Pop Quiz...Q: What has been relentlessly wrong on every occasion since the end of the 2010-11 NBA season? If you answered "every single NBA lockout rumor suggesting that a sensible rapprochement by the two bargaining units is just around the next corner," give yourself a pat on the back. As fans and media turned every next corner with faith that something reasonable would eventually emerge from negotiations, it turns out we were all just taking a tour around the octagon the parties intend to wage war within. It has all been very...frustrating.
With the obvious disclaimer that the following information is most likely just another piece of crazy talk meant to keep us all lightly engaged in an increasingly opaque negotiation (they can fight in nonagons too, right?), I present to you the freshest hopeful rumor regarding the possibility of an NBA season getting underway in the near future...
Two people who have been briefed on the league's strategy told CBS Sports.com the NBA is holding out hope a settlement can be reached in time for the season to begin no later than Christmas. One of those people said the process already is under way through what he described as "back-channeling," although sources from both sides professed no knowledge of such conversations.
A third person said that based on how vendor contracts and other financial arrangements were put in place, starting the season by Christmas would be optimal as far as preserving those relationships, and of course, revenues. Multiple people who have spoken with top NBA officials about the matter said it is understood that starting the season after Christmas is not viewed as a viable option.
Representatives for the NBA have been completely silent since the players filed two anti-trust suits against the league, which is probably a good idea with the prospect of litigation on their plate, so don't be too alarmed that the information comes from "people who have been briefed on the league's strategy." So, is this 'back-channeling' something to get excited about?
The truth of the matter is that it shouldn't take very long to find out. So much would have to happen so quickly to make a Christmas start possible, including not only additional (fruitful) negotiations, but also the reformation of the players' union, that it will all either crystallize before our eyes or dissolve into a mist of disappointment within a week's time. SB Nation's Tom Ziller sets out just how urgent and compressed the time schedule would need to be:
NBA commissioner David Stern has said that the league needs 30 days from handshake to tip-off, which means that to save the Christmas games, we need a deal by two days after Thanksgiving, or in the next week.
In terms of whether the rumor is substantively plausible, I would offer a completely unconvincing "maybe." Many believe the disclaimer of interest tactic, rather than the more formal decertification process, was used by the players to accelerate the next round of talks with the NBA. A decertification would have taken 45-60 days with the necessary NLRB filings, while the disclaimer provided instant access to the last remaining piece of leverage the players think they have: the dreaded specter of a semi-successful anti-trust suit. After all, the players can only remain steadfast in turning down the prospect of taking an ever-dwindling pile of millions to play in the world's best basketball league on principle for so long...I think. So from the players' perspective, the rumor seems to make good sense, given it would be in their best interests to capitalize on their perceived spike in leverage.
As for the owners, I did some back-channeling with Frank Madden via e-mail a few weeks ago and speculated that the owners would love to shift the NBA schedule as far away from the NFL season as possible. Every major US sport gets crushed by the NFL in terms of ratings and coverage, so avoiding head up battles with the nation's most popular and profitable sport seems like a good business decision to me. If you don't believe me, just consider the following links to stories where (1) a regular season NFL game topped a 2010 World Series game in ratings (not uncommon, by the way), and (2) it was a pretty big story when a random 63-7 blowout NFL game didn't top a 2011 World Series game in ratings. Prolonging the talks to this point may serve a dual purpose for the NBA, because it can shift the schedule away from head-to-head competition with the NFL juggernaut while also working to impress upon players that more missed games means more missed checks. That's why I'm not concerned when I hear NBA reps have yet to pick up the phone to call the trade association.
We should know in the next week whether there is any substance to this rumor, but at some point a hopeful rumor might actually be true. If that is enough to sustain your interest for another week, my job is done. If it isn't enough to get your juices flowing, consider a light-hearted look at what the NBA is stuck doing without NBA basketball in session.
Well okay, so the real NBA TV schedule isn't loaded with Teen Wolf marathons, but it also isn't loaded with 2011-12 NBA basketball, and that's the real problem.