Plenty of problems with NBA labor deal

Surrounded by NBA basketball players, Billy Hunter, right, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association Billy Hunter, right, speaks to the media as Players Association president Derek Fisher, left, listens during a news conference in New York. NBA owners and players reached a tentative agreement early Saturday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Surrounded by NBA basketball players, Billy Hunter, right, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association Billy Hunter, right, speaks to the media as Players Association president Derek Fisher, left, listens during a news conference in New York. NBA owners and players reached a tentative agreement early Saturday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Posted: November 27, 2011

Mission unaccomplished.

The NBA's owners and players struck a labor deal early Saturday morning that will end the most underwhelming sports labor stoppage ever, but it does not appear to fix any of the league's real problems. While details were still trickling out and the full scope of the deal wasn't known, the new contract apparently will be full of the same old gibberish: "midlevel exception" and "mini-midlevel exception" and "Commissioner Stern."

Anyone hoping this stare-down would produce a fresh start with sensible rules governing contracts and player movement - that is, anyone who wanted to see true competitive balance in the league that lacks it most - had to shudder at the words of deputy NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

"It's not the system we sought out to get in terms of a harder cap," Silver told reporters in New York. "But the luxury tax is harsher than it was in the past deal, and we hope it's effective. You never can be sure with how a new system will work."

You never can be sure? Really? Sounds as if the league and the union just wasted a perfect opportunity to create a system that does work. There are examples all around them. In the NFL, the smallest-market team, Green Bay, is both undefeated and the defending champion. In the NHL, a hard salary cap leveled the rink while allowing player salaries to grow with league revenues. In baseball, GMs have freedom to improve their teams significantly every offseason and at every trade deadline.

It appears the NBA is counting on improved revenue-sharing and a more onerous luxury tax to discourage the big-market teams from overspending. But this new deal reportedly saves the owners something like $3 billion in player salaries over its 10-year term. A big spender such as Mark Cuban, for example, can simply take the money he's saving there and apply it to his luxury tax. Same rough costs, and he's still outspending the New Orleans Hornets by millions of dollars.

What does all this mean for the Sixers? Well, we're not entirely sure yet how the new ownership group led by Josh Harris and Adam Aron plans to approach its investment. Through no fault of their own, they've been limited to upgrading the franchise's mascot.

This much is for certain. The circumstances of this resolution provide the Nouveaux Sixers with a perfect short-term scenario. It is up to them to take advantage of it.

The roster they inherited is full of products of the NBA's fatally flawed system. The franchise had freedom to make one free-agent splurge in 2008, and Elton Brand was the only guy worth considering at the time. So the Sixers wound up tethered to Brand for five years and $80 million.

When Andre Iguodala approached restricted-free-agent status, the Sixers had little choice. If they didn't extend him, the system made it unlikely they'd have a chance to spend that money elsewhere. Iguodala has been overpaid ever since.

The new deal may not give the Sixers total freedom to remake their roster, but they have two things going for them. They have no link to the decisions made before they bought the team, so they are free to clean house. And fans are so hungry to see real change that they will accept a losing season or two if they see a real plan in place to build a contender.

If you're going to burn a season, why not a 66-game season that is already compromised?

The new deal reportedly contains an amnesty clause, which allows teams to jettison one contract without having it count fully against their cap. Brand ($35 million over the next two years) is one candidate for this. So is Andres Nocioni ($6.6 million). Or even Iguodala, although he could actually be moved in a trade.

The new owners have a free pass, for now, to cut away the dead wood and give Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young (or not) a chance to grow together. Starting next summer, when there is a chance to go after some really worthwhile free agents, the real rebuilding can begin.

It appears that rebuilding will take place with many of the booby traps and pitfalls that were built into the old system. There will still be impossible-to-move contracts and extend-and-trade deals that keep impact players from ever reaching the marketplace. In three or four years, the Nouveaux Sixers may be a championship contender or bogged down with a different set of overpaid and underwhelming players.

The end of this lockout gives the Sixers a window to make real changes. Unfortunately, there isn't enough real change in the deal itself to justify the six-month lockout.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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