NBA owners and the Players Association each can opt out of their labor contract in December. Perhaps a decade ago that would have been a major cause for concern, prior to the $24 billion television deal the league signed with ESPN, ABC, and Turner Sports eight years ago.
Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement are not going to be drama free. The owners are unhappy about situations such as the trade demands of James Harden and Kevin Durant, and the holdout of Ben Simmons despite being under contract.
Player empowerment has grown incredibly since LeBron James captivated the sports world and metaphorically held NBA free agency hostage 12 years ago when he decided to sign with the Heat. NBA stars are cashing in on lucrative contracts, such as Damian Lillard’s two-year, $120 million extension and max extensions signed by Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Nikola Jokic. The latter three players will each earn $54 million in 2025-26. (Which is all the more reason why Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is almost guaranteed to opt out of the final year of his extension in 2025-26 at a mere $37 million and renegotiate an extension.)
Yet there is a good reason why owners are agreeing to these mammoth contracts. The NBA earned $10 billion in 2021-22, so there is little cause for the owners or players to derail such momentum with prolonged labor issues.
“The numbers did surprise me to a certain degree because they exceeded our projections,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “So to the extent our projections represent where we think our business was going, surpassing $10 billion in revenue clearly is a record for this league. I think it’s quite remarkable from where we came only 2½ years ago when the future of this industry was in question, in part because of the pandemic and also people questioning whether people would want to continue to assemble in arenas and stadiums the way they are.”
The NBA has never been more popular, partly because of post-James talent such as Tatum, Durant, Ja Morant, Stephen Curry, and Trae Young, and also the success of international players such as Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Luka Doncic.
“I think what it demonstrated this past season was an incredible amount of pent-up demand from people to get out and be with other people,” Silver said. “I think there is something unique and special about being around other people. Whether you’re there to cheer or jeer, there’s something really special. Particularly, I think, about arena and stadium sports.”
The league suffered financially because of the pandemic, but it maneuvered with the bubble plan and playing games in 2020-21 without fans for a portion of the abbreviated season. The NBA approached normalcy in 2021-22 with a full regular season, competitive playoffs, and a highly rated Finals between the Warriors and Celtics.
“We came off a playoff where every game was a sellout, which is remarkable,” Silver said. “Our ratings were up significantly this season. I’m pleased. I’m thankful to our fans that they came back in record numbers and continued to support our players.
“I also think we were fortunate — I’ve been doing this a long time — it felt like we had a particularly competitive playoffs this year, as well. I’m always cautious in making predictions because we’ve all learned the hard way with this virus that things can happen, that with variants and other aspects of it that are not currently being predicted. But I think our meetings have been upbeat because people feel like we’re through the worst of it and we are back on track for next season.”
Labor talks are preliminary because the Players Association only named Tamika Tremaglio executive director in January. There is optimism that talks will be amicable and beneficial for both sides.
Is one-and-done close to being done?
Another labor topic is whether the one-and-done rule should be eliminated and high school players allowed back into the draft for the first time since 2005. For years, commissioner Adam Silver wanted to extend the post-high school period for players to enter the draft from one to two years.
He has changed his mind. With several standout players now choosing to play overseas, for G-League Ignite, or other non-college options, there’s been a groundswell of support to allow high school players to skip that process and be immediately eligible for the draft.
Silver is not allowed to enforce that rule. It has to be negotiated in the CBA, meaning the players have to sign off. That appeared to be a slam dunk, but there could be concern among veteran players that allowing high school players, who could fill rosters with two-way contracts, could take jobs away from lower-level veterans. But it’s a distinct possibility that high school players could be eligible as soon as the 2024-25 season.
“I’ve been very public, back a few years ago, that my position had changed,” Silver said. “When I first became commissioner in 2014, I talked about raising the eligibility age to 20, and over the years I’ve been convinced because of a lot of societal changes, now most recently changes with NIL etc., and listening to [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice and hearing her committee’s recommendations, that we should move to 18.
“There were some discussions that we had when Michele Roberts was still the executive director [of the NBPA] as to whether that was something that we wanted to do on a one-off basis, and it didn’t end up happening. I think in part because some of the players are conflicted and some of the teams are conflicted about what’s right.”
But in reality, aging players are already being pushed out of the game. Teams would prefer to sign and cultivate younger players — at cheaper salaries — than to invest in players in their 30s with checkered track records or injury histories.
There was a time when veteran players and locker room leaders were valued in the NBA, but teams would much rather fill their last few roster spots with prospects. Teams would also much rather get their hands on 18-year-old players for tutelage and seasoning.
The concern is, if those players fail to make the NBA and relinquish their college eligibility, they’re a statistic, joining the group of one-and-dones and others who thought they were ready for the NBA at 19 years old.
“I think, though, at this point, that as we sit down in our collective bargaining cycle, it will clearly be on the table,” Silver said. “I haven’t had the conversations directly with Tamika Tremaglio or the union to know exactly where they stand on it and what other issues may become part of that discussion.
“The Players Association runs their top 100 program, essentially the top high school players in the country. I was incredibly impressed. And it informally led to a discussion we were having with the Players Association about how much more we potentially can be doing to help youth basketball. I mean, that’s their program and they have been at it for roughly 30 years and have been doing an incredible job. I don’t want to interfere with what they are doing.”
The NFL has delved into youth football in the last several years, implementing programs and rules to help youngsters play the game correctly. The NBA should follow suit, especially if they are going to allow 17- and 18-year-olds to enter the league again.
“It’s in all of our interests that we start impacting with these young players, especially because in our sport they are identified at such a young age, and begin working with them on their development, not just basketball skills but increasingly there’s a focus on their mental health, their diets, just helping them build character and all of the important values around the sport,” Silver said. “I think there’s an opportunity. It’s a larger conversation than just whether we go from 19 to 18. But when I balance all of these various considerations, I think that would be the right thing to do. I am hopeful that’s a change we make in this next collective bargaining cycle.”
