NEW YORK -- The sidewalk on 52nd Street between the NBA offices and the Omni Berkshire Hotel will get a much needed break for the next couple of weeks, with neither David Stern nor Adam Silver scuffing their well-worn soles on that pavement in the early days of the lockout.
Despite the doom-and-gloomy way the word "lockout" sounds, and all the uncertainty and risk it implies, there's virtually no time pressure on the NBA and its players' union to rush back into the negotiating room any time soon. That's precisely why no compromise was reached Thursday, because there was little or no risk associated with not reaching one.
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But based on how the league's most recent lockout played out in 1998, there will be a series of drop-dead dates on the calendar. We'll get to the big ones, but the first date is one that should be filed under the category "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
The first date is July 15, two weeks from Friday.
The only time the NBA has ever lost games to a lockout, during the 1998-99 season, there was a gap of 36 days between the imposition of the lockout on July 1 and the next bargaining session on Aug. 6. That's 36 wasted days, days that could have been used to constructively negotiate at least some aspects of a deal -- perhaps even a better deal for both sides than the one that ultimately was agreed to in January 1999, at the cost of 32 regular season games.
There is one key factor that could alter this entire timeline, so it's worth addressing now: If the NFL fails to end its own lockout in the next few weeks, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will have no choice but to rule on that league's appeal of a district court's decision to briefly lift the lockout. The three-judge panel made clear during oral arguments on June 3 that the two sides should work this out themselves, because neither one would be happy with its ruling. But if the NFL negotiations stall and the 8th Circuit rules, both sides in the NBA labor dispute will pay close attention.
If the appeals court rules the NFLPA's decertification and antitrust claims are legitimate, the National Basketball Players Association may reconsider its decision not to decertify. If the owners win, there would be no sense in the NBA players following the same path.
"When the 8th Circuit rules, there will be a lot more information for everybody," said attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who represents both the NBPA and NFLPA.
With the NFL making progress toward a new deal, the most likely scenario is that the 8th Circuit won't have to rule. So for now, the first key date in the NBA lockout is ...
July 15: Both sides said Thursday they planned to get away for the July 4 weekend and reconvene separately for staff meetings on Tuesday. That's fine. A little space and time will do both sides some good after weeks of fruitless and mostly pointless bargaining sessions. But the stated goal of scheduling the next bargaining session by the following week must be met. If nothing else, the two sides need to get back to the bargaining table simply to demonstrate their stated commitment to getting a deal. They need to show each other that they're not interested in wasting a month, which could come back to haunt them later.
Prediction: The owners and players will meet for one bargaining session the week of July 11-15, and it'll be more of the same -- cordial, business-like and unproductive. Thankfully, Stern has kept his promise not to grow a lockout beard, and Silver is permitted to continue administering the boss' morning shave.
July 22: There's still be no imminent danger of missing training camps or preseason games at this point, but this is another key date in the early weeks of the lockout. Whatever transpired in the previous week's bargaining session (assuming it happened), the dialogue needs to be maintained. I expect the last week of July to be lost because NBPA president Derek Fisher has his annual summer camp in Los Angeles from July 25-29. If the owners and players fail to come together for at least two meaningful bargaining sessions by the time Fisher leaves for his camp, the league will be staring at the kind of delay that ultimately doomed it to a 50-game schedule in '99.
Prediction: The two sides will convene for a second post-lockout bargaining session the week of July 18-22, but little of importance will come out of it because the owners still won't feel the real pressure of losing games (and thus revenue) and the players will still be four months away from missing paychecks. But as tension begins to rise among players' significant others, VH1's Basketball Wives wins its timeslot for the first time.
|Deputy commissioner Adam Silver (left) and commissioner David Stern address questions after announcing the lockout. (Getty Images)|
Prediction: Meetings, pavement-pounding, and increased rancor, but no deal. Isadora's Café, the go-to spot for media members on labor stakeout at the Omni, announces expansion plans.
Sept. 8: Why? Assuming the NFL and NFLPA continue on their path to a new CBA, this would be opening night of the 2011-12 NFL season. The NFL solving its $9 billion revenue problem and taking its customary spot in the middle of the fall sports stage will make the NBA players and owners look even worse than they do now if they don't yet have an agreement on a new labor deal.
Prediction: The pressure begins to build on both sides, but particularly among owners, who will have to confront the very real possibility of losing an entire season if they don't begin to soften their demands. We could see a shift in which owners are leading the charge in the negotiating room as the threat of losing more than $1.5 billion (roughly their share of league revenues) from a lost season begins to dwarf the $300 million in annual stated losses -- a significant portion of which is concentrated among the worst-performing teams. Will the more reasonable owners (Peter Holt, Glen Taylor, Herb Simon) and the big-market ones (James Dolan, Jerry Buss, Jerry Reinsdorf, Micky Arison) become fed up with the hard-liners (Dan Gilbert, Robert Sarver, Wyc Grousbeck, Ted Leonsis, the Kroenke family, etc.) and take control of the negotiations? The added pressure of the NFL solving its problems and kicking off a new season shouldn't be underestimated. By a vote of 29-1, the Board of Governors approves a proposal by Stern to create a "Sarver Button" in the Omni conference room, by which the commissioner can deliver a jarring but non-lethal dose of electricity to the Suns' windbag owner every time he speaks.
