The end of the NBA lockout came quietly, in the middle of the night, when almost everyone was asleep.
That seems especially fitting now, eight months later, because many of the recent free-agent contracts make it feel as though the lockout never happened.
The Houston Rockets signed center Omer Asik to a three-year deal worth $25 million after the 7-footer averaged 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season for the Chicago Bulls, which is a little like paying $20 for a Diet Coke. The Nets re-signed power forward Kris Humphries to a two-year deal for $24 million -- or $12 million per -- for the team's fifth-best player. And the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrei Kirilenko for $20 million over two years after he averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season ... for CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague.
True, Asik's deal exploits a loophole in the league's collective bargaining agreement, which is the same loophole Houston used to steal Jeremy Lin from the New York Knicks. But we all know nobody has ever bought a ticket to watch Asik play. In fact, he's been on the court for 30-plus minutes in only three of his 148 NBA games. Meanwhile, the Celtics gave forward Jeff Green $36 million over four years even though his scoring average has steadily declined since 2008.
The increased luxury tax may deter big-spending teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks from bursting through the roof of the salary cap, but it does nothing to decrease the number of ridiculous contracts. "The reality is that not a whole heck of a lot has changed," said one longtime NBA general manager. "When teams have any money, they spend it. Even if they have to overspend on mediocre players. The lockout changed a couple of things, but it didn't reshape the league like some thought it might."
These Monopoly-money deals were supposed to be a thing of the past. That was the whole point of the lockout: to end the bad habit of overpaying mediocre players. It was one of the reasons last year's labor meetings seemed so important. It was why, on the day after Thanksgiving, the key members from each side locked themselves in a midtown Manhattan law office and didn't come out until a deal was done.
Word had gradually trickled out to the media about that clandestine meeting, held so close to Apple's 24-hour flagship store that later that night we would use its restrooms and heated interior as the labor talks stretched into the early-morning hours. There was a sense of gravity that evening, as if the future of the league hung in the balance. For months, the two sides had engaged in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse: heated rhetoric, endless spin and shameless hyperbole. Many felt that if the NBA let the entire 2011-12 season slip away, which seemed highly possible, the league would struggle to win back fans fed up with greedy squabbling, especially during a recession. At a minimum, it seemed NBA owners were hell bent on dramatically changing the league. No more moronic signings; fewer bloated guaranteed contracts; stricter rules and more fiscal responsibility; an end to the days of out-of-shape pseudostars sitting at the end of the bench making eight figures.
There was nothing special about that Black Friday except for the last-ditch nature of the meeting. The players' union had recently disbanded and filed an anti-trust lawsuit, while NBA commissioner David Stern had declared a "nuclear winter" for the league. Attending lockout meetings was not required of me by the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I covered the 76ers. I volunteered, because it seemed the league was about to pivot in a different direction, and I wanted to witness the turn.
The NBA needed reform. What we got instead was a Band-Aid: a luxury tax and a loophole for geniuses like Houston GM Daryl Morey to exploit. The simple existence of long-term, guaranteed contracts hurts the league in so many ways. Unlike the NFL, where the majority of players are fighting for their careers on a year-to-year -- and sometimes game-to-game -- basis, NBA rosters are filled with guys whose next few years (and in some cases, five or six years) are guaranteed, regardless of performance. The system goes against basic human nature. Security breeds contentment, and the NBA regular season lacks a consistent sense of urgency.
So as we stood waiting for meetings to end during the lockout, there was the belief that this stalemate had purpose beyond just fighting over a point or two of revenue. (Under the old CBA, the players earned 57 percent of basketball-related income; under the new CBA, it's a sliding scale with the players receiving between 49 and 51 percent.) After one particular gathering, which lasted more than 12 hours and didn't end until dawn, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver sat in a hotel conference room, the NBA logo draped behind him, and explained what the league was fighting for -- to improve the quality of the game. Too many owners were reporting losses, but more than that, all of these bad contracts were tarnishing the game. The lockout wasn't about yanking back money from the players, Silver insisted; it was about protecting professional basketball. The construction of the old system, built on these bloated guaranteed contracts, created a trickle-down effect that made an expiring deal as important as a great point guard and tanking for a draft pick as memorable as a playoff run.
At that same meeting, reporters walked across the hallway to the news conference for the players' union and listened as their reps, an NBPA logo draped behind them, offered their own evidence. The most compelling arguments were the ones that pushed the onus back onto the league owners. Why should we pay for bad business decisions made by the owners? We're not offering these contracts to ourselves -- so stop offering $25 million over three years to a role player!
That storyline made the lockout compelling. At certain points, I actually believed it wasn't about snatching back one more point of revenue; I thought the league was going to begin righting the ship. But if you take a look at the behavior during this summer's free agency, you realize it was all just a bunch of rhetoric. It was always about that point of revenue.
And what we have now is just more of the same.