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Owners, players save NBA season

Celtics to start on Christmas

If a tentative agreement is approved by the players, Kevin Garnett and the Celtics will play Amare Stoudemire and the New York Knicks to open the season on Christmas Day. If a tentative agreement is approved by the players, Kevin Garnett and the Celtics will play Amare Stoudemire and the New York Knicks to open the season on Christmas Day. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff File)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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A 149-day labor ordeal that stymied the National Basketball Association and forced the cancellation of hundreds of games, including 24 Celtics’ contests, finally ended early yesterday morning when the league’s owners and players tentatively agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, saving the 2011-12 season.

A 15-hour negotiating session in a Manhattan hotel produced a long-awaited deal and saved face in what had been an embarrassing situation for the NBA. The Celtics would return to action Christmas Day with a road game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, playing an abbreviated 66-game schedule that will extend into late April.

The shortened schedule gives an aging Celtics franchise led by Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett - who are in the last year of their contracts - and Paul Pierce perhaps one final shot of getting a second NBA title in four years.

“The tentative agreement is great news for our fans, players, and our organization,’’ Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said in a statement to the Globe. “We are very hopeful the NBA will be back on the court on Christmas Day.’’

Emotions were tempered because both the owners and players need to ratify the deal. The now-defunct Players Association must reconstitute itself and call for a vote of the estimated 430 players. That is expected to occur this week. The NBA labor relations committee, a group of owners involved in collective bargaining, met yesterday, and the league’s 29 owners were expected to approve the deal perhaps as early as Monday.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said that training camps and free agency will begin Dec. 9, meaning the NBA will face a situation similar to the National Football League labor settlement in July when teams had a reduced window to sign players before the regular season began. Stern, who said just 13 days ago that the NBA could be headed for a “nuclear winter’’ after the players filed antitrust lawsuits against the owners, relayed the news in a hastily organized 3 a.m. press conference yesterday.

“Well, we’ve reached a tentative understanding that is subject to a variety of approvals and very complex machinations, but we are optimistic that will all come to pass and the NBA season will begin Dec. 25, Christmas Day, with a triple-header,’’ said Stern, with one of those three games being Celtics-Knicks. “We are very pleased that we have come this far. There is a lot of work to be done in a lot of places, with a lot of committees and player groups and the like, but we are optimistic that it will hold and we will have ourselves an NBA season.’’

There are still several unresolved issues that need to be worked out by negotiators, such as the minimum age of incoming players - it is currently set at 19 years of age, but the league wants to raise it to 20 - and drug testing of players. The league will extend its regular season from mid-April to late April and it is now scrambling to reschedule regular season games in arenas that may have already been booked. The NBA Finals will end a week later than normal, probably in late June.

The tentative agreement would bring ten years of labor peace to the NBA, similar to the 10-year deal recently reached by the NFL. Major League Baseball just announced a five-year union deal, putting pressure on the NBA to reach an agreement.

The NBA last faced labor strife in 1998-99, resulting in a 50-game shortened season. The regular season is normally 82 games.

Pierce, who said he was selective about which pickup games he played in during the lockout in order to keep his legs fresh, theorized that the aging Celtics would thrive in a shorter season.

“If there’s a 50- or 60-game season: Advantage, Celtics,’’ Pierce said earlier this month. “I think the last four years, we’ve been the best team in the first four months of the season.’’

Early yesterday morning, negotiators appeared exhausted and depleted during the press conference. The discussions often became contentious with both sides accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith. The players repeatedly insisted they wanted to play and were being prevented by the owners, who ceased all game operations. The owners countered by saying the players refused to acknowledge the nation’s economic turmoil and wanted to continue to earn an unfair share of basketball revenues.

The biggest haggling point was basketball-related income, which was split 57-43 in favor of the players during the previous agreement. After the owners initially asked for a 53-47 split in their favor, they offered 50-50, which was reluctantly accepted by the players. According to a source, there is flexibility in the deal - depending on the economy - that could change the split to 49-51 either way.

The owners claimed they lost more than $300 million last season. Players, meanwhile, have signed ever-more lucrative deals in the last few years. This year, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers is slated to make $25.2 million, making him the highest paid NBA player. The Celtics’ Garnett makes $21.2 million.

The agreement seeks to limit those huge contracts to some degree.

For example, it tries to limit what are known as maximum free agent deals, available to veteran players. Under the old labor agreement, a 10-year veteran free agent is eligible to receive a maximum six-year, $112,294,350 contract. Under the new labor agreement, there will be more roadblocks to make such deals happen.

It also seeks to limit sign-and-trade deals, in which a team tries to avoid the salary cap by signing a free agent to a contract and then trades him to another team of the player’s choice. This is done to allow the new team to offer the player a higher salary or more years than would ordinarily be permitted. Under the new contract, those deals would be harder for big-market teams that are facing a luxury tax, such as the Celtics, to make.

Tax-paying teams will also not be allowed to sign players to what are known as full midlevel contracts, which were limited to about $5.8 million last season. The Celtics signed Jermaine O‘Neal to such a deal last year. Teams will have the option of signing free agents to the mini-mid-level at $3 million per season.

However, the players avoided a hard salary cap and more restrictions on maximum salaries. Many players, including Pierce, who last year signed a four-year, $62 million contract, were unhappy with the owners’ demands and suggested the players union decertify and take the dispute to the courts. Pierce said last Saturday during a charity game at Harvard that the players wanted to prevent a canceled season and were ready to return to the court.

The NBA owners constantly stressed competitive balance during the past few months, aiming to create a system that would allow teams in Memphis, Milwaukee, and Sacramento to compete financially with Boston, Los Angeles, and New York even though the smaller market teams collect a fraction of the money from local television contracts. (The Celtics have agreed to a new 20-year contract extension with Comcast that could earn the team an estimated additional $20 million per season.)

With players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh joining forces to play in Miami, after the Big Three won a championship in Boston, the league feared that players would simply flock to the bigger markets for larger paydays and more endorsement dollars. While the players still have that choice to join larger market teams, the new collective bargaining agreement is designed to enable the smaller markets to have an equal chance of winning an NBA title.

Deputy commissioner Adam Silver repeatedly pointed to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who won the most recent Super Bowl, as a shining example of competitive balance.

“I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free agency market in a way that they have been able to in the past,’’ Silver said. “You never can be sure with how a new system will work but we feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships.’’

Players Association president Derek Fisher, who was invited to return to the negotiations when it appeared an agreement was close, was sympathetic for the fans who have missed out on the NBA.

“The most important key thing here is that our fans and the support from the people and the patience through a large part of this process, that is who a lot of this credit goes to,’’ he said. “The efforts that have been made have been largely with them in mind. So, with that being said, there is a lot of work left to do. Attorneys and lawyers will handle a lot of the heavy lifting. For myself it is great to be a part of this particular moment in terms of giving our fans what it is that so badly they have wanted to see.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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