LAS VEGAS — It’s hard to find much that isn’t going the NBA’s way.
The Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers had the highest rating of any championship series since Michael Jordan’s playing days. Last month’s NBA Draft also posted its highest ESPN rating, with the Knicks and Lakers — the league’s flagship franchises, in its biggest markets — both coming away from it with exciting young players.
Free agency has attracted an immense amount of scrutiny this summer despite there being a limited number of difference-making players truly available, and even the NBA’s annual summer leagues have exploded in popularity, with thousands upon thousands of fans in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas coming to watch games.
Combine all of that with the upcoming multibillion-dollar television deal, set to begin in 2016, and the hefty new apparel deal with Nike that’s set to kick in two years later, and it’s clear it’s a boom time in the NBA.
But this week also offered a jarring reminder of the potential for danger on the horizon, in the form of a work stoppage two years from now.
“I don’t know the precise number and don’t want to get into it, but a significant number of teams are continuing to lose money, and they continue to lose money because their expenses exceed their revenue,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this week.
The National Basketball Players Association countered Thursday with its own arguments — including how the union doesn’t actually get half of all basketball-related income, after arguing the owners down from a 60/40 split to 50/50 in their last battle — and everyone was off and running with thoughts of bitter labor negotiations in the summer of 2017 replacing the buzz of summer leagues and free agency. It will be up to Silver to remind everyone of all that’s good and prosperous in the NBA.
The first 18 months of Silver’s tenure as commissioner have been almost flawlessly executed, highlighted by the removal of Donald Sterling as owner of the Clippers last year. But the next 18 months — until Dec. 15, 2016, when either the league or the NBPA can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement — will challenge Silver to make everyone involved realize the best thing for everyone is to keep the status quo.
That may not be possible. Michele Roberts, the NBPA’s executive director, hasn’t been shy about going on the attack during her time on the job, hitting everything from the salary cap to maximum salaries to the age limit to the players not receiving enough of the league’s basketball-related income.
Roberts could be trying to rally the troops after the players were pretty soundly beaten in the last round of negotiations in 2011, to engender support in her opening months on the job, and may strike a more conciliatory tone when the two sides sit down at the bargaining table. The more pessimistic viewpoint is that the rhetoric is a clear signal that the players, led by Roberts, are fixing for a fight after their defeat four years ago.
But that’s where Silver, who has formed an excellent relationship with the players over the past few years — both before and after taking over for David Stern — will come into play.
Silver’s line about a “significant number” of teams losing money — the exact number, according to multiple sources, is somewhere in the 8-to-10 range — immediately grabbed headlines, but the time to evaluate the financial health of the 30 teams will be after the 2016-17 season, the first season under the NBA’s massive new television contract.
Until then, salaries will continue to soar as the salary cap rises, and despite Silver’s grumpy answer, there’s little doubt the league is quite happy with the economic trends. Will that be enough to avoid a work stoppage? Jeopardizing the golden goose that is the NBA could be a very unwise decision.