When I became a libertarian, I was of course required to sign the universal agreement never to make any positive remarks about labor unions. So in this post, I will try very hard not to say anything nice about the NBA player’s union, which is after all composed of millionaires who are not really deserving of your sympathy.
I will, however, note that the NBA owners have brought this potential lockout on themselves. All the owners are complaining about how the NBA isn’t profitable because they have to pay the players too much money. Well, no one had a gun to Minnesota’s head forcing them to give Darko 4 years and $20 million. Atlanta could’ve very easily let Joe Johnson walk rather than give make the 28 year old who averaged 12.7 points a game during the Magic playoff series while shooting under 30% the highest paid player in the NBA. Amir Johnson (yes, unless you’re a huge NBA dork, you probably didn’t know who that is, for a reason) got 5 years and $35 million from Toronto. Richard Jefferson, the same 30 year old player who looked washed up all year for the Spurs, got a 4 year, $39 million deal from the Spurs (yes, my favorite team…sigh). And I’ve just started to list the bad contracts-I could go on all night.
The point is, the owners had the option to tell any of these players the following: “You are not a major difference-maker on a championship team, therefore I’m not going to pay you like one. You’ll take lesser money from me, or we’ll replace you with a couple much cheaper D-League or European players. Your call.”
The good teams are totally heartless when it comes to making this calculation to free up salary cap space. The Magic picked the right time to say goodbye to Turkoglu. The Celtics decided that Posey cost too much. Even the Lakers let go of Ariza and played hardball when it came time to negotiate contracts with Odom and Artest.
Teams like Minnesota might argue that you can only succeed in the NBA if you have the budget to go well over the luxury tax; i.e., a big market team like the Lakers, Celtics or Bulls. But there’s a clear template to succeed as a small market team. Successful small market teams like the Spurs and the Thunder draft wisely when they get near the top of the lottery (Duncan, Robinson, Durant, Westbrook) and pick up low-cost European players with potential to develop (Parker, Ginobili, Splitter, Scola, Serge Ibaka, Nenad Krstic, Thabo Sefolosha). There’s no reason why the rest of the league can’t follow this model.
But of course, since the owners refuse to blame themselves for ill-advised spending, they’ll instead insist that the current salary cap model isn’t profitable, and attempt to create a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures that the owners get more profit than the players. To me, this look suspiciously like a bailout, in which the owners refuse to take responsibility for their own moral hazard (that of overpaying mediocre players) and instead re-write the rules ex-post-facto to cancel out some of their bad gambles.