Column: NBA players won _ and always will
Kyle Singler's NBA draft rights may belong to Detroit, but his body will be playing pro basketball this season in Spain, where the 10-day forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s and his new team, Real Madrid, will pay him better than the Pistons would. Small wonder Singler isn't rushing back to the Motor City, even if the lockout is over.
Deron Williams, on the other hand, is already back in New Jersey after a brief stint playing in Turkey, where his team, Besiktas, retired his No. 8 jersey and no doubt would have erected a statue in his honor had Williams stuck around. But Nets fans should be careful about falling head over heels for the guy. His agent just told the club that because of a new rule in the still-to-be-ratified collective bargaining agreement, Williams is going to opt out of his contract at the end of the shortened season — if only to squeeze another year and $30 million more from the Nets after the new labor deal is in place.
If anybody still harbored doubts about who won the lockout battle, those two examples are a good place to start. The NBA was, is and — despite the new agreement — will forevermore be a players' league, simply because there's too few of them to go around. According to the latest Forbes' rankings, there's nearly twice as many billionaires around the globe (937), and almost as many residing in the United States (403), as there are NBA-caliber players (roughly 450), let alone real superstars (a dozen). And since each of the league's 30 franchises needs at least one of them — preferably two or three — to make money, there's no question where the leverage lies.
To be fair to Commissioner David Stern and his owners, they did slow the rate of spending. They got a much better cut of the basketball-related income, about 50 percent annually vs. a high of 57 percent in some years under the old deal, and increased the luxury tax. They get to bury some mistakes under the amnesty clause. They even got a few concessions, making it easier for the have-nots to make a shrewd pickup occasionally and hang onto their own players at every stage of their careers — whether it's a still-blossoming youngster like the Bulls' Derrick Rose, a mid-level exception like Shane Battier or a proven veteran like Williams.
To do that, the have-nots will need to spend more money. Smarts alone will not close the gap between clubs like the Kings, which spent $46 million last season, and the Lakers, who dropped $110 million. The owners knew that going in.
Besides, short of getting rid of free agency, the NBA can only do so much to restrict players from landing where they want. Even the NFL, which is every team owner's dream of how a pro sports league should be run — hard salary cap, franchise tag and revenue-sharing —hasn't able to do that. But because no single NFL player can shift a team's fortunes the way Kevin Durant did almost single-handedly in Oklahoma City, there will always be more wheeling and dealing in the NBA. The owners knew that going in, too.
That's why the whirlwind free-agent signing flurry and the season — even in the compressed time frame — will look familiar. More superstars will try to hook up with their pals in the bright lights of the big-market cities, the way LeBron James and Chris Bosh did by moving to Miami and Carmelo Anthony did by relocating to New York. If reports are true, Chris Paul's agent is already pricing flights for his client from New Orleans to the Big Apple. Next, ask yourself how much longer Dwight Howard wants to stay in Orlando to try to win a championship by himself, as opposed to moving to, say, Los Angeles, and kicking the ball out to Kobe Bryant on the perimeter.
To make those moves, the players would have to take a haircut — let's say Paul gets $60 million long-term from the Knicks, vs. $70 million to stay in New Orleans. And the clubs that sign them would have to pay additional luxury taxes. But if you think either of those factors will be a real drag on player movement — check out the soaring stock price on Madison Square Garden Co. since the tentative deal was reached — you haven't been paying attention. Plus, Stern's unceasing effort the past two decades to globalize the game has brought with it increased competition.
But the players better be careful what they wish for. While Singler is only too happy to stay in Spain, NBA free agents Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, Patty Mills, Kenyon Martin and Aaron Brooks may wind up languishing in China. They all signed to play in the Chinese Basketball Association ahead of the lockout and chances are good they're stuck there for the season, proving what goes around sometimes comes around, too.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.