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Ball Don't Lie

The NBA just might be learning from the lessons of the disastrous 2011 lockout

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David Stern prepares to align the message (Getty Images)

In the months leading up to and during the 2011 NBA lockout, NBA commissioner David Stern did a masterful job of keeping all of his owners in line. The group, 29 strong at the time (the NBA owned the then-New Orleans Hornets), absolutely obliterated the Players Association by delivering a consistent, deliberate message of heartbreak and woe. The players had taken too much of the pie, the owners stated, and it was time to right the ship – no matter how many chickens the league took out of the pots of the thousands who make their livings working actual NBA games.

(During the holiday season, you’ll recall. It was shameless.)

The subtext to that owner-driven plea was that this was in reaction to years of Stern being unable to keep those 29 and sometimes 30 owners in line. Years of various interests and bouts of mania leading to unending terrible contracts and deals, moves made even with ownership having the leverage in the transaction over the players. Season after season, owners and general managers ignored restricted free agency, advanced statistics, past history and common sense on their way to a series of moves that made it so a nation’s worth of ticket takers and food vendors had to wonder how they were going to fill the bottom of that tree on Christmas in 2011.

The result was a lockout, with the NBA deciding en masse to not pay the contracts of players they had willingly signed in the years prior, under a legal and supposedly binding collective bargaining agreement. And though the one-sided fight ended just under 20 months ago, that stalemate feels like it wrapped up in another decade, especially because of the jumps in knowledge and scads of front-office turnover since then. Not just turnover in terms of personnel, but in approach, and acknowledgement of a 1999-2010 run gone terribly wrong.

With the 2013 offseason having its official start on Wednesday, have we moved an inch? The 2011 offseason, created just days after the lockout ended, was a massive rush. The 2012 offseason was a mess fueled by dueling campaigns still trying to find their way after the labor strife, with the Olympics unofficially cutting things short. This turn? With bigger brains in the front office and a litany of past mistakes to run from, has it changed? Grown? Bettered itself from within?

In some ways, happily, yes.

Josh Smith signed a $54 million deal in Detroit, and Brooklyn’s Billy King be Billy King'in'ing, but by and large things have changed. Nobody, to date, has thrown their lot at someone like Andrew Bynum, with the only sustainable offer thus far coming from Cleveland, who made it known that the second year of their two-year, $24 million deal was a team option, only to be picked up after Bynum made good, with the Cavaliers getting the benefit and only crack at his 2014-15 services after a potentially $12 million-worthy 2013-14.

Big brains like Toronto’s Masai Ujiri managed to take advantage of lost types like New York’s Glen Grunwald (once fired from the job Ujiri now has) in somehow dealing Andrea Bargnani for picks, and a player in Steve Novak that plays the whole Andrea Bargnani-thing better than Andrea Bargnani. To the confusion of message-board denizens and website commenters everywhere, Kyle Korver will make as much next year as J.R. Smith. Reclamation projects like Darren Collison and Devin Harris were picked up on short deals, and not giddily by the teams that inked them.

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Masai Ujiri is cleaning up the mess left for him in the back of the car (Getty Images)

Scads of teams have either cap space and a few own workable trade exceptions, and yet none of those teams has chosen to parlay that financial freedom into taking on the eight-figure contract of a player that another team doesn’t want anymore (Bargnani, sent to the taxed-out Knicks, doesn’t count). Nobody, outside of the usual suspects (your Knicks, Nets, Pistons and Bucks) is talking themselves into anything. Everyone is tied for first, right now, and yet teams are choosing to work around the edges, instead of wowing their clueless owner into The One Big Move That Will Save Us All.

There are reasons for this, and a few of them are even hopeful!

Daryl Morey’s signing of Dwight Howard (which, stupid NBA, cost his team $150K along the way) wasn’t a triumph of smart machinations and analytic savvy. It was the four years that led up to this signing that were the triumph. Morey frustrated many, both within the Rocket fan base and outside of it, by trumping up a "wait-til-next-year" line of assets and hope, but he also smartly took advantage of a smart Rocket Nation, a curious and willing owner, and other way-behind GMs along the way to put himself in place to pounce on the league’s most confused superstar.

The Rockets have won just two playoff games in four years, and it took quite a bit of timing and luck along the way, but Houston now fields two maximum-salaried superstars who actually deserve the money, alongside a crew of properly paid role players, while still somehow retaining a curious batch of assets to deal and work with.

As a result, the league is now littered with GMs who know their way around a world wide web that has spent years calling NBA GMs idiots. Perhaps more importantly, the NBA is also staffed with a series of GMs who have started to listen to the sort of young minds that see favor in adding a player like Mike Dunleavy Jr., or showing patience and letting the market decide with a restricted free agent. The sort of minds that roll their eyes at the mere mention of Monta Ellis.

One mustn't give this generational shift all the credit. The rules have, literally, changed.

Teams stuck in luxury-tax hell can't sign and trade for players without dealing themselves out of the "tax apron." The Brooklyn Nets will pay more than three times the tax penalties the Los Angeles Lakers did last year, for existing at about the same level salary-wise that the Lakers worked last season, the last year of the dollar-for-dollar tax penalty. The cap and tax levels barely budged this summer, a far cry from the sort of bump the league saw following the 1999 and 2005 CBA agreements.

The influences don’t stop with the tax. Owners have to keep up appearances, two years after locking out the players and crying poverty (just a year after throwing huge gobs of cash at players like Josh Childress and Drew Gooden). Not only that, but once Howard and Chris Paul signed their name to the dotted lines, this became a weak free-agent class. Teams aren’t willing to lose cap space for what could be a fantastic free-agent class in 2014, and they're not willing to trade draft picks and deal themselves out of what is rumored to be a deep 2014 NBA draft. To make Winston Wolfe basic cable-palatable, let's not start slapping each other's backs quite yet, gentlemen.

In spite of the caveats, though, things are changing. The spend-happy Nets, Knicks and Lakers may combine for only 145 wins next season, and even in the face of the "back-in-the-pool" luxury-tax dollars they'll send so many other NBA teams in penalty, those other teams haven’t gone all cannonball in throwing their own cash around. Yes, 29-year-old Andre Iguodala was almost given $56 million to join a rebuilding team in Sacramento, but that contract was pulled. Nobody but Milwaukee, that hopeless lot, is talking up Brandon Jennings. Bryan Colangelo saw the glorious new landscape, it burned his eyes, and he decided to quit.

It's a shame it took a decade of stupid spending to learn this lesson. It's a shame that it took the cancellation of games and the loss of millions of earnings from NBA workers (not its players, but those who help bring those players to you on TV, radio, or in person) to get here.

And it’ll also be a shame if, in 2014, the NBA goes right back to its old habits. Backslap for now, dubious glare until next summer.

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