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June 17, 2005 -- AUBURN HILLS — According to TV ratings reports, the Spurs-Pistons match-up is on track to be the next-to-least watched Finals in NBA history. Viewers have tuned out in alarming numbers while the threat of a lockout come July 1 has its remaining audience thoroughly turned off.
Only in the NBA can an unwanted coach napalm his organization and its vital assets in a tattle-tale expose and be rehired the very next season for $4 million more annually than he was earning when he left.
I guess Phil Jackson really is the Second Coming.
Only in the NBA can a coach (more uncomfortable than unhealthy, I submit) of the defending champs be permitted to negotiate with another team during the playoffs for a higher position while in the second season of a five-year contract.
Larry Brown already is making plans to leave Cleveland.
Only in the NBA can Commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, the executive director of the Player's Association, work in partnership to upstage the season's pinnacle presentation with intimidating talk of lockouts and death kneels at their respective press conferences.
Nothing in their annoying speechifying over the last six weeks vaguely convinces me the NBA will have to close down its business come July 1 if there's not a new collective bargaining agreement.
On April 19, two union lawyers and association president Michael Curry notified the league the union could no longer support the concept communicated to commissioner and his staff two days before that induced Stern to believe an understanding had been reached on all the major concerns.
Stern wasn't angry the union had backed off after meeting with 15 of the most powerful player agents. What upset him was the union left the league with no framework as a guide. Which issues were acceptable? Which were unacceptable? Stern wasn't persuaded Hunter had conveyed to the players what was on the table. That's why he's been so vocal.
Vocal, not vacant; I cannot fathom either side being stupid enough to shut down an industry in which franchises have tripled in price over the last ten years, its workers' average salary is $4.4M and is assured to keep escalating on both fronts as long as the league's public perception remains positive.
Why would the owners or the players so much as think about taking such a ridiculous risk? What issue could be so important to gamble giving up such unprecedented prosperity for months, maybe a full season, of unwarrantable unemployment and defenseless image staining?
None that I'm privy to and I'm thoroughly aware of every critical conflict being discussed. Within the last 24 hours, representatives from both ends of the bargaining process have brought me up to date. And what I can't help but decipher is that the league and the union are only a three-foot putt away from resolving this stalemate, though Hunter, for some reason, does not wish to admit the two sides were ever close.
Nevertheless, confirm both parties, the course of conclusion already has begun. Following a ludicrously long hiatus (except for two clandestine meetings), negotiations will resume today in New York with a number of owners rushing in from around the country.
On April 17, the two sides essentially had agreed to the following:
A reduction of the maximum length of player's contract from seven (parent team) and six years (suitor) to five and five; a reduction of annual increases from 121/2 and 10 percent, respectively, to 11.5 and nine percent; a raise in the age limit from 18 to 19 with a lottery exception (anybody, date of birth notwithstanding, drafted in the top 14 would be eligible to play in the league); the players' guaranteed share of the business related income would remain a minimum of 57 percent but soar most likely to over 60; the cap would increase from 48 to 51 percent, thus the average salary would swell from $4.4 to $5.5M; and drug testing would be strengthened pertaining to performance-enhancing substances and abuse, including random exams of veterans. Nothing explicit was outlined. There's a continuing debate concerning how many times the vets could be given a random urinalysis for steroids versus recreational drugs.
Which brings us to union's most contentions issue, the 10-percent escrow tax on players' salaries. Over the last four years they've had to return $700M to the league, including $187M this season, which is distributed among all the teams not exceeding the luxury tax level.
Hunter insists the escrow tax must be sliced in half; his 450 player constituency demands it.
On April 17 the league says it agreed to precisely that, saving the players roughly $95M next season and a half billion dollars over the six-year length of the new deal if it's all done at once. The union says that's not its understanding of the offer. It claims the league only agreed to cut a half point per season for a total of three. The union says it would be content if the league cut one point per year for five. A memo sent to Hunter on May 18 pledges a graduated cut from 10 to five percent over the life of the deal.
In other words, if I'm reading this difference of opinion correctly, the lockout and death-knell for the NBA will be averted without a doubt, when, not if, this specific standoff is solved.
Should the league, which has since very quietly compromised its position on contract length (consenting to six and five years in a June 2 covert meeting with the union) authenticate its offer to carve the escrow tax in half over the full term of the deal, and not throw any curve balls re other issues, I foresee a arrangement in place by June 30.
Should the league offer to bisect the escrow tax in year one of the new agreement I assure you the union will sign some time today.
Should the negotiations inexplicably breakdown Shaq has offered to pay for the league's funeral.
I said a couple weeks ago I didn't think there would be a lockout. (patting self on back) Er . . . I better stop.
What am I thinking? Peter Vecsey agrees with me so I'm patting myself on the back? Dang how dumb can I get!
I guess I'll wait a couple weeks before breaking my arm.