How the NBA Got its Deal and Ended the Basketball Lockout


Player's head Billy Hunter and NBA Commisioner David Stern can finally share a laugh

On Friday, while the majority of America was microwaving refrigerated turkey, the key players in the NBA’s labor battle sat down at a spare table and announced that yes, they had the framework of a deal in place. Commissioner David Stern cautioned that there are still “complex machinations” to take place, but with the sides in agreement on all the major issues, basketball will resume again on Christmas Day, a little less than a month from now.

So what changed since we last checked in? How could the union negotiate after they’d disbanded? What are the differences between this agreement and the prior one? And what exactly needs to happen before the deal is set in stone?

How the Negotiations Worked

As you’ll recall, the NBA Player’s Union had disbanded in order to file a series of antitrust cases against the league. And while most observers didn’t believe the lawsuits would actually wend their way to court, seeing them instead as a canny negotiating tactic that finally gave the players some semblance of leverage, we can’t deny that those lawsuits were the last meaningful development before both sides decided to, at long last, settle their differences.

Because there technically was no NBA Player’s Association, this last round of negotiations were actually lawsuit settlement talks. In other words, the owners and the players figured out how to create a deal they could live with so the players would drop their antitrust case.

Of course, the only way the players would agree to drop its suit was a collective bargaining agreement that would satisfy the owners and the quasi-disbanded union.

Which is exactly what they came up with.

How the Deal is Different

Put simply, it’s a big win for the owners. They reduced the player’s share of basketball profits from 57% to a complicated “banded” percentage that will basically work out to a 50-50 split. Essentially, this assures even the worst owners turn a profit, even if they feel inclined to dole out horribly reasoned, short-sighted contracts.

Eddy Curry, poster-child for terrible contracts everywhere

We’re looking at you, Eddy Curry.

In fact, speaking of bad contracts, this new agreement contains a so-called “amnesty provision.” Basically, it gives teams the ability to jettison their most egregiously awful contract in the next year or two. While the player will still be paid in full, the contract doesn’t eat into a team’s salary cap — meaning the total amount of money from which teams draw to sign players. Those players that are waived can then find a new team if there’s any market for them at that point. Howard Beck penned a nice piece over the weekend on this bizarre provision and he, for one, doesn’t expect too many teams to utilize it.

And though there are myriad contract rules and details up in the air, most fans probably won’t notice. Player contracts are still guaranteed in full, trades will still be plentiful, and the NBA, thankfully, is very nearly back.

How the Deal Gets Finalized

First, the “B-level” issues like revenue sharing and distribution of luxury-tax penalties have to get hammered out. But with the major sticking points agreed upon, no one expects those smaller negotiation points to waylay the deal.

The next hurdle is that the Player’s Association is currently disbanded. They’ll need to reform as as a union and vote on a deal. Then, both the Player’s Association and the owners need to vote on the deal and just a simple majority on both sides means we get NBA basketball again.

So what do we take from all of this? Well, for one, no matter the size of the union or the wealth of its members, in general, ownership has more leverage. It’s a hard reality but it’s one we’ve seen play out time and time again, be it in football or the steel working industry.

We’ve also learned that if you’re negotiating these large scale deals, it’s better to do it like baseball did this last week. Quietly, in the midst of the an NBA lockout and mere months since football ended a work-stoppage of their own, Major League Baseball and its players reached an agreement to avoid the sort of public haggling and fan acrimony the NBA and NFL suffered. They extended the working relationship between players and owners until 2016 and hardly a soul noticed.

In other words, be it labor negotiations or this evening’s dirty dishes, it never pays to procrastinate.

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