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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  NBA Lockout: Who's Right?

NBA Lockout: Who's Right?

It's millionaires vs. billionaires

By Matt Pacenza
Posted // November 16,2011 -

As you read this sentence, Utah Jazz fans are on the verge of losing the entire 2011-12 National Basketball Association season. A labor dispute between owners and players has officially wiped away the season’s first six weeks. And then, on Nov. 14, disgusted by the owner’s most recent proposal, the players announced they were disbanding their union, a move likely to lead to a protracted court battle.

The lockout is, like nearly all things, about money. The owners are demanding that NBA players give back hundreds of millions of dollars each year, among other concessions. Teams—especially those in smaller cities like Salt Lake City—are in jeopardy, they claim, and only huge givebacks will save them. They also maintain that under the current system, teams like the Utah Jazz are doomed to mediocrity while their wealthy cousins in New York City and Los Angeles thrive.

It’s a tantalizing notion. If we can just suffer through a few canceled games, we can fix the sport, put it back on firm financial footing and make it so that every year, teams like the Jazz or the Milwaukee Bucks or the Indiana Pacers will have just as much of a chance to win an NBA title as the Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat.

But here’s the problem: It’s probably not true. If you study the facts about professional basketball finances and success, you wonder whether the NBA lockout has much to do with parity or fairness, or more with owners pocketing more money.

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the players and owners aren’t arguing over which team gets how much money, but instead simply how to divide the total cash pie. The owners have claimed deep financial losses—independent analysts agree that the recession and other factors have put many teams in the red, if not nearly as much as the owners claim.

The Jazz appears to be a team on pretty solid financial footing. An October front-page story in The Salt Lake Tribune crowed about the Miller family’s business success, calling the Jazz “one strong branch on an ever-growing, multi-billion-dollar tree.”

Despite that, reports suggest Jazz CEO Greg Miller is one of the “hawks” leading the charge of NBA owners claiming their businesses are in trouble—and thus it’s worth canceling games and maybe even a season to force players to give back a big chunk of their pay. One of their main arguments is that the sport, as it is constructed, is not fair—that teams from smaller cities need help to compete.

But just glance at the list of the biggest NBA cities and standings in recent years, and you’ll quickly realize there is no correlation. The most successful team of the past 15 years? Unquestionably the San Antonio Spurs, who have won four titles—in the fourth-smallest city in the league. Which two Western teams are most stocked with young talent and primed to compete for years? The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, in two of the league’s three smallest cities. Meanwhile, two of the biggest-city teams—the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers—have each made the playoffs just once in the past seven years.

Despite the shakiness of many of the owners’ claims about losses or fairness, players have shown a strong willingness to compromise. Most notably, the players have already agreed to take 52 percent of total revenues, down from 57 percent last year. That represents players giving back $200 million in salary a year. Players were even apparently willing to agree to an even 50-50 split, as long as owners compromised on other issues. They refused, leaving the players to feel they had little choice but to try their luck in court.

But you certainly wouldn’t know how one-sided negotiations have been so far if you subject yourself to the blather that passes for sports journalism in Salt Lake City. Our columnists, reporters and talk-show chatterers lazily blast the players and owners, calling both greedy, conveniently forgetting that one side has already conceded much, while the other has barely budged.

And then more troubling, ugly things are written. A lowlight came in October when Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson tore into New York Knicks center Amar’e Stoudemire for suggesting the players could start their own league. He called the players “really stupid,” said they “don’t know anything except basketball,” compared Amar’e to Bubba in Forrest Gump and referenced to his “posse” and his “homies.”

And thus we get a sad look into a dark window revealing what many pundits think about professional athletes: They should be grateful to make any money at all, even if the average NBA career is under four years and many athletes retire hobbled, their playing days ended by injuries.

It’s not easy to make much of a moral case for the plight of players or owners—not many of the 99 percent here. It’s ultimately a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, as many have noted. Fans like me ultimately just want it all to end so that we in Salt Lake City can begin to watch our young quartet of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks mature and thrive. Across the league, the NBA is stocked with great, young players who play hard and don’t get in trouble, from Dwight Howard to Blake Griffin to Derrick Rose to Kevin Durant.

We yearn for an end to the bickering and for the stars to play, but let’s not forget who has been willing to compromise so far—and who has barely given an inch in their hustle for hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Posted // November 23,2011 at 05:46 All teams are on the verge of losing their season because of this 'dispute between owners and players.' As it was said many thimes, everything about the NBA lockout is all about money. What i don;t understand is, why the owners didn't agree when the players were willing to split 50/50. If the owners wanted this to end as much as the players did, then they wouldn't have to be going on for this long. If they do come out of this lockout anytime soon, then these small market teams won't benefit because they'd still be 'small market teams'


Posted // November 20,2011 at 16:19 Youn can draw a pretty straight line from where a person stands on the distribution of blame in the NBA lockout to where they stand on the distribution of wealth in the country. As Bethlehem Shoals, blogger extraordinaire, said in response to people faulting players, "You're politics are showing". The ability to achieve parity in the NBA is a myth, always has been, and this new CBA isnt going to help. The ability of small market teams to draw bigger name free agents largely relied on their ability to pay them more. The more the league attempts to make each team's ability to pay players extra, the more superlative factors like geography create their own inequalities. Unless the owners put a clause in the CBA to move SLC to the coast and change laws that impair its ability to have that much desired "nightlife", the best chance they have is to manage the team perfectly and hope for a basketball phenom that doesn't need the bright lights of a major tv market (Like Kevin Durant).


