“Do Not Open Till Christmas.” It’s something that is so magical when it’s written across brightly wrapped packages arranged under a tree, but sure can look miserable when it’s slapped across the entirety of the NBA regular-season schedule.
Everyone found that out last year, when a bitter labor lockout chopped 16 games, most of the preseason and nearly three months off each team’s 2011-12 season.
For perspective, think of all the games, stories, moments and highlights generated already in 2012-13 — with about 70 percent of the schedule still to be played. Now, think about all that was lost –- beyond whatever financial or stability gains were achieved by the warring owners and players in their CBA talks –- as everyone waited and wondered and worried for the NBA to begin last season.
The league won’t be celebrating any sort of anniversary on Tuesday. The five games stacked up that day will be special -– Christmas games always are -– but they won’t be extra-special in the way the holiday and Opening Day got rolled into one, pulling a season back from the brink.
Boston coach Doc Rivers, asked recently for his takeaway from last year’s lockout, said: “I got to see a lot of Duke games [where his son Austin Rivers played] –- I thought that was terrific. I got to go to Hawaii, to the Maui Classic –- I thought that was fantastic. My [golf] handicap was as low as it’s been in years. And then we had a whole season, in my mind. And that was terrific.
“I’m gonna stop there.”
Houston coach Kevin McHale was even more circumspect. He stared blankly, then raised his gaze to the ceiling when asked for his lockout memories. “I’m trying to think if there was anything good,” he said. Of his glassy expression, he added: “It keeps me from getting in trouble.”
Muzzled under penalty of hefty fines, NBA personnel avoided talking about the lockout last season like it was a pass-around fruitcake. It remains something about which many folks in and around the league would rather not speak, because it was one of the NBA’s more regrettable episodes.
Oh, it wasn’t as bad as the lockout that chopped the 1998-99 season down to just 50 games per team. But it was bad in its own right, costing them all hundreds of millions of dollars and forcing a hurried-up, ground-down product on the public.
“Pointless,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade called it the other night. “We ain’t going to go into all that -– I just think it was a pointless lockout.”
Wade at least provided one of the lockout’s dramatic moments, thanks to one bargaining session in which he lashed out at commissioner David Stern for wagging a finger and doing a little too much lecturing. For the most part, though, the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations dragged on -– when they actually were meeting, anyway -– and at times made it seem as if labor peace never would be achieved.
The National Basketball Players Association got to the brink of extinction with its disclaimer-of-interest maneuver to throw the whole mess into the courts. Ultimately, it was a tactic that shook loose the framework of an agreement but, beyond those submitting the legal bills, few felt good about the process and most craved a long, hot shower.
“The lockout was painful for everybody. For the players, for the owners, for the agents, for the fans,” agent Mark Bartelstein said. “But from an interest-level standpoint, the league is in a great place.”
A handshake deal was struck over Thanksgiving weekend 2011. Within a month, players had been signed and rushed through quickie training camps and a two-game preseason schedule.
Technically, some so-called “B issues” remain -– items concerning entry-age limit, tougher drug-testing provisions, tweaks to the NBA Draft, disciplinary powers and the Development League. But these were matters on which both sides agreed to further discussions — discussions which have gone slowly and been stymied in part by in-fighting within the NBPA. (A resolution of the dueling lawsuits involving union executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher is expected soon.)
“One or two small issues that need to be resolved,” is how Hunter referred to the B issues on Friday. An NBA spokesperson agreed, saying that the official CBA has been done since last winter and is not limited by the outstanding issues. It is a 10-year deal with an “out” clause available to either side in 2017.
By that time, Stern, presumably Hunter, several franchise owners and a bunch of the players won’t be involved to wage the battles. In the meantime, though, this one seems to be embraced. And working -– though long-term ramifications still are unfolding.
“Fan interest is at an all-time high,” Bartelstein said. “The ratings are great. We had a great season last year, and there was a lot of intrigue over the summer for a lot of things that happened. That momentum has carried into the season and once we get past the new year, I think we’ll have a great second half of the season.
“In terms of the collective bargaining agreement, are there things in there I don’t like? No question, but it’s over with now and it doesn’t do any good to talk about it. The league is in a good place and I think players are doing a really good job now by how they’re reaching out to fans through social media and being interactive.”
The CBA is both a business deal and a basketball deal. As a business deal, a number of players seem satisfied in the short term — happy to be competing and earning again. Several owners expressed satisfaction that the terms of the agreement -– along with a more aggressive revenue-sharing system -– will work as intended in the long term, allowing smaller-revenue markets to compete more equitably with the big ones.
