Keeping Score

NBA Lockout: First Two Weeks of the Season Gone. Now What?

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NBA Commissioner David Stern

After a seven-hour meeting on Monday, the NBA and its players union could not agree to a labor deal, forcing commissioner David Stern to cancel the first two weeks of the regular season, which was scheduled to tip off on November 1.

What goes on at these meetings? Why does it take seven hours to disagree on stuff? Are these sessions literally staring contests? But most importantly, where do things go from here?

If you’re an NBA fan, you might want to start watching hockey. No further player-owner meeting have been scheduled. For every two weeks the impasse drags, two more weeks of future games will likely be canceled. As the NBA loses revenue from cancelled games, it might ask for further rollback concessions from the players, causing even more contention between the sides.

“Over the next couple of months, I don’t think you’re going to see what is perceived as progress,” says former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, vice-chairman of Galatioto Sports Partners, a sports investment bank. “Both sides have drawn a line in the sand. At best, you’ve got to hope for a replay of what happened in 1998-99.” After that lockout, the NBA had a shortened, 50-game season.

(MORE: Lasting Damage of the NBA Lockout)

The owners proposed changing the split of the NBA’s approximately $4 billion of “basketball related income” from 57% in favor of the players, to 53% in favor of the owners. The union insists it is willing to reduce the revenue split to approximately 53-47 in favor of the players, but won’t shrink it any further. The revenue issue, however, isn’t the only sticking point between the sides. In fact, it might not even be the most crucial one.

Spats about the salary cap system could doom the NBA season. The owners first proposed an NFL-style hard cap, in which each team’s payroll could not exceed a certain level. After the players balked, the owners have floated the idea of a harsher luxury tax – the penalty that each team pays for each dollar spent above the cap. The players, however, insist the severity of the owners’ proposed luxury tax amounts to a hard cap system, since few if any teams would exceed the maximum amount.

On top of that, the owners want to reduce the “mid-level exception” – the salary exempt from each team’s cap limit – from $5.8 million to around $3 million, according to Yahoo! Sports. Predictably, the players are refusing that request too.

So after a few weeks of intense meetings, expect both sides to retreat, and huddle with their membership. Fans, meanwhile, will be left waiting.

The players some have significant moral high ground in this dispute. The owners agreed to the 57% split that they’re now so desperate to get rid of. Why should the players pay a penalty for that business decision, especially after the NBA is coming off such a successful season? Player costs have escalated, in part, because owners have given dumb contracts to mediocre-to-terrible players. Whose fault is that?

The NBA is worried that small-market franchises won’t survive under the current economic system. But who, exactly, is suffering? Are the San Antonio Spurs, who operate in the NBA’s seventh-smallest market, really in peril? The Spurs have won over 50 or more games for 13 straight seasons – excluding the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, in which they won the NBA championship — by making intelligent draft choices and signing low-profile free agents that buy in to the franchise’s team-first philosophy. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who play in the NBA’s second-smallest market, drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and made the Western Conference Finals last season. The Memphis Grizzlies, in the third-smallest market, made the second round of the playoffs. There’s basketball buzz in these small markets. If the owners or these teams can’t stand to lose money every season, can’t they put the teams up for sale? Don’t they have some value to some potential new owner?

The players lose some standing, however, when they adopt a hackneyed p.r. campaign. On Monday, with the deadline for saving the season opener just a few hours away, NBA players flooded Twitter with a lame message: “Let Us Play.” Please. The players, or the public-relations geniuses that ordered this assault, are lobbing the ultimate insult: they assume their customers are ignorant. No one is preventing the players from suiting up. They are holding out because owners are trying to cut their already handsome compensation. They have a right to exercise this holdout. Americans across the country are making sacrifices much more severe than rich professional athletes. But if the players want to take a stand on principal, fine.

Over the next few weeks, however, just spare us the empty, inaccurate slogans. They aren’t saving the jobs of arena workers. And they don’t reward the NBA’s loyal fans.

Maybe hockey will do the trick.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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