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NBA owners are on a power play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 18, 2011 11:12 AM

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The NBA labor dispute isn't about profitability or parity. Those are just code words. The laborious negotiations between the NBA and the NBA players association are about money and power.

NBA owners feel the players have attained too much of both, and they want to take them back, even if it requires shuttering the league for a year.

The NBA has always been a players' league, but now it is the players' league. Star players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony basically held their teams -- and to a degree the entire NBA -- hostage before dictating where they played and with whom, all while cashing in with new lucrative, long-term deals.

For egotistical, imperious, successful entrepreneurs, a description that fits almost all NBA owners, it's difficult to accept an industry in which the employees dictate the terms.

Call this the revenge of Dan Gilbert. The choleric Cavaliers owner was essentially powerless as his franchise player, James, took his talents to Miami in a self-aggrandizing television special. Gilbert's team was humiliated on national television and instantly devalued. The Cavs went from contenders to a league laughingstock, posting an NBA-record 26-game losing streak with LeBron's Leftovers.

Now, like a jilted lover, Gilbert is part of a group of hardline owners who want to bring the players to their knees and the pendulum of power swinging back in their direction.

NBA owners don't just want a victory in the labor game -- they have that already with the players agreeing to decrease their percentage of basketball-related income from 57 percent to as low as 50 percent -- they want a 40-point rout replete with scrubs (Cleveland, Indiana, Sacramento) throwing down dunks and mugging for the cameras in the final seconds.

No wonder the NBA is headed for a different kind of court, with the players association decertifying after rejecting the owners' final offer.

The owners' take-it-or-leave-it proposal would lower minimum salaries by 12 percent; trim the maximum length of contracts from six years to five; cut the annual salary increases for a player that re-signs with his team from 10.5 percent to 6.5 percent (players like James and Bosh who were sign-and-trade free agents would only be eligible for four-year deals with a 3.5 percent jump per year); prohibit teams from offering a contract extension to a player they acquire via trade for six months (the 'Melo Mandate); bar teams that exceed the luxury tax from making sign-and-trade deals, starting in 2013 and replace the dollar-for-dollar tariff for exceeding the luxury tax with a more onerous tiered system that penalizes teams up to $3.25 per dollar depending on how far they go over the cap.

There is also what we'll call the LeBron Rule, a stipulation that all but ends the early termination option (ETO) in contracts that LeBron, Wade and Bosh all used to become free agents last summer, and that Dwight Howard and Chris Paul could utilize to hit the market this summer.

Now, a player (and a team) could only have an option year if the first-year salary is less than the NBA average player salary, which will never happen for an NBA star, or if the option years are non-guaranteed.

The next proposal from NBA owners will probably ask to bring back the old baseball reserve clause.

In his memo to NBA players imploring them to make a deal, commissioner David Stern asked players to focus on the compromises owners have made. Then he mentioned backing down on a hard salary cap, roll-backs of existing contracts -- you know, the ones owners negotiated -- and the abolition of guaranteed contracts.

How can you concede something you never had? It's logic more twisted than a bread tie.

NBA stars like LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose aren't just employees. They're the product, and that's the irony here. The NBA is trying to slay a monster it created.

The NBA's success has been built on the idea of peddling personalities and building individual brands. It's how the NBA rose to prominence. It wasn't Celtics vs. Lakers. It was Bird vs. Magic, or Magic vs. Michael, or Jordan vs. Barkley. No league has emphasized individual accomplishment and personality like the NBA over the past 25-30 years. The league empowered its star players by putting them above its teams.

It's no wonder that they ended up with some self-serving, entitled, egomaniacal players like LeBron. But what the NBA is trying to do is jam the tooth-paste back in the tube, one messy, desperate dip at a time.

The idea of star players steering what team they play for didn't start with James. Back in 1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar let the Milwaukee Bucks know that they could either trade him to a more desirable NBA locale or watch him walkaway to the ABA. Abdul-Jabbar forced his way to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In 1996, 14 years before LeBron's Decision, a young, telegenic, charismatic franchise player for a small-market franchise used free agency to abscond for sunnier climes. Shaquille O'Neal, the Big Mercenary, left Orlando and landed with the Lakers.

As for NBA owners complaining about marginal players being overpaid, no one put a gun to their head and forced them to sign Bobby Simmons to a five-year, $47 million deal.

Most of these NBA owners got their teams by knowing how to expertly manage money. It's not the players' fault that they display the monetary munificence of teenage girls at the mall in pursuit of players or that certain NBA markets lack sufficient fan bases to turn a profit.

In the real business world if a company had a branch in New Orleans or Charlotte that wasn't sustainable they would just close it or relocate it. Why should the NBA be any different?

Don't be fooled. This isn't about the NBA getting more favorable conditions for conducting business or more competitive balance. It's about putting the players back in their place, and it's basketball fans who are powerless in this power play.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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