Basketball Notes

Not everyone is buying what owners are selling

By Gary Washburn
October 10, 2010

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As the June 30, 2011, expiration date for the collective bargaining agreement approaches, representatives from the NBA, who want to institute major changes in the new agreement, are beginning to offer hints as to what they will seek during negotiations.

Freshly minted Wizards owner Ted Leonsis recently mentioned that the league would adopt a hard salary cap, and commissioner David Stern handed Leonsis a $100,000 shhhh fine as a result. While in Paris for NBA preseason games, Stern offered more insight by telling reporters that owners should not be handcuffed to long-term guaranteed contracts.

The owners’ stance is becoming more far-reaching. They want a harder cap, shorter maximum contracts, and the ability to void deals for underperforming or malcontent players.

Two noted sports economists believe the owners’ most likely weapon toward achieving such labor control is a lockout, something the Players Association is convinced will occur. But the question is whether a lockout will shift the power to the owners or ruin a league that may be entering its most captivating era in its 60-plus-year history.

The National Hockey League allowed labor strife to cancel the 2004-05 season and the league has never fully recovered. Therein lies the risk for NBA owners.

Last February, Stern said the league’s owners would lose nearly $400 million for the 2009-10 season, an assertion union president Billy Hunter called “baloney.’’ Stanford economics professor Roger Noll, who wrote “Sports Economics after Fifty Years’’ in 2006, does not believe the NBA is mired in debt.

“I think the NBA is reasonably healthy,’’ said Noll. “If you extract the fact that it’s the worst recession in the lifetime of anybody who’s thinking about it, the league is healthy. I do not anticipate there will be a strike or lockout. I do not anticipate the next agreement will differ materially from the present agreement.

“Both sides blow smoke in the run-up to collective bargaining. But you shouldn’t pay any attention to what they say. They are jockeying for position and trying to put pressure on the other side through the media. Nothing they say now about the state of the league or the state of the collective bargaining negotiations has any particular truth value.’’

Noll believes the owners created this free agency monster in the last CBA by mandating that individual salaries be capped. For example, if salaries weren’t capped, there is no way LeBron James and Chris Bosh would have been able to join Dwyane Wade with the Heat.

With limits on salaries, teams can muster cap space with hopes of squeezing two or perhaps three premium players into their budget. The owners perhaps could relax the limit on individual salaries in exchange for a harder salary cap, meaning the league’s top players such as James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant could earn nearly $30 million while some of the lesser players would receive a reduction in salary.

If owners are concerned with the power teams such as the Lakers, Celtics, and Heat grabbing all the All-Stars, increasing individual salaries could keep star players with their original teams and limit the kind of free agent frenzy that occurred this summer.

“The NBA has relatively small revenue sharing in comparison to football and baseball, and so the financial disparity between the top teams and the bottom teams is not as bad as it is in hockey,’’ Noll said. “But it is a lot worse than it is in baseball and football, and one of the interesting features is that it gives the teams in the biggest cities a great deal of leverage over other members of the league.’’

Another primary sticking point is the players’ 57 percent piece of the revenue pie, a number the owners want lowered dramatically. Noll believes it would be unrealistic for the league to shoot for anything beyond a few percentage points, but professor Rodney Fort of the University of Michigan thinks a lockout may bring the players to their knees because they have no real issues with the current CBA.

In other words, the Players Association appears content with the current structure — a soft salary cap, guaranteed contracts, and salaries that allow for yearly raises depending on tenure. Owners cannot void bad or regrettable contracts and the Players Association certainly isn’t going to help the owners police themselves.

“The argument somehow that owners are on the brink or anything of the kind is a little difficult to swallow, but that doesn’t mean they won’t posture themselves that way,’’ said Fort, who authored a 544-page textbook, “Sports Economics.’’ “But it doesn’t mean they won’t posture themselves that way to reduce the share of basketball-related income that’s going to players.