Posted // November 18,2011 at 11:40 Hey, I'm the guy who wrote it. Shon, you make good points -- it's a bit facile to use the Spurs as an example as I did. But when you write, " the great small market example of the spurs is not something that can be duplicated by other teams" I just can't quite agree.
What about the Thunder? Seems to me they're doing a great job of copying that model. (And, interestingly, their GM came from the Spurs organization, I think.)
The Hornets are interesting, too. They got lucky and got their perennial All-Star, in Paul, but then have done a bad job of surrounding him with talent. The Magic obviously got lucky too, but I think also have made poor decisions about surrounding their star. The Cavs another obvious example. Luck isn't enough.
Success in the NBA is some complicated amalgam of luck, smarts and being in a desirable city. Free agents do want to play for well-run franchises with a good chance to win in fun cities with good weather. (And, by the way, who can blame them?) That gives the Lakers, Heat, Mavs, Magic, Suns and a few others all a leg up. The Knicks are a unique example because it's NYC. The Clippers and Nets prove this, too, because they are in big markets -- but have been so poorly run that everyone has shied away.
I'm just not convinced the complex advantages the Lakers, Heat, et al, have is a problem that needs to be fixed -- or even can be fixed. And what I am sure of is this lockout has nothing to do with any of that.
Good discussion!


Posted // November 16,2011 at 17:37 The small market vs large market debate gets oversimplified.
I get tired of people using the Spurs as the ultimate example of small market team success. Yes they are a well run franchise, but no better than the Jazz. They got Tim Duncan on a fluke. That is the reason they have been so successful.
Yes there have been some successful small market teams and some awful large market teams.
The discussion should be that for a small market team to be a success it is far more difficult than a large market team.
Currently the NBA is not an even playing field.
Also lets see if the young and talented Thunder can actually hold onto their players after they come off their rookie contracts. They already had to trade Jeff Green. They were terrible for several years to hoard draft picks and get perhaps only a couple years of success.


Posted // November 18,2011 at 12:03 - Good food for thought, Shon, but I still have a problem with your premise. Didn't we have a Hall of Fame power forward and a short list of killer players supporting him? What I'm saying is that you can buy all the talent you can, but if the basic format or structure or philosophy of the organization isn't functioning, then we get what we got: a team that could rise up, but not close the deal. A HOF power forward who faded into embarassment every time the play-offs began. And a fawning owner who let the team flounder around for years with a kind of half-assed commitment to winning. I truly believe Miller was more focused on how the team appeared to Utahns, particularly his fellow Mormons and the NBA than winning at any cost, including being there on Sundays.


Posted // November 17,2011 at 16:56 - From 90 to 96 the spurs won an average of 55 games a year. In 97 the spurs only won 20 games. Then they got the first overall pick to draft Duncan. It was not good recruiting anyone who had the first pick would have selected Duncan he was clearly the best player in that draft. Its not like he was some late round picks like Parker and Ginobili. That was good recruiting.
My point is that the great small market example of the spurs is not something that can be duplicated by other teams. They were a perennial playoff team that tanked a season, won the lottery and got one of the best power forwards in history.
Those were some rare circumstances that had to come together.


Posted // November 17,2011 at 14:13 - I used to hear the small market argument as a conspiracy theory as to why the Jazz were never considered an NBA asset in tv licensing. How many Jazz games have we ever seen on network tv compared to the Lakers, Pistons, Heat, etc? When we could have gotten a 'fluke' like Duncan, or David Robinson or anyone of that caliber, the Jazz were playing it safe with a nearly-white Karl Malones, an unspoken tattoo and dreadlocks ban (no thugs, remember?), letting a genius like Malone influence who had to go and who got to stay, Greg Ostertag and a revolving door of potential picks who would no more set foot in Utah than move to Berlin during the war. You can call getting Duncan a fluke, but in San Antonio they call it good recruiting, my friend. Perhaps Larry Miller's constant micro-managing and input built a franchise that can't sustain itself.


Posted // November 16,2011 at 16:58 The players made a killing on the last CBA. They knew they would have to give something back. LeBron James and the supergroup era I think was the poison pill that sunk the players and brought in the hardliners. Time to lay this at the feet of who the real culprits are in this quagmire. The agents.