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So What Did We Learn Here? Struggling to Make Sense of the NBA Lockout

Nov 28, 2011, 12:42 PM EDT

So what did we learn? What's the final takeaway? It can't really just be a pack of greedy owners taking it to the players and telling the common fan to "go screw," can it?

A more punitive luxury tax?

That’s it? That’s the best you could come up with?

You threw away 16 games worth of revenue and untold amounts on this season’s ticket and merchandise sales in favor of a more punitive luxury tax?

I couldn’t be happier! Nor more bewildered…

To speak as if there is one central takeaway from the now almost-officially-resolved NBA Lockout would be to lie. There are actually an untold number of takeaways that are almost all—at least—half-right.

Sure, there’s more to this deal than just adjustments to the tax—accompanying restrictions to the sign-and-trade, modifications to the Bird Rule, anywhere from 7-9% of BRI—but the biggest changes have rung hollow over the past few days because fans already knew they were coming. It was generally assumed that we were in store for something more. And that’s why the lede of perhaps the least sexy labor resolution of all time begins with “a more punitive luxury tax.”

It was no secret that the 50-50 split had been on the table since the league first cancelled it’s preseason in October. The players conceded 4% of their original 57 right at the start, and the owners—you know, the ones with all the leverage—seemed to be pushing further toward half with every new meeting.

Indeed, this 51.2%-49% moving split was on the table two weeks ago when the players balked and moved to sue the owners in federal court as their only way of gaining any ground in negotiations they were quickly losing.

So what changed in the intervening 12 days between the players moving to sue and Billy Hunter and David Stern taking pictures in matching holiday sweaters?This is where things begin to break down for anyone hoping to make sense of either a) why they’ve been thus far deprived professional basketball or b) why they’re now deprived of the lockout for which they were cheering.

To clarify, those who fall into the latter camp are not those who have an adamant distaste for the NBA and wish to see it go away in favor of, let’s say, the advancement of hockey. Those who fall into the latter camp are those fans who were willing to pass up on this season in the name of actually improving the product. And, so, I ask you—if you were in that camp—what about this is any better than before? I’ll assume you agree that the answer is, in short, “nothing.”

Where are the restrictions on player guarantees? Where is the hard salary cap? Where is the increased revenue sharing not between players and owners but owners and owners? Where are the rules that help to prevent a LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony or Dwight Howard from holding a small market hostage? Where are the rules meant to improve parity? Where is the expansion proposal that would make the D-League both look and function more like the AHL? What in the hell, if anything, did we just accomplish?

To that final question, I have no good answer. See, I—and I fully acknowledge this as a nearly incomprehensible position—love this agreement, because I happen to relish all the worst things about the NBA. If there was ever an epitome for liking “object x” for all the wrong reasons, it would be my fandom for the NBA. Nothing gets my blood pumping more on a Tuesday afternoon than hearing rumors on Twitter that a four-way deal might be in the works and that Ramon Sessions might be a key add-in for salary reasons.

Four years ago, I fell in love with current Washington Wizard Rashard Lewis on the sole basis that his 6-year, $110 million sign-and-trade from Seattle to Orlando was the worst contract I had seen in my life to that point. Whenever anyone asks why I’m such a fan of such an ostensibly awful product, I point to that deal as my primary motivation, and never expect anyone to fully understand.

Outside of actually liking basketball, I’m a fan of the NBA because of its so clearly unsustainable financial mess-making. This is a league who has had a higher minimum cap for 12 guys than the NHL has for 23 and needs a “trade machine” just to tell you which deals are and are not allowable under its system. In no other league is player movement this wildly captivating. Free agent signings and player transactions are like a sport in and of themselves. This is why I love the fact that the new CBA addresses literally none of the things that keep invested in the NBA for “all the wrong reasons,” and this is why both you and I should be so bewildered that this league is nearly no better off than when this lockout began on July 1.

Though I’ve written on multiple occasions that both sides are equally at fault in this stupefying lockout, I have privately sympathized with the players—another wildly unpopular position. I’m sorry, but I refuse to hold Rashard Lewis to a standard that he should tell Otis Smith, “You know what Otis? I’m really only worth half of that salary. Why don’t you pay me about 55 million dollars less?”

I don’t buy this business about needing to “save the owners from themselves.” How is the NBA the only North American sporting league with this problem of needing to spend money to appease its rabid fans? No, stop it, you didn’t give Ben Gordon $58 million because you had a gun to your head; you did it because you have poor managerial skills and a weak constitution for financial responsibility. With that in mind, the CBA’s new amnesty clause just presents an even greater moral hazard moving forward.

As for the fans who have every right to complain about the likes of Chris Webber, Glenn Robinson and the first two season of Elton Brand, you wouldn’t turn down money and neither should they. They shouldn’t “know better.”

And, hey! That’s it. There it is. In a nutshell, we have solved the NBA lockout. None of these guys—neither the owners nor the players—should know any better, because no one is forced to cede any more ground than absolutely necessary. I don’t mean to compare the NBA to improving public schools or cleaning up the environment, but what is a collective bargaining negotiation other than a collective action problem?

We all want nice things—quality education, clean drinking water, an equal opportunity for both the Clippers and the Lakers—but it’s rare to reach a consensus on how to pay for it.

Make no mistake, the NBA is still as broken as it ever was. But this deal ensures that we will soldier on under a new, though nonetheless outrageous, status quo for at least the next six years.

So what did we learn? What’s the final takeaway? It can’t really just be a pack of greedy owners taking it to the players and telling the common fan to “go screw,” can it?

That can’t be said for sure. What can be said for sure is that this process lasted nearly five months and accomplished little but the owners taking money back from the players. No meaningful cap changes, no expanded revenue sharing between teams, no sponsors on the jerseys as a way to find alternate means of revenue.

It turns out that all the owners needed to fix their irreconcilably broken system was anywhere from $280-360 million from the players. Funny, weren’t they out a total $400 million last year? Granted, I studied philosophy, and their future revenue projections are always subject to change, but you and I both know that doesn’t add up to a definite financial clearing.

So are we, after all this time, finally to believe the players when they argued that owners’ financial accounting was illegitimate? Are we as fans to believe that we were cost not only 16 games, but also the opportunity to improve this league for the long-term when the owners decided $320 million worth of BRI was more important than the product itself?

I don’t know.

I told you there were plenty of takeaways. And I told you they were all half-right. I wish I had the answers as to why they wasted all this time, and why we will enjoy the benefit of almost nothing in the
way of legitimate change. The best I can guess is that we were lied to—”we” being both the players and the fans.

As such, I really wish I had the will power to tell the NBA that I’m taking my sports-related spending money and buying Los Angeles Kings season tickets, or whatever kind of fraudulent claim I want to make about how aggrieved I really am. But I don’t have that will power, and if you’re a fan of professional basketball, then neither do you.

Your passion for basketball, my passion for basketball, means nothing to those owners, and yet it means everything. Because when all is said and done, there’s nothing that makes me happier on Christmas than watching the National Basketball Association. And they know that. And that’s why they know you and I will come crawling back. And that no matter what they do, no matter how selfish they are, no matter how badly they alienate us, we’ll keep coming back.

So, what did we as fans of a bad product with no intent on improving learn about rich people who control said product when we’re absent any ability to say “no more, we’ve had enough?”

That’s knowledge the owners knew from the start.

Video NSFW