“They will argue that always, in any situation. Not because owners are going belly-up but because everybody likes more money than less.’’

So the owners’ only recourse to dramatically change the economic system may be a lockout, which would force the players to adhere to the owners’ demands or risk losing a season.

“If there’s a lockout, the owners perceive that they are going to be in better shape when it’s over than they are right now,’’ Fort said. “And that’s going to be true, regardless.

“So if the owners feel like they can profit more from a new agreement by locking the players out for a year, you better believe that’s something they are considering.’’

Sounds like this battle is a long way from over.

Bulls get assist from old hand
James Johnson’s second season with the Bulls is beginning with a great sense of urgency. He is playing for a new coach, hoping to make a positive impression, and trying to move past a troublesome rookie year. The 16th overall pick in 2009 was lapped several times by 26th pick Taj Gibson, whose steady production earned him an all-rookie team slot.

Johnson, who came advertised as a versatile swingman, averaged just 3.9 points in 65 games and scored in double figures five times. He logged just 20 minutes during the Bulls’ first-round series against the Cavaliers.

But Johnson dropped 30 pounds in the offseason, hoping to return to his natural position of small forward and earn more playing time.

He struck up a friendship with Bulls great Scottie Pippen (below left) at a team golf tournament and asked Pippen to work with him during the season.

In their second session, Pippen worked with the 23-year-old Johnson for nearly an hour after most of Johnson’s teammates had left the practice floor at Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill. Pippen, looking very much like he could still give a playoff team 10 quality minutes, emphasized to Johnson to slow down.

In one sequence, Pippen, defending Johnson, flatly told him that he could guess his move to the basket simply by watching his impatient head fakes and hurried jabs.

“He’s still very raw right now, but his skill level is very high,’’ Pippen said. “He has great athleticism. If he just works hard and continues to find his way around the game, he will be fine. He’ll be a valuable piece of what this team is able to do this season.

“It’s not like he’s not ready to play right now. He’s totally ready to play. I’m just trying to polish up some of his skills.’’

Pippen, a celebrated figure from the team’s storied past, has been helping out coach Tom Thibodeau during training camp.

“I’m always willing to help,’’ he said. “As long as he doesn’t have me doing too much jumping.’’

The advice has spread to more than just Johnson. Too many younger players fall in love with the NBA life, the millions of dollars, the first-class travel, and other perks, and they stop refining their games.

“Don’t get satisfied,’’ Pippen said. “That’s one thing that’s easy to happen at this level. You get satisfied with making the National Basketball Association. That’s a great place to be. But how to stay there is the next job.’’

Chicago is rumored to be one of the desired destinations of Nuggets standout Carmelo Anthony, and the Bulls will enter the season with Luol Deng as the starter at small forward followed by 3-point specialist Kyle Korver. Under Thibodeau, the best way for Johnson to earn minutes is by playing defense and reducing the silly mistakes that plagued his rookie season.

He learned on the fly last season. With some excess weight slowing him down, Johnson would be assigned to defend LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, and the results were predictably disastrous. So before the term “bust’’ could be applied to his name, Johnson decided to get into better shape and increase his dedication.

The budding relationship with Pippen fosters the process.

“It’s easier to listen, easier to focus when you have a Hall of Famer, a guy who’s been there, a guy you look up to watching basketball there,’’ said Johnson. “You want to be a sponge to a guy like that.

“[The NBA] is definitely harder. Every game is grueling. It’s going to be tough.’’

In search of that coveted small forward, the Bulls could dangle Johnson in a trade package, perhaps to a team searching for younger, inexpensive talent.

“I’m going to continue to work hard,’’ Johnson said. “I’m not too worried about being traded. It’s about basketball and playing for the Chicago Bulls. I am going to call [Pippen] and talk to him, but we’re going to be more undercover. I just want my game to be right.’’

