Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lessons From the 1998-99 NBA Lockout -- It Doesn't End Well for the Players

1) If there are 30 NBA clubs and 15 guys on a club, we have 450 NBA players. Of those 450 guys, the general public today gives a flying F about maybe 4 -- LeBron, Wade, Kobe, and Dirk. Only true basketball fans care about even great players like Durant, Melo, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.

4 guys. Out of 450.

Everyone during the NBA Finals was talking about how much they loved the (white) Dirk Nowitzki instead of the (black) LeBron James. Prior to the NBA Finals, I would estimate that 95% of the United States public could not pick Dirk Nowitzki out of a random group of European concert goers, so long as in the pictures shown did not reveal Dirk's height.

Dirk has been a top 12 player in the league for 10 years. Prior to his stint as The Guy Who Might Beat LeBron, 95% of Americans had did not know or care who he was.

So, NBA players, recognize that fact. This is not NFL football and 99.9% of you don't have the cache of NFL players. Sorry. You will generally not be missed.


2) Now, how "fungible" are NBA players even from an on-the-court perspective? 452 guys played at least a minute in an NBA game last year.

"Young Star" minutes are 36+ minutes a game -- 26 guys

Very Good Starter/Old Star Minutes are 30+ a game -- 76 more guys (102 total)

Solid Starter Minutes are 24+ a game -- 75 more guys (177 total)

That means that of the 452 guys who played in the league last year, there are 452 - 177 = 275 "fungible" players. If tomorrow they left the league you would not really miss them and you could easily replace them through draft/free agency/etc. in 4 or 5 years.

How about Efficiency -- what sort of production are you getting that you could not get from someone else? Answer -- well, not much.....

The #201 player in the league last year in Efficiency had an Efficiency number of just under 9. So, 252 players in the league had a production of an Efficiency number under 9. That is not very good. Are you clamoring for your local club to get Jarrett Jack? Randy Foye? Someone who plays as well as Evan Turner played last year? Probably not, right -- but there are around 250 guys who produced LESS for their clubs last year than those guys!

My point? Well, the point is that there are a ton of guys who are current NBA players, who absolutely are damned lucky to be NBA players, who cannot make money anywhere else to the extent they can in the league, and who the owners really can piss off at their own whim and suffer no repurcussions.

If you are Jarrett Jack and Randy Foye and Austin Daye and Patrick Patterson and Gary Neal, you should know that you need the league a lot more than the league needs you. Once that realization comes about, and once you start missing paychecks so that LeBron and Wade and Bosh do not have to take pay cuts in the future, you start getting a little pissed, and you start asking WTF is my union doing to help ME!?!?

How do I know? Well, history teaches me:

On December 23, [1998] [Commissioner] Stern announced that he would recommend canceling the season if there was no deal by January 7, 1999.

As Stern's deadline approached, the NBPA showed signs of division from within.

Highly paid players were seen as the ones most affected by the disputed issues, rather than the union's membership as a whole. Agent David Falk, who was considered an influential voice for the players, represented NBPA president Patrick Ewing and nine players on the union's 19-person negotiating committee.

The NBPA scheduled a meeting in New York City on January 6, where players would vote on a proposal by the owners that the committee had recommended opposing. Several players, including Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, wanted the vote to be conducted by secret ballot, while others indicated a desire to return to competition regardless of how the vote went. Kevin Johnson stated that most players "were just ready to throw down [fight] Wednesday at our meeting if an agreement hadn't been reached."

Faced with a splintering union, Hunter moved to resume talks with Stern. On January 6, the day before Stern's deadline, he and Hunter reached an agreement, which was ratified by the NBPA later that day and by the NBA Board of Governors on January 7.

Widely viewed as a victory for Stern and the owners, the agreement was signed by both parties on January 20, officially ending the lockout after 204 days.


It capped players' salaries at between $9 million and $14 million, depending on how long they had played in the NBA. A rookie pay scale was introduced, with salary increases tied to how early a player was selected in the NBA Draft. The Larry Bird exception was retained, though maximum annual pay raises were capped. New "average" and "median" salary cap exemptions, which the NBPA had proposed, allowed teams to sign one player per category even if they were over the spending limit.

The league's minimum salary was increased to $287,500, a $15,000 raise from before the lockout.

If we know anything from the troubles of Antoine Walker and Randy Brown and Jason Caffey and LaTrell Sprewell and numerous other NBA players forced to file for bankruptcy protection, it is that once the money hose is shut off, many players simply have no way of making ends meet. One survey suggested that as many as 60% of players have no money 5 years after leaving the NBA. Derrick Coleman and Antoine Walker made a total of $200MM playing ball -- both basically penniless now.

The owners hold all of the cards, and they certainly know that. The best negotiating pitch for the players is this -- "Look, LeBron just gave you the best ever year for TV ratings since Jordan was in the finals. Why f that up by being too greedy and pissing off fans? Just give us a reasonable proposal and we will sign."

Is this great negotiating skill? No. Is it all you have when the deck is stacked so badly against your side and things will just get worse? Yes.

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