A few members of the union’s executive committee, such as Mo Evans, Etan Thomas and Theo Ratliff, aren’t working in the league this season. But no one blames it on hard feelings or blackballing from the labor talks. Some teams already have felt more of a pinch from luxury-tax penalties that were stiffened -– think Oklahoma City’s contract offer and subsequent trade of James Harden or Chicago saying goodbye to most of its superior bench. But those provisions were sought for more long-haul advantages.
“For some teams it is for sure impacting their decision-making and what they feel like they can and can’t do, in terms of adding personnel, adding payroll,” said NBPA president Fisher, who is with his fourth team (Dallas) since the lockout ended. “There are a lot of quality veteran players, I think, that are out there that can help teams. … But I think, over time, that will play itself out and that, at the end of the day, coaches and management want players that can win. That’s how they keep their jobs.”
Keyon Dooling, an NBPA vice president who retired after last season and now works as the Boston Celtics’ player development coordinator, said he senses no leftover friction from the lockout haggling.
“I have [increased] respect for the owners for the way they were able to negotiate,” Dooling said. “We got to learn a lot. We got to know each other. The thing we realized is, we’re both caretakers of this great game.
“Obviously, there still are internal battles that we’re still dealing with on our side. But as far as free agency, guys got deals. A lot of guys got extensions. So far, the new agreement has worked out really well.”
To those who take a step back, it could be argued that the lockout and the deal that resulted -– still allowing a Dwight Howard to contemplate his work whereabouts, trades that get made due to contracts (Howard, Deron Williams, Chris Paul) or any other reasons – worked out well. Not just for business in the fall and autumn but in the spring and summer, too.
“This is entertainment,” Bartelstein said. “Fans and the media want to have drama and the possibility of players changing teams and trades and guys moving in free agency. People love that. It’s what draws ratings -– the soap opera of the NBA.
“Why was interest so high in the ‘Summer of LeBron [James]‘ [in 2010]? People want to feel like there’s an opportunity for their team to be aggressive and improve their team. You’ve got to have the Hot Stove League -– you’ve got to generate business for 12 months now, not just six.”
As for the basketball side of the lockout, there were 240 fewer games played last season than in a normal year. Instead of spreading out 82 over 170 days on this season’s calendar, teams fit their 66 into, at most, 124 days.
That meant 3.73 games per week rather than 3.38 this season, which might not sound like a big difference until you’re the one playing three times in three nights. This season, from start to finish, there are 88 non-game nights compared to 82 game nights for each team. In the post-lockout scramble, it was 58 non-game nights to 66 games.
The grind might not have increased the number or severity of injuries, but it sure intensified the frequency of injury talk; what would have been a missed off-day became a missed game, which drove headlines. That grueling pace also has left some players channeling their inner Allen Iverson these days.
“It’s almost like, if you don’t have a game, players think there’s no practice because last year you didn’t practice,” Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. “Now they’re like, ‘You mean we’re practicing?’ … You’re saying, ‘Look guys, we’ve got to get in a good 40-minute practice.'”
Dooling contends that some of the players who retired prior to this season were ground down by last season’s pace. “I don’t ever want to see that again,” he said. “There’s always a circulation of players coming in and going out, but I know as an older player, you really felt it on your body. It was too hard to recover.
“Back-to-back-to-backs? There’s no way you can say anything positive about that. But I tip my hat to our guys -– for the most part, there weren’t a lot of bad games last year.”
Or if there were, few seemed to notice or gripe. Getting the NBA back, regardless of the boardroom winners or losers, mattered most to many people.
“Obviously there were too many games in a short period of time,” Rivers said. “But the starting date was not bad. I felt people were really excited. You know, when you have a lockout, you’re worried about the fans and them coming back. For whatever reason -– maybe it was because of the way the year ended the year before and everyone wanted to see Miami again -– it was good. That Christmas Day game in New York, people were excited. And all the games felt that way.”
Not so good, of course, that either side would give up 16 games’ or seven weeks’ worth of revenue and pay. But not asterisk-worthy, either, judging by reactions once the postseason took hold.
“It was almost like people didn’t know we had a lockout,” Rivers said. “The last one [1998-99] I can remember, people were striking and burning tickets. None of that went on. It was terrific.”
No leftover open wounds, the Celtics coach was asked, with players vs. owners or vice versa? “No,” Rivers said. “I didn’t see any last year -– I’m sure there were, when you go through something like that. But overall, it’s been pretty darn good.”
Even if McHale’s and many others’ first responses are to roll their eyes skyward. No lockout is ever better than no lockout.
NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury and Jeff Caplan contributed to this report.