Sixers may test Collins
The 76ers are going to test the fragile patience of Doug Collins (left), and there are those who believe the 59-year-old will flame out quickly in his fourth NBA coaching stint because of his emotional nature.

Collins took deep breaths and barely even rose to his feet on the sideline during Philadelphia’s 93-65 preseason loss to the Celtics Wednesday, a game the Sixers played without starters Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. Perhaps Collins is prepared for the rigors and disappointments of rebuilding.

Even with second overall pick Evan Turner, the 76ers are most likely headed for the lottery again. They have a wealth of young talent, but most of it is untapped or underdeveloped.

“Right now, we’re struggling with any kind of offensive identity,’’ said Collins after the loss. “As painful as it is to sit through a game like this, you just keep learning more and more about what you’re about to do.

“We’re playing now to try to get better and we’re playing against a world championship team that’s got an answer for everything you do right now.

“It’s OK. I told the guys that unless you have been through this in your career — getting kicked and it hurts — you haven’t played. That’s what this business is about. So we’re going to keep pecking away.’’

Philadelphia’s talent has never been questioned, but the 76ers have been through three coaches in two years. General manager Ed Stefanski, who could have been jettisoned along with coach Eddie Jordan, has stockpiled draft picks, but none have fully developed.

They finally gave up on former first-rounder Jason Smith, who was traded to New Orleans, but Marreese Speights, Lou Williams, and Thaddeus Young have yet to blossom.

“Young players are fragile,’’ Collins said. “I told [Iguodala and Brand] how much I need them to be leaders going through this period of time, that they have to really, really put their arms around these guys and continue to help them.

“We have to be positive. These guys are searching as it is, there’s no need to [be negative]. So we have to be ultra-positive but at the same time expect them to be better and demand that they play better, so it’s sort of a fine line.’’

Pistons were doubled over
The Pistons were hoping to combine their aging pieces with younger ones to make a run at a playoff spot, but that mission may have incurred irreparable damage when promising forward Jonas Jerebko and rookie guard Terrico White both sustained season-ending injuries in the preseason opener against the Heat. Jerebko, who made the all-rookie team last season as a second-round pick from Sweden, tore his Achilles’ tendon while White, from Mississippi, broke his foot. What makes matters worse is that Detroit has to keep each player on its 15-man roster or ask the NBA for a roster exemption. If the league does not grant that luxury, then the Pistons will spend the season juggling 13 players, many of those veterans who will be forced to play heavy minutes.

Brandon Jennings is the quarterback of one of the Eastern Conference’s emerging teams, the Bucks. But he believes some NBA experts are overlooking another contender this season. “Boston is still strong,’’ he said. “To me, I think a lot of people are still sleeping on Boston. I think with Rajon Rondo running the point guard position, Boston is always going to be at the top still.’’ . . . NBA TV has hired former Celtic Rick Fox as a studio analyst. Fox is currently a contestant on ABCs “Dancing with the Stars’’ and has dabbled with television since retiring as a player six years ago . . . Jamal Crawford is participating in Atlanta’s training camp but still wants a contract extension, and the club is hoping the issue won’t serve as a distraction. The Hawks enter this season with essentially the same team as last year — except for the acquisition of little-used Josh Powell from the Lakers — and Crawford was a key element in their success. After playing for four teams in 10 years, Crawford reiterated to Atlanta reporters what he told the Globe in August — that he would like to be extended sooner rather than later . . . Former UConn and Brookline standout Jeff Adrien has a solid chance of cracking the Warriors roster. The Warriors are in desperate need of rugged rebounders and don’t want to carry too many guaranteed contracts, making Adrien, who spent this past season in Italy, an attractive piece . . . Brian Scalabrine’s chances to make the Bulls roster increased when the club released former Florida forward Chris Richard. Scalabrine played extensively in Chicago’s preseason opener and is competing with Roger Powell, Kyle Weaver, and John Lucas III for a spot. The Bulls have 12 guaranteed contracts.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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