If the National Basketball Association and its 30 constituent billionaires decide in a year’s time to lock out the players as the opening gambit of a work stoppage, the past few weeks (and maybe even months, depending on which version of the Kevin Durant-To-Oakland story you buy) may well be the reason.
However you define it, the acquisition of NBA free agents by other teams is now a shining example of raw, brazen tampering, with players serving as agents, either willing or coincidental, for their current teams to poach from other teams with a simple series of persuaisive “we should play together” entreaties. And if Durant making the Warriors more Warrior-y isn’t enough of an example, Dwyane Wade’s wooing by the Cleveland Cavaliers (read: LeBron James) while still very much a member of the Miami Heat surely is.
And though this is only a guess, people of influence knowing when to button their faces and all, it is fair to infer that the owners who led the charge to win the last collective bargaining agreement only to lose it all when TV money tilted the system are going to want a more structural redress not only to cap the money they pay out but to restrict player movement altogether.
In other words, the idea that everyone is getting rich here will not resound nearly as much as the players having what the owners consider excessive say in the owners’ investments.
In other words, do not be surprised if the next lockout hinges on the issue of asset protection, or as we like to call it, player free agency.
There are tampering rules already, but they are honored mostly in the breach because the players aren’t subject to tampering rules. Draymond Green can whisper sweet nothings into Durant’s ear every day for three years if he wishes, but Bob Myers cannot. It’s a flaw in the system the owners prefer, but one that cannot be repaired because players are going to talk to each other.
(It is here that we will tell you we are not against players befriending other players, or even tampering for that matter; the insane player market is amusing because it promotes chaos, and chaos is never not fun).
But the last lockout was supervised by rigid ideologues like Bob Sarver of Phoenix and Dan Gilbert of Cleveland who won their fight over revenue percentages but stopped short of having the fight over philosophy. That fight is about basic freedom of player movement, and how contracts are routinely breached by forces beyond ownership control.
You see, no system is foolproof for owners save one in which players have no rights at all, and that’s been tried (see “everything before the 1967 Oscar Robertson case”). Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the owners not recognizing the smell of roasted money this offseason and the knowledge that there will be more a year from now and deciding to go to the mattresses to prevent it again.
This doesn’t mean the owners will prevail, mind you. They can be bloody-minded when they need to be, and they have the inherent billionaires’ advantage of being billionaires, but the best way to lose a lockout is to bring up an issue that is so easy to understand that labor can galvanize around it without much internal wrangling. An NHL lockout was once won by the players over the issue of child care.
Free agency is one of those issues. In fact, free agency might be THE issue.
NBA players have been the most successful at realizing their power to work the edges of the current system to create teams of their own volition (the Heat with James, for example), and though the Durant deal was well within normal parameters in that he was free to do as he wished and chose Golden State willingly, that doesn’t change the owners from seeing the system they fought for being undermined by first the players and then their brethren.
Put another way, Joe Lacob isn’t very popular with a lot of his brethren right now, and not just because of the New York Times piece. That makes him even more admirable in a lot of ways, but doesn’t help him when political infighting at owners’ meetings is on the menu.
And while Lacob didn’t violate the system, he benefited from a system that isn’t working the owners’ way so much any more, even though that system is failing solely because the owners got richer by taking a bloated television deal. They just wanted the deal to be completely in their favor, and the adaptability and cunning of the outside world has foiled them.
So what will be management’s response? One guess is a new system that punishes teams and owners who sign free agents of more than a certain dollar value through changing the luxury tax provisions. The response of the players union would almost certainly be swift, sure and unmistakably litigious, because the players would want their second Christmas, and the perks of player empowerment defended at all costs.
And then you would have what you currently cannot envision – an all-points battle over access to the golden goose’s neck.
In other words, it’s that old law of science being put into play – that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
And in other other words, things are going too good for everyone involved for someone not to want it to go even better by making it worse.