fantasy draft. That sounds like a fair way to do things. But it wouldn’t come close to achieving parity, I can promise that.
Why not? The team drafting first would have Lebron James. The team drafting 30th would have Joakim Noah. The NBA is a stars league, and there just aren’t enough stars to have parity.
In the NBA, one star can lead the Cavs to the Eastern Conference’s best record one year, and leave them to its worst the next. One star can carry Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs. One star can lift Michael Beasley, Quentin Richardson and the mummy formerly known as Jermaine O’Neal to 48 wins. One star can mean the difference between a Finals appearance and a lottery season. But not every team can have a damn star — no matter how high or how low, how soft or how hard, the league makes the salary cap.
How do we promote parity in a league where Lebron James is willing to take a pay cut, leave a 61-win team for a 48-win team, reduce his own offensive role, and do all that in the name of winning, in the name of forming a “Super-Team” in Miami? A league where Carmelo Anthony forced a trade to the New York Knicks not because they could pay him more money (they couldn’t), not because they fielded a better team (they didn’t), but because they play in a bigger market? What hard cap are the owners going to install to keep THAT from happening?
Parity is nothing more than a buzz word the owners are throwing out there to divert us from what’s really going on. David Stern was sick at home, but he could have been present at the meetings with just as much authority. Peter Holt, Paul Allen and Dan Gilbert have taken charge, the hard-line owners raising their fists and hoping to land them squarely in the players’ jaw. The plan was for the players to back down, but Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher have prepared the players well for this moment, they’ve told the players for two years to save money because the owners want blood. And so the lockout continues, 112 days and counting, more senseless than ever, with the two sides only $110 million apart for next season, yet each side willing to lose far more than that just during the two weeks of the season already canceled.
“Something happened in that board of governors meeting,” union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said about a meeting between owners that took place yesterday after negotiations. We don’t know what it was. But we do know that Stern missed today’s negotiations, ever important, a meeting Stern would normally have to be on his death bed to miss, claiming he was sick. We know that hard-line owners, who had previously taken a quiet backseat, came to the forefront. We know that the league, which by all accounts seemed ready to negotiate yesterday, gave a take-it-or-leave-it offer today and refused to back away from it.
We don’t know exactly what happened in that board of governors meeting, and neither does Billy Hunter. But he thinks he knows why.
“I think it’s all about putting money in their pocket,” he told reporters Thursday.
Trust Dan Gilbert’s gut. Or better yet, punch him in it.