Lillard shows his loyalty to Blazers
Damian Lillard’s contract extension is significant considering he turned 32 and is coming off an injury-plagued season. The Trail Blazers are not going to be contenders in the Western Conference, at least not yet, and Lillard may never win a championship in Portland. Regardless, he is fully committed to the Trail Blazers.
“I just want a shot at it,” he said, “If it happens and doesn’t work out, I can live with that.”
Lillard has been the face of the Blazers for most of his 10 seasons. They have made one appearance in the Western Conference finals during his time in Portland, but he remains loyal to the franchise that took a chance on an unheralded guard out of Weber State.
“I feel proud to be that guy because I don’t think you earn something like this because you go out there and score a bunch of points,” Lillard said. “The thing that’s missing in our league is the character and the fight and the passion and pride not about the name on the back but the name on the front. I haven’t pretended to embrace that. That’s really who I am. This shows there’s something there for being committed.”
The Blazers moved guard CJ McCollum to the Pelicans for draft picks and contributing players. They re-signed Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic, traded for Jerami Grant, and signed Gary Payton II. The Blazers will be a team to watch, especially if Lillard returns to pre-injury form.
“The relationship I have with this organization, the trust I’ve built with my actions throughout my career, my pride in wearing this uniform and doing something that a lot of people think is crazy,” he said. “Just to have people believe in me to accomplish what I want to accomplish means a lot.”
Growing the game
The WNBA is working to get to a higher level financially, and two things should help that ascension.
First, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at last weekend’s All-Star Game that the league will expand, from 12 to likely 14 teams. WNBA roster spots have been scarce because the league has stood pat on teams while the talent pool has increased exponentially.
“We have about 100 cities through a lens of psychographics, demographics, arena, NCAA fandom, current WNBA fandom, merch sales, viewership,” Engelbert said. “It’s pretty interesting now that we have so much capability around data because of the people we’ve hired, so that analysis — and we have a lot of interest. I’d say probably 10 or 15 cities very interested in hosting a WNBA team. So we’re meeting here and there I’ll call it with interested ownership groups. We’re looking for the right ownership groups with the right commitment, the right arena situation, the right city to support a WNBA franchise.”
Cities such as Oakland, Calif., and Toronto are interested in a team, and Engelbert has been meticulous on the topic of expansion.
“I’m hoping that it’ll be a couple teams by no later than ‘25, but I’d love it in ‘24, but probably looking out to that kind of timeline, and again, lots of cities interested,” she said. “That’s the good news, and now we have to find the right ownership groups with the right commitment and financial wherewithal to really be committed to standing up a WNBA team in their city.”
The league will also expand to a 40-game schedule after playing 34 for several years, and then 38 this season. The WNBA needs to play more often, especially during the professional sports lull prior to the NFL preseason and in the middle of the laborious baseball season. More games will benefit the WNBA.
“So, even before I came into the league there was a lot of discussion between the owners and the players through the collective bargaining cycle in 2019 into 2020 around playing more games, expanding the season,” Engelbert said. “Again, it will probably be in the same footprint we normally have. This year was a challenge because of the FIBA World Cup on the back end, so this year was the most challenging. Last year we had a break for the Olympics. Next year we don’t have either of those two, so we’re still playing the 40 in that same footprint, so we’re not expanding the number of days, we’re just going to be able to play at a nice cadence.
“In the collective bargaining agreement, it’s up to 44 games, and I think everyone can have their opinion, but when you’re trying to grow the longest-tenured women’s professional sports league in the country, you need to play more games. You need to have more fan touchpoints, you need to have more ability to have more on media platforms, things like that, more storytelling, more rivalry building, and the more games you play, the more you have to build that.”
Engelbert said the WNBA will have a 40-game schedule next season with the opportunity to expand to 44 in the near future.
It appears one of the reasons why the Hornets chose Steve Clifford to return as coach was him agreeing to keep the previous staff on board for another year of their contracts. Former Nets head coach and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson initially accepted the job and then turned it down, apparently because he would not have been able to hire his own full staff. The Hornets also have to determine a strategy with forward Miles Bridges, a restricted free agent who has been accused of domestic violence against his girlfriend. Bridges is out on bail and the Hornets have not rescinded his qualifying offer. But it’s highly unlikely any team would give Bridges an offer sheet, meaning his status is pending and the Hornets are moving forward with their roster … The Trail Blazers wasted little time in signing University of Colorado forward Jabari Walker to a standard NBA contract after selecting him in the second round (57th overall) in last month’s draft. Walker, the son of former NBA center Samaki Walker, played two strong seasons in college and may have become a lottery pick had he stayed in school for one more year. The Blazers are in rebuilding mode but are filling their roster with strong young talent to surround Lillard. The Heat signed former University of San Francisco guard Jamaree Bouyea, who flourished in his summer league stint. Bouyea went undrafted but displayed deft scoring ability in summer league and gives the Heat another young piece for training camp … The Celtics added former NBA forward Justin Jackson to their summer league roster after the first game and he may have played well enough for a training camp invite. Since stints with the Mavericks and Kings, Jackson has bounced around trying to find an NBA home. He emerged as a solid 3-point shooter and swingman during his time with the Celtics in Las Vegas … The Bucks ensured that Arlington native Pat Connaughton would be with the franchise for the long term with a three-year contract extension for $30 million. Connaughton had a player option at $4 million this season, which he exercised, but the sides came to an agreement on an extension for one of the team’s better 3-point shooters … Former Celtic Tremont Waters is on the Grizzlies’ summer squad but didn’t play in the matchup against Boston.