Sept. 15: This is when the full brunt of the lockout starts hitting home. In '98, after only a few hours of contentious bargaining since the lockout was imposed, the league canceled 24 preseason games and indefinitely postponed the opening of training camps on Sept. 24. Again, with the two sides far more entrenched in their positions and farther apart than in '98, the goal should be to have significant progress toward a compromise at least a week sooner.
Prediction: Sept. 15 will come and go without a new agreement, and Stern will begin saber-rattling about canceling the preseason. But by this point, it will have become clear to the moderate owners that the radicals' strategy is not working and won't produce a deal in time to save the season. Also, the advent of social media tools that weren't around in '98-'99 -- particularly Twitter -- will give the players a voice they didn't have the last time around. This will be good and bad for them. Some will use these tools for positive effects. Others will provide real-time repeats of the infamous Kenny Anderson rant about having to sell one of his Mercedes so he can feed his family, thus reaffirming all the stereotypes about NBA players with an around-the-clock stream of mindlessness. (For examples, follow @agentzeroshow.)
Oct. 1: By this point, training camps will have been delayed or canceled, and a full preseason schedule will be almost impossible to pull off without a new agreement. But for some owners, this isn't about salvaging training camp and preseason games; it's about fundamentally changing the system and their ability to make a profit. For the players, no amount of preseason games lost will cause them to accept five or 10 years of lost wages and a bad deal.
Prediction: The urgency continues to rise, owners begin to back off their demands, and players respond with significant concessions of their own. But still no deal. Basketball Wives is canceled; the public is bored with this.
Oct. 15: This is the drop-dead date for losing regular season games. In '98, the league canceled the first two weeks of the regular season on Oct. 13.
Prediction: I believe the two sides will come to an agreement on the very last day before the date set forth by the league when regular-season games would be canceled. In '98, Stern and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter reached agreement on a deal and had it approved on Jan. 6 -- one day before Stern said the entire regular-season schedule would be canceled. Why don't I think this dispute will linger that long? The sensitivity to losing any portion of the regular season is higher now than it was then; competition in the sports landscape is greater than ever; more is at stake after the banner season the NBA just enjoyed; and both sides will recognize that even a shortened season would inflict a black eye that would take months, if not years, to heal. Also, I am betting on the unanimity among owners being fractured, since it is obvious that they all do not share the same agendas and priorities and some powerful ones (Dolan, Mikhail Prokhorov, Buss, Holt, Taylor) would be immeasurably harmed by losing a season. Also, this is when the head start in July, a lost month during the '98-'99 lockout, should pay off. Free agency will be compressed into a two-week period, abbreviated training camps will be open, the start of the regular-season will be pushed back, and the Finals will linger into late June. (Of course, if the owners get most of what they're asking for, nobody will watch the Finals, which will feature the Kings and Bobcats.)
Nov. 15: What if that last prediction doesn't come true? This would be the date most players in the NBA miss their first paychecks. The standard player contract calls for players to be paid on the 15th and 30th from November-April. Some players get all their money up front (as Shaquille O'Neal always did). Others have deferred payments that stretch into the summer and even into October. (Those players will continue to be paid during the lockout any money owed to them for the 2010-11 season). But the vast majority of players will begin to feel a financial hit in mid-November.
Prediction: If I'm wrong with the previous prediction, opening night will have come and gone with no games, and more of the schedule will be canceled. Players will begin organizing exhibition games, though they'll face the same ridicule they faced in '98 if any proceeds are earmarked for players who are in financial need. The union's lockout war chest, estimated at $175 million, will soon have to be tapped for players who did not prepare for losing income. Gilbert Arenas tweets photos of himself "planking" at the apex of Machu Picchu and DMs @TheNBPA: "Please send money."
Nov. 30: If Thanksgiving comes and goes with no deal, the very real threat of losing the entire regular season will close in on both sides. The NFL will own the fall to an even greater degree than it ever has before, and fracturing could now begin occurring on the players' side. With frustration mounting about their untenable negotiating position -- and with players openly venting about it on social media -- Hunter would face the very real possibility of being ousted as union chief.
Prediction: If all of this happens, star players like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant will enter the negotiating fray, and it will become every bit as nasty as it did in '98, when Michael Jordan famously sniped at late Wizards owner Abe Pollin during a particularly feisty bargaining session. One can envision KG standing on a table in an Omni conference room, pounding his chest, and screaming obscenities toward the heavens. Simultaneously, whatever deity Garnett believes in unleashes a Biblical thunderstorm on midtown Manhattan, sending the players' limousines and luxury SUVs floating helplessly down Madison Avenue. Having been buzzed into submission by now, Sarver quietly plays solitaire on his iPhone.
Dec. 25: Merry Christmas. Instead of carrying the holiday it has dominated in the sports world's consciousness for decades, the NBA gives the public a giant lump of coal if it still does not have a deal with the union. The goodwill and positive energy generated by a compelling 2010-11 season hits rock bottom amid the threat of a lost season. Having rebuilt their public image since the last lockout, NBA players once again are viewed as greedy, out-of-touch athletes who are "on strike" by a public that doesn't understand the difference between a strike and a lockout -- and doesn't need much of an excuse to blame NBA players.
Prediction: Not going to happen. I stand by my prediction of a mid-October end to this fiasco. The Heat lose to the Lakers on Christmas Day, and LeBron disappears in the fourth quarter.
Jan. 6: It's a Friday, it's a new year, and if the NBA still doesn't have a new labor agreement, the entire 2011-12 season will be canceled.
Prediction: Let's just hope I'm right about Oct. 15, or that Stern wasn’t kidding about not growing a lockout beard.