Veteran Players Believe NBA Lockout More Likely Than Not
Chicago center Brad Miller has found at least one positive if an NBA lockout results in the 2011-12 season not starting on time.
Miller, you see, is an avid outdoorsman.
"I might start planning some hunting trips just in case,'' he said. "Great hunting season, October and November. White tail. Elk. Deer. Everything.''
Miller, then a rookie, is one of 41 active players remaining from the NBA's last lockout of 1998-99. It wiped out the first three months of the season, and the league played a condensed 50-game schedule.
"Geez, we're fossils,'' said Phoenix guard Steve Nash, a third-year man in 1998-99, said of that figure, which is down a year ago from 55 remaining players.
With the NBA in jeopardy of facing another lockout after next season, FanHouse talked to six players who remain from the last one. In addition to Miller, Nash, Phoenix forward Grant Hill and Denver guard Chauncey Billups believe there most likely will be a lockout in 2011.
Miami forward Jermaine O'Neal is confident one can be avoided. Chicago guard Lindsey Hunter, who won't have to worry too much about it once he plans to retire after this season, is undecided.
"It's very, very possible there's going to be a lockout,'' said Billups, a second-year man during the last one. "The only thing I tell guys is, 'Save your money so you'll be able to withstand however long it is.'''
The sides will hold a negotiating session in Dallas during All-Star Weekend. The owners have presented a first proposal to the players union, and the initial reaction hardly has been positive.
With the economy faltering, owners want to drastically cut salaries and to go to more of a hard salary cap rather than the current soft cap, which places a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax on teams surpassing a certain threshold. With profits down, owners will tell players they need to accept a good bit less than the current figure of 57 percent of basketball-related income.
Union vice president Adonal Foyle of Orlando, also a holdover from the 1998-99 lockout, recently told ESPN.com owners want to shorten the maximum lengths of contract to four years. The current maximum is six or five if a player signs with a different team.
"With their first proposal, they want to make some big changes,'' Miller said. "So we're telling all the players, 'Plan on saving money and be ready for [a lockout]. They [owners] want to make drastic changes, with every aspect of it besides pretty much getting rid of free agency. They're really taking a strong line... When we get to All-Star [Weekend], we'll see what happens.''
O'Neal, a third-year man during the last lockout, wasn't pleased to learn about the owner's initial proposal.
"This is the deal that they wanted [when the last collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2005],'' O'Neal said. "And is this deal not good enough now that they originally wanted four years ago? ... Some of the things that they're asking for are a little unfair to the players and the union.''
Still, O'Neal remains optimistic. He believes the sides will have resolved their issues by June 30, 2011, when the current CBA is likely to expire. It's considered a virtual certainty that the NBA, by the Dec. 15 deadline, will not pick up its option to extend the current CBA through 2011-12.
"Both parties have to understand this goes beyond the business of basketball to the sensitivity of our general public that supports how it looks,'' O'Neal said of risking turning off the public with another lockout. "A lot of people live their lives through sports and that's their outlet, and you want to continue to be the people's outlet during the tough (economic) times.
"You don't want to be bickering about issues and put that out to the general public, making it look like everybody is greedy and everybody wants more money when the rest of the world is struggling economically ... You want to find the medium ... It's a billion-dollar industry and everybody wants to be successful and ... share a piece of the pie. Hopefully, we can do that.''
O'Neal doesn't deny most players have little problem with the status quo. But for the players to hang on as much as they can from the current system, he believes top young players must actively participate.
"For us to be stable, we need more of our young stars to attend those meetings,'' O'Neal said. "Once the owners see more of the young stars, and not just some of the older players, they probably will see it's really important to our game (to get a deal done).''
However, due to the faltering economy, Hill sees the owners being even more unified than they were during the previous work stoppage.
"From everything I've been hearing from the players association, it looks like there's a pretty good chance (another lockout) will happen,'' said Hill, a five-year man during the last one. "Looking at the owners' standpoint, I think the difference between now and then is the economy is a lot worse. We were in the booming '90s then and now most of the owners' primary source of income isn't doing quite so well... So I think as unified as the owners were then in terms of holding out until they got what they wanted, it potentially could be worse.''
While the owners look to be more unified, Hill wondered if the same can be said about the players. One of the player victories in 1998-99 was gaining the mid-level exception, which resulted in a good number of veterans going from making minimum salaries of less than $1 million to eventually getting deals for around $5 million annually.
"From the players' standpoint, you had a lot more guys in '98, it was kind of the haves and the have nots,'' Hill said. "You had guys who had big contracts and those who were with the lower class in the world of NBA salaries. So a lot of guys had been journeymen who played for 10 years, and it was more the feeling, 'Let's take over the middle tier.' Now, you have maybe an era of (players) who never went through making minimum wage. It's all relative, but you have guys who all they know is making the middle class and doing well.
"I don't know how willing we are to fight and how prepared we are. (A possible lockout) is very real. It's not just going without a check. It kind of seems like the mindset with the players 12 years ago was, 'Let's fight for this. Let's do what we can.' It's almost now that we aren't aware what we're about to get ourselves into.''
Phoenix teammates Hill and Nash hope negotiations won't be acrimonious. Both said each side must remember it is a partnership, and the best deal is one that benefits both sides.
"We want the owners to be profitable, and we want to remain profitable,'' Nash said.
While the owners will point to the struggling economy as the key reason to cut back on salaries, Nash said the players can't cave into that reasoning.
"By (the time a new CBA goes into effect), the economy should be fairly stable, at least predictable kind of,'' Nash said. "I don't think (the economy) should be as big of a factor as if would have seemed a year ago. Obviously, they're going to play (the economy) cards. But as a union, as players, we've got to stand up for ourselves
"I wouldn't be surprised (if there is a lockout). That's the card the owners hold. And the negotiations begin.''
Having gone through a lockout before, Nash said players must be careful what they say to the media. That can influence public opinion, always important during a sports labor dispute.
During the 1998-99 lockout, guard Kenny Anderson said he might be forced to sell one of his eight luxury cars. And then union president Patrick Ewing, talking about the need to have a charity game for out-of-work players, said, "Sure, we make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too.''
"Some of the foolish words that were used gave the wrong impression,'' Nash said. "Owners can turn that around on us, too. I think it's important that we learn from the last time.''
The last time there was a lockout, teams sometimes played three games in three nights. Scoring was down as many players were out of shape. Some, such as Shawn Kemp, never saw their careers recover.
NBA Commissioner David Stern grew a lockout beard that made him look like Burl Ives. Eventually, he and union director Billy Hunter, during a last-ditch bargaining session in New York in January 1999, stayed up all night and came up with half a season.
"I know that nobody wants (another lockout),'' said Lindsey Hunter, a sixth-year veteran in 1998-99. "Hopefully, we can come to some common ground and do something that benefits the league as a whole.''
At least Hunter, 39, knows he will be retired when the start of the 2011-12 season rolls around. As for Miller, he wouldn't be surprised around that time if he's a hunter of another sort.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@christomasson