November 28, 2011
The union and owners have a handshake deal, the season should begin on Christmas, and both sides can leave acting as if the disagreements and animosity of the past few months gave way to delightful compromise. It's a great time to be an NBA fan, mostly because for the first time in a while there's actually an NBA to be a fan of. Even before the lockout's official end, everyone is eager to see it fade into memory, and rightfully so.
Yet it would be a mistake to forget the lockout entirely, and not just in a tragic "let's make sure it never happens again" sense. For all the talk about compromise, the players pretty clearly lost, giving up privileges and rights that took decades to claim. They'll make less money, have less latitude to move to the teams they want to play for, and work at a disadvantaged position during their next labor fight. The league's promised improved competitive balance may not come, but the NBA will look substantially different than it used to. Whether or not you think that's a positive is up to you.
With a few exceptions, the history of the NBA has been a progression of player rights. The 1999 lockout helped rein in player salaries, but that agreement was more accurately a creation of rules and laws in a landscape that previously worked under a loosely defined set of guidelines. If the '99 CBA was the formation of a government, though, then the new deal is more like the government reasserting his control over the people. For the first time in league history, the loss of player rights isn't a single event, but the state of engagement between the NBA and its employees.
The players have a chance to gain back some leverage in six years, when both sides have a chance to opt out of the new CBA. But for that to be a good play, the league will have to see significant financial gains without a concurrent increase in competitive balance. For the first time in a few decades, the owners will have to feel compelled to give something back for the long-term health of the product. Given some owners' reluctance to make any concessions in this year's negotiations, that result may seem far-fetched.
Perhaps the new CBA will solve all the leagues problems. Still, no matter what changes it brings, the course of the league has been reversed. If we care about the NBA as anything more than a child's game played on a huge stage, it's worth remembering the events and negotiations that brought us to that point and why they happened. The cost of labor has been cut to settle a disagreement between large- and small-market teams; the players lost because the owners set the terms of the debate years ago. The NBA is back, but it's also going to be hell of a lot different.