For the NBA, Putting Games At Risk is a Fairly New Strategy

Posted by | October 10, 2011 at 12:18 PM

To hear him say it, NBA Commissioner David Stern is a helpless bystander to the process.

In the absence of a new collective bargaining agreement with the National Basketball Players Association by the end of today, Stern says he and the owners will have “no choice but to cancel the first two weeks of the season” (espn.com, 10/10).

At this point, it seems like common sense. If the NBA and the NBPA cannot reach an agreement on a new deal by July 1, there must be a lockout, and that lockout must last until a deal is reached.

But it was not always this way. The 1998-99 NBA lockout marked the first time the league did not at least make the attempt to continue operations in the absence of a new deal.

Yes, there was a lockout in 1995, but the collective bargaining agreement actually expired one year earlier, in 1994. The NBA and NBPA reached agreement on a ‘no strike, no lockout’ pact in October 1994, just days before the league was set to begin a lockout of players that would have almost assuredly resulted in canceled games.

The Rockets’ title defense, Michael Jordan‘s first comeback, and the ascendancy of Shaquille O’Neal all took place under an expired CBA.

Before 1994, the league did not even need a formal truce. In the absence of a deal, the league operated as usual until one was reached. During the 1982-83 CBA negotiations, then-NBPA general counsel Larry Fleisher told the New York Times that the players were “willing to negotiate into the season.” Fleisher: “We have done that in the past two or three collective bargaining agreements and we see no reason why we can’t continue in good faith to bargain the issues to a satisfactory resolution” (New York Times, 10/20/82).

On many occasions before 1995, the games were played as usual while the league negotiated with the NBPA.

  • The 1976 collective bargaining agreement expired in June 1979, and a new deal was not reached until February 1980. No games were lost.
  • The 1980 deal expired in June 1982, and a new deal was not reached until April 1983. Though the players set a strike date of April 2, no games were lost.
  • The 1983 deal expired in June 1987, and a new deal was not reached until April 1988. Again, no games were lost.

The 1979-80, 1982-83, 1987-88 and 1994-95 seasons could have been lost if the NBA operated under the current lockout strategy.

In June 1998, days before the start of the damaging 1998-99 lockout, the league rejected a union offer to operate under a no-strike, no-lockout pact, as “the offer was contingent on teams being able to consummate trades and sign free agents — terms that were unacceptable to the league” (Chicago Tribune, 6/23/98).

Whereas the 1994 truce took place when the players were pushing for changes to the system (the removal of the salary cap, NBA Draft and the right of first refusal in free agency), the 1998 proposed truce came when the owners were seeking to overhaul the financial structure of the league. As such, playing under the terms of the previous deal was not nearly as advantageous to them as in 1994.

All of which is to say that Stern and his owners do indeed have a choice. For strategic reasons, they have chosen to put the season at risk, which is their right. For them to paint their choice any other way seems